Behind-the-scenes look at BYU’s offense — and what makes the ‘Three Amigos’ tick
Aaron Roderick, Steve Clark, Fesi Sitake look to build on the momentum Jeff Grimes helped create
Nobody cared who got credit.
That’s the legacy of the Three Amigos when Jeff Grimes left BYU to be offensive coordinator at Baylor and took offensive line coach Eric Mateos with him.
Aaron Roderick, Fesi Sitake and Steve Clark had all been offensive coordinators. In their offensive coaching staff meetings, they were the only ones who had that kind of experience. It took a humble man to lead that group and take his ego out of it. That’s the chemistry that remains this winter after an 11-win season and No. 11 ranking.
It is a pretty good starting point, with an offense that led the nation in yards per play (7.84).
In Grimes’ first OC job, the guy who’d worked at plenty of places decided he’d trust Roderick, Sitake and Clark to do their thing. He listened. Together, they imagined, created, and learned together. Then, Zach Wilson got healthy and the rocket took off.
When Grimes left BYU, he had a ton of experience from all over the country, but had only been offensive coordinator for three years, all at BYU. Three veteran guys he left behind had a combined 59 years coaching experience, a huge chunk of them acting as offensive coordinators at Utah, Southern Utah and Weber State.
To the entire Cougar Family, I can’t thank BYU enough for the memories created and relationships formed during my time in Utah. This is a special place & I know great things are ahead under Kalani’s leadership. BYU & Utah will always have a special place in my heart!#GoCougs— jeff grimes (@coachgrimey) January 5, 2021
This group, working together, sharing ideas, brought BYU’s offense from scoring 28.46 points a game in 2019 to 43.5 in 2020.
Grimes left, but the majority of the brain power in the room remained in Provo.
On Monday and Tuesday nights, this group would hold long film sessions, going over opponents, their own film of games and practices. These meetings would go on seemingly forever. When the clock got close to 10:30 p.m., Fesi would get a little punchy and a touch giddy and start telling jokes. After a few lines of Fesi’s routine, the coaches found themselves belly laughing, falling on the floor, masks on, shrieking.
“Fesi is so funny. He’s always cracking everyone up,” Clark said, who was offensive coordinator at SUU and Weber State as part of his 27-year coaching career. “We laughed so hard at times, A-Rod would have to be there trying to get the room back, and even he struggled to keep composed.”
Roderick was pass game coordinator, Sitake was the receivers coach, Clark had the tight ends. The other returning offensive coach is rookie full-timer Harvey Unga.
“The thing about it was that nobody cared about getting any credit,” said Clark.
There are offensive coordinators who come in and make it an ego thing. It is their way or the highway. Clark remembers stories of a highly paid coordinator locking himself in his office for hours, then coming out and telling everyone what they were going to do. It was his game plan.
That is not how it worked under Grimes, nor how it will be at BYU with Roderick.
Some coordinators tell assistant coaches what they want players to do. It doesn’t matter if those underling coaches mutter under their breath that their guys just can’t do what’s being asked.
Conversely, when Grimes became coordinator, he approached the coaches and asked if certain schemes, formations and plays could be executed by their guys. If it couldn’t, they found something else. But it was a give and take, a discussion. Everyone had a voice and no one was afraid to inject their thoughts.
“He’d keep asking over and over again if things would work, could players do this or that.” said Clark.
What ended up happening was all the coaches, with all their opinions, came to a consensus to simplify and develop a set of plays, formations and plans that worked for their respective guys. The result was an offense that could run the same play, but disguise it and use it multiple ways against a defense.
That, said Clark, will be the future with Roderick.
“You know, there’s not a shortage of ideas,” Clark explained. “Sometimes, there are too many ideas and so what he is good at is saying ‘OK, we’ve got to keep this simple.’ Jeff would say, ‘You know these players aren’t in our meetings that we’re having for six or seven hours a day. They’ve got to be the ones to execute it, not us.’ So, you know, we try to keep things as consistent from week to week as we can, but make tweaks that look to the defense (like it’s) a totally different play when it’s really the same concept.
“It’s a fun atmosphere to be around. It’s very conducive to, what’s the word? Imagination. And imagination leads to creativity. You can be creative but it’s structured within the bounds of the system that’s been created. You can be bold, but don’t make it overwhelming. Last year we didn’t overwhelm players.” — Steve Clark
“It’s a fun atmosphere to be around. It’s very conducive to, what’s the word? Imagination. And imagination leads to creativity. You can be creative but it’s structured within the bounds of the system that’s been created. You can be bold, but don’t make it overwhelming. Last year we didn’t overwhelm players.”
The big payoff was winning while having fun.
“That is such an important part of it — working with a healthy staff — and the 11 wins has to be the top thing accomplished this year because that is the goal, you want to win. That, and all the fun the players had,” Clark said. I don’t know what comes first, winning or the fun, but we had a lot of fun and we won a lot of games. We were efficient and scored a lot of points.”
