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Duck Tape: Film Study of OC Kenny Dillingham, Part 1: Playbook Design

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A review of three seasons as OC under Mike Norvell at Memphis and Florida State

Syndication: Montgomery Jake Crandall, Montgomery Advertiser via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New Oregon offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dillingham has spent the last four seasons in the same role – at Memphis in 2018, at Auburn in 2019, and at Florida St in 2020-21. He started his coaching career in 2014 at Arizona St as an offensive assistant for two years, then as the QB coach at Memphis for the next two before his promotion to OC. In all but one of those eight years (Gus Malzahn resumed playcalling duties in his offense for that season at Auburn), Dillingham has worked under Mike Norvell, who was OC at Arizona St then head coach at Memphis and Florida St.

It’s unclear exactly what Dillingham’s playcalling duties were as OC under Norvell, with all credible sources indicating a “collaborative” effort and none indicating it was exclusively one or the other. At any rate, I expect Dillingham’s offensive playbook at Oregon to be heavily influenced by Norvell and similar to those run at Memphis and Florida St. I reviewed the film from those three years for this article to see what kind of offense that might be; next week I’ll focus on Dillingham as a QB coach and include the Auburn tape, which features SEC Rookie of the Year and Oregon transfer Bo Nix.

The first thing that struck me when turning on the Memphis tape is how structurally similar the RPO playbook was to former Oregon OC Joe Moorhead’s. The trademark “triple-option” RPO that we saw repeatedly at Oregon over the past two years doesn’t show up, but otherwise we see almost identical concepts of putting the opposing backers and safeties in conflict, as well as a lot of the exact same QB power, pitch option, and screen plays. The two biggest differences in the RPO playbook are far more downfield passing options for tight ends than Moorhead had designed, and an extensive use of two-back sets instead of the near-exclusive single-back sets Oregon has used for the better part of a decade.

Here are some examples of what that RPO playbook is trying to achieve. Note that the clips selected for this article are not representative of these offense’s success rates, but illustrative of playbook principles:

(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)

  1. :00 – The most basic of RPO plays is the slant reading the overhang backer or safety; this one complexifies it a bit by throwing to the outside receiver with the slot moving to the sideline. The DBs switch off well in zone, but without underneath coverage this is impossible to stop.
  2. :12 – Screen option here, with the second back going in motion pre-snap showing zone coverage. The safety has no hope of getting to this in time.
  3. :22 – Readers of this series of the last two years should know this play well, power sucker vs man. The twist is a throwback to the tight end, something Oregon had as an option several times but rarely actually threw. Good thing the QB let it go, his line has a couple assignment errors.
  4. :42 – This is the same as the first play of this game, and shows a couple of staples: the LG pulling to block the right edge, and the TE blocking as though it’s a run play then releasing for a catch. Both get the defense moving down for run defense and leaving the middle of the field open.

If the two high-level strategic poles in designing an offense can be described as winning through personnel matchups vs attacking angles and grass (as Moorhead advocated), I would say that the offenses I observed from Dillingham and Norvell occupied a middle ground between the two. In the downfield passing game I saw a lot of legal rub concepts and play-action to pull down the safeties, but I also saw a lot of plays designed to isolate a DB against a WR who was simply a better athlete. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Good job by the Z-receiver here to threaten contact but then avoid it so as to not get an OPI flag. It gets the same thing done against man coverage – the backer over the RB can’t get to the sideline.
  2. :08 – It’s 21-personnel again, and the defense is expecting a run with a heavy box and the safety coming down. That leaves no one over the top, and the replay angle shows the WR turning the corner around and leaving him in the dust.
  3. :24 – Another wheel to the boundary with the Z rubbing the backer, three years later. The variation is adding a slot receiver to run off the safety when the defense blitzes.
  4. :31 – There’s only two receivers in the pattern, with almost the entire defense moving into the box against 12-personnel when the WR goes in motion. He runs laterally almost as far as he does vertically, and simply outpaces the corner … with a little help from the other receiver getting in the way.

The final thing that caught my attention in the passing game was how well integrated it was with the run game. RPOs and play-action are some examples we’ve already covered, but this also includes sequencing – presenting the defense with similar looks in rapid succession, but running a different play each time to get them to react the wrong way. Pulling this off successfully is one of the arts of playcalling (as opposed to game planning or playbook design, things fans often conflate) and since we don’t know the extent of Dillingham’s playcalling duties it’s hard to say if he has the touch, so to speak. But I certainly saw some well called sequences over the time Dillingham and Norvell worked together, like this one last year against Miami:

  1. :00 – Two tight ends and the running back split out – it’s a QB power run Oregon fans should know by now. The LT has to be able to seal the backer better than this, but the WR gets outside leverage and that lets the QB bounce out.
  2. :09 – Still 12-pers, now the back is next to the QB and the second TE is split out. The OL blocks the same way with the RG pulling and the QB starts to run with it, enough to get the OLB’s attention (while the DT crushes the center and RT). But now it’s a pitch, and the TE – who’d initially moved inside – seals his DB outside.
  3. :19 – 12-pers again, next play. LG pulls, QB tucks as if to run then nods at the RB as if to pitch, TE looks like he’s heading to block the DB. But he keeps going downfield for the throw.

