Whether we’re talking about Lincoln Riley, Lane Kiffin, Doug Meacham, Mike Sanford, Kendal Briles or some of the top offensive minds in high school football around America, the best offensive play callers, in the game share a few characteristics, regardless of the scheme that they employ.
If you’re an aspiring offensive coordinator, take a self-inventory on how many of these describe you, and others that you may need to work on. If you’re currently a coordinator, think of this as an off season self-scout of sorts.
*Note – These are in no particular order*
1) They’re innovative
Whether they’re running the triple option, the Wing-T, or the spread no huddle, the best offensive coordinators at the high school and college level are always looking for a new wrinkle or a new way to run or block plays. Great play callers are also hungry for more knowledge and are willing to explore new ideas to make their program better.
2) They know their system better than anyone else
To truly be at the top of their game, the best offensive coordinators have to understand how to make adjustments during the course of the game, and that’s impossible to do if you don’t truly understand the ins and outs of your offensive system. Fully understanding a scheme is not something that you can do after reading a few books on the hottest scheme that you picked up at a coaching clinic. You have to be fully invested in the system you’re running, understand what defenses will do to stop/ contain you, and have an answer ready to be dialed up.
3) They’re outstanding communicators and teachers
Seth Littrell said at his introductory presser that, “It’s not about what you run, it’s about how you teach it,” and he is absolutely right. Especially at the high school level, where a number of very different schemes are used, and some win state titles with it, while others go winless. So what’s the difference? One difference from program to program is as simple as how it’s being taught, and the second part of that is if the players are bought into it. Great coordinators make sure they can check both those boxes, and the success follows soon after.
4) They understand that preparation during the week is absolutely vital to their success on game day
Elite offensive coordinators prepare better than their counterparts so when kickoff comes they’re more than ready to rock and roll. Along with early in the week film study, that includes a thorough understanding of tendency reports, situational defense of your opponent on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down, red zone tendencies, when and why they shift their fronts, and everything else along those lines. When game time comes there are no surprises for top offensive coordinators,
5) They take calculated risks
This can mean a lot of different things depending on the scheme. For a spread guy it may be taking a shot downfield with an outside receiver against Cover 3 on third and inches, and for a Wing-T guy that may mean a naked quarterback boot on 4th and 1 from inside the five yard line to punch it in. Regardless of scheme, great offensive coordinators are rarely conservative. They’re known to take risks, and although they may look like mistakes from those sitting in the stands or fans at home on the couch, they’re almost always calculated risks. Even more than taking the risks though, is that they understand WHEN to take those risks as well.
6) They find a way to be balanced
The “balance” I’m talking about here goes beyond the traditional sense, where guys once talked about wanting to be 50-50 run/pass split. There are some great option and Wing-T offenses that pound the heck out of the ball, but find their balance in dividing the carries among the backs and the quarterback, while Air Raid teams define balance as getting four or five different receivers catches, along with the back out of the backfield. Balance here can also mean the traditional sense because nothing gets under the skin of defensive guys more than having no idea what is coming next.
7) They understand, and break their own tendencies
The best offensive coordinators understand what a defensive coordinator is thinking on the other side of the field, and also understands what his tendencies are in certain down and distances and out of certain formations. Furthermore, he also understands when to break those tendencies because the defense is keyed up to it. Great coordinators are extraordinary when it comes to the mental chess match that takes place on game day, and to do that, they have to self-scout themselves.
8) They have staples, but are flexible
Every offense needs a bread-and-butter set of plays, but where coaches turn when those get shut down is what separates a great coordinator from just another play caller. Elite coordinators are flexible and able to take advantage of the alignments, overages, and weaknesses of a defense when their staples aren’t getting the yards needed.
9) They understand that it’s about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s, and not just the X’s and O’s
This is the first lesson that many head coaches share with coordinators on both sides of the ball, and it’s especially true on offense. Highly effective play callers think about players, not plays when their program is in need of a big moment. Guys that understand that get the most of their scheme.
10) They never turn down an opportunity to learn
Clinics and social events for coaches are where many coaches get some of their best ideas, and those sessions often end up on a napkin to take home with you. If you’re a coordinator (or you know one) that has better things to do when those times come around, you’re really missing out on a great opportunity to get better as a coach.
11) They understand the ebb and flow of the game
Of all the traits, this one may be the toughest to describe in words. Beyond the down and distance and time situation, what works and isn’t working on game night, and a variety of other factors, great play callers understand the flow of a game and recognize not only what play to call, but when, and how to set it up for maximum effectiveness. A lot of this is gained through experience, but in some cases, it’s something that young coaches (or first-time coordinators) just seem to have a knack for.