The emphasis a year ago was on creating chunk plays and this year it was on more effective red-zone scoring. What transpired was impressive. The multiple-formation offense that deployed shifts, motion, zone blocking and deep shots ended up being extremely effective.
Wilson ended the season with a 122.6 pass rating in the red zone, No. 4 in the nation. He finished with 35 completions of 20-plus yards, second to Florida’s Kyle Trask (38).
Pro Football Focus took note. The website is devoted to statistical breakdowns of pro and college players and rated Wilson the No. 3 college football player in 2020 behind Heisman winner DeVonta Smith and his quarterback at Alabama, Mac Jones.
“Wilson may have faced a cupcake schedule, with zero Power Five defenses faced, but the way he lit up the weak competition was unlike anything we have ever seen,” according to PFF writer Anthony Treash. “The BYU quarterback recorded an elite passing grade above 90.0 in eight of his 12 games played this season, with his lowest-graded game sitting at 75.4. That gave Wilson a 95.5 passing grade for the season — the best by a non-Power Five quarterback in 2020 by over three grading points and tops for a non-Power Five passer since PFF College’s inception in 2014.
“Wilson’s arm talent is truly special, and he can make off-platform throws look easy. No quarterback threw an accurate ball on a higher rate of their 20-plus-yard passes this season (73%). It’s up there with Joe Burrow for one of the biggest breakout seasons in recent memory.”
Clark discounts his part in the emergence of freshman tight end Isaac Rex who jetted to the top of the nation’s tight ends with a whopping 12 touchdowns scored. This, after Clark lost All-America candidate Matt Bushman to an Achilles tendon operation before the season began.
“For me personally, I think the way that Isaac Rex and Masen Wake contributed was something I’ll always be proud of, to see guys we didn’t think would contribute step up and play a big role in our success. I’m proud of those guys and what they did,” said Clark.
Then, Clark again exposes what made 2020 click over and over again: Humility.
“The credit doesn’t go to me, it should go to Roderick. I didn’t make any of my guys. I didn’t make Rex 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. I didn’t give them the great hands they have. And I really didn’t put them in a position to make those plays. A-Rod designed those plays, the concepts with the pass game as the pass game coordinator, to get those touchdowns and how to use our guys in the red zone.
“I’m proud of my guys, proud of Rex. But really, anybody could have coached him to do those things. It’s true. He’s big, he can jump and you just throw the ball up. How hard is that?”
Yet Clark interrupted a film session about mid-day in January to do this interview. He was working, learning, polishing, taking notes, drawing plays. He was watching films of the Tennessee Titans. Why? Because the Titans’ run game has some similarities to what BYU does and their back, Derrick Henry, rushed for over 2,000 yards. “I just want to decipher some of the things they do,” said Clark.
In 2020, BYU’s offense averaged a net 4.1 yards per play, ahead of Alabama’s 3.09, Buffalo (2.2) and Ohio State (1.83). That figure prompted college football podcaster Alex Kirshner to tweet, “The net yards per play leaderboard for 2020 is incredible, via @bcfremeau. Look at the difference between 1-2 and then 2-everybody else (also I’m going to insist forever BYU was a top-10 team this year) https://bcftoys.com/2020-ypp/.”
If it was so easy to get Rex 12 touchdown passes, why didn’t Bushman or others do that same the past half dozen years since Dennis Pitta left for the NFL?
“We learned some lessons over these years of being together,” said Clark. “You know, it’s trial and error. We learned how to attack and how to use the players that we have, and how to attack them in the red zone.”
Coaching is utilizing the players given, explained Clark, putting players in the best position to make plays.
“A lot of what coaching is, is being able to adapt to the personnel that you have. And I think that’s what Jeff did so well,” said Clark.
“This past year we changed a lot of things from what we did the previous year. Jeff has a great reputation as a great coach, but he was humble enough to say, ‘Let’s change. Let’s not force a system. Let’s adapt to what we have.’ So, we changed a ton and probably people won’t have noticed it.
“They probably don’t see what we did differently but it was a lot different, almost a whole different offense from the pass game to the run game,” he continued. “It was a lot more seven-man protections, a lot more play-action shots down the field. We’ll keep that going, but we’ve got to be doing the same thing. We’ve got to be smart enough to adapt to getting our players in the best position to be productive and get the ball to the right guys so they can do what they can do.”
Clark said what is amazing, is Grimes could have coached this offense, called it his offense, he knew it so well and worked hard at it.
“He was a big part of the success, but now he’s gone. It’s incumbent on this team and this coaching staff to make sure that we’re not having a dropoff, but pick up right where we left off. We expect new people to come in and not have a drop in production. We’ve got to be smart enough to adjust to the personnel we have.”
Clark said replacing offensive line coach Mateos is crucial. “It’s the most important coach on the team, it really is. To me that’s the most important coaching position on staff. He has the whole line, he has so much responsibility and so much depends on that person for the success of the offense. It’s going to be a big, big hire for A-Rod, Kalani (Sitake) and Tom (Holmoe).
But don’t underestimate the Three Amigos.
They are all better today than they were yesterday.