The offenses I watched put a lot of demands on the offensive linemen. That’s not so much because they have to stay in pass protection for extended time — the ball is usually out of the QB’s hand fairly quickly in dropback passing — but rather because the run game mixes zone and power in roughly equal proportions, and because a lineman is pulling on almost every play including passes to help sell play-action or the RPO. Oregon has been making similar demands of its o-linemen for the past several years so I don’t anticipate many problems in that regard.

It was, however, a very big problem for Florida St. The Seminoles’ well advertised issues with their OL that Dillingham and Norvell inherited from the previous staffs were the biggest single difference I could see between Memphis’ top-5 offense and FSU’s highly inconsistent performances, since I thought QB play, play design, and running back talent were all the same while TE and WR talent was somewhat better in Tallahassee. That presented several problems in evaluating the tape: first, it effectively eliminated several of the Tigers’ plays from the Seminoles’ playbook, like the frequent use of the wildcat in Memphis. Second, it made the inside run and deep downfield passing playbooks tough to evaluate, since we simply did not see not consistently capable guards climbing to the second level on the former or tackles protecting the edge rush on the latter. Third, there’s a huge discrepancy between FSU’s performance between the 20s vs inside the redzone – I watched an incredible number of drives get to the goalline and then sputter out because the staff couldn’t scheme their way into the endzone when the field contracts and the o-line execution couldn’t punch it in.

The main adaptation I saw from the FSU coaching staff was shifting most of their “bread & butter” running to the outside, behind some very good TE and WR blocking … or sometimes going weakside and playing off of the defense’s expectation that they have to run strongside for that reason. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The back moves out then makes a downfield cut, a consistent hallmark of this offense. Watch both the Memphis guards here get up to the second level to block the inside backers and make this zone play work. It isolates the back on the high safety and he jukes him, turning a 5-yard gain into a 17-yard one.
  2. :06 – Here’s 21-personnel, with the TE lined up to the boundary side. Memphis runs the other way, because they know they’ll get great downfield blocking from the line, particularly the RT. The back walks in.
  3. :20 – In the pistol with 12-personnel, and everybody in that stadium knew any run was going to the boundary because of those tight ends. The RG gets a nice pull and it’s fun watching the LG, WR, and even QB (!) hustling downfield to block, but the TEs are doing the dirty work here.
  4. :43 – Very interesting to see a read of the 4i on this play (he seems surprised by it too). The OL blocking here is regrettable, with the LT blocking the wrong guy and the LG falling down, but the scheme makes up for it.

If the line can execute these pulls, there are some really interesting run plays as well as some of the novel power RPO stuff I recently reviewed from Oklahoma. In fact at Memphis I saw quite a few I-formation runs, something I don’t believe I’ve seen in Eugene since the 90s. I suspect that absence will continue, but here are some other examples of such plays that I think would be right at home in Autzen:

  1. :00 – I really liked watching the blocking on this play – good pull by the LG, TE coming underneath to crush his man, RG knocks his man to the ground, and the chip then move up by the RT was excellent.
  2. :14 – Earlier in this drive, Memphis had lined up in the same way – 21-pers, TE to the boundary — and the Tigers put the ball in their star RB’s hands running to the field with the second back as the lead blocker. Here they flip it – the second-stringer runs to the boundary with the star RB as lead blocker and the TE smashing the ILB. Watch how pre-snap the defense is moving the other way – they’re reacting to the previous play and get it wrong. Nice pull and second-level block by the OL, too.
  3. :29 – This is half of a well blocked power run, but the LT comically pursues his man as that back wraps around the backside, instead of coming off to hit the safety who actually has a shot.
  4. :45 – This was my favorite play of the season for FSU – endaround to fake screen to QB counter. Good pull by the RG, the LT finally gets a good seal, and I like the RB getting a block of the blitzing DB, but the RT is kind of pinballing around.

Finally, while I didn’t see many of what I’d call “trick” plays out of this staff, there was a certain playfulness to these offenses, even in high pressure situations, that I don’t see often when watching Pac-12 teams in recent years. Some examples of “keep football weird”:

  1. :00 – A spread under-center look, which you rarely see out of the huddle much less after initially lining up in the I-formation, and the defense is misaligned by the quick shift.
  2. :18 – Wildcat with two TEs was relatively common for Memphis, in fact in this game they ran two entire drives exclusively out of this look. But this was the first time the back threw a pass out of it. He finished his college career with a 231.8 NCAA passer rating.
  3. :29 – Two offensive linemen get beat and two others are illegally downfield on this forward pass (ACC refs earn their rep), and generally throwing into triple coverage is a bad idea. But the RPO did its job and the safeties are occupied, so when the corner gets beat the WR is just open enough for this heave.
  4. :47 – The reader may recall that I repeatedly pointed out the RPO shovel option last season for Oregon, but Ducks never actually went for it. The very first opportunity FSU had to do it in 2021, with the backup QB and overtime on the line no less, they executed it perfectly.