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Inside the Huddle - Q&A with Coach Brett Banfield

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We got a special opportunity to talk with a collegiate assistant coach and pick his brain. Join us below as he pulls back the curtain on how the coaches prepare and execute their game plans.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

In this special offseason Q&A, we’re joined by Brett Banfield an assistant football coach at Anna Maria College in Massachusetts. Brett has played collegiate football overseas and coached at several levels in various capacities in the US.

With his varied experience architecting up-tempo passing attacks, Brett jjoins us to talk about the evolution of football, X&Os, and what all that means for Clemson.

Ryan: First and foremost, congratulations on your new position at Anna Maria College. If you don’t mind, can you tell us a bit about your new role as well as what you’ve been doing the past few years prior to accepting this role?

Coach Banfield: Thanks Ryan, I’m excited to be at Anna Maria and very excited to talk some football with you. My role at Anna Maria is the special teams coordinator, pass game coordinator, and wide receivers coach. Like most Division III programs we operate on a much smaller budget and therefore have fewer coaches which means we all wear many hats.

I currently design the special teams schemes and control all aspects of that part of the game. Offensively I work with our Offensive Coordinator on scheme and game plan but my primary focus is designing the passing game for our offense and figuring out the best schemes that fit each week.

Prior to Anna Maria I was the Pass Game Coordinator at Lawrence University where my role was much the same as it is here and before that I was the Offensive Coordinator at Union College in Kentucky. I’ve been fortunate in my career to work in five different states and three different countries, learning and working with some of the best minds in football.

Ryan: As you know, Clemson has co-offensive coordinators with Jeff Scott orchestrating the passing attacking and coaching WR while Tony Elliot focusing on the running game and coaching the RBs. As someone who has been in that situation, how does it work? Could you shine some light on that dynamic?

Coach Banfield: This is becoming a more and more common trend within the profession. The reason is two-fold in my opinion. The first is at the higher levels it effects pay and gives a title bump to entice coaches to stay on staff longer. That’s a big weapon for head coaches, as we now live in the world of coaches moving around from year to year. The more important reason for its creation is helping divide the massive workload on coordinators.

As most of your readers know, college coaching has some demanding hours and work placed on it which only intensifies the higher up you go. At Clemson, the demands could not be greater and thus splitting up the work more benefits the coordinator and staff as a whole.

To best explain it I will use the Clemson model (to the extent that I understand it, as I am not in the building and can’t be sure of the dynamic). In a traditional offensive game planning week, the offensive coordinator must watch all the tape on the opponent and work to see how the coverage schemes and defensive front schemes fit together and the best way to attack those combinations within the offensive framework. The assistants focus more on their position groups and give input to the coordinator that pertains to their position. For example, when I was the running backs coach at St. Anselm College in Division II, my head coach was also our offensive coordinator. He watched all the film with us and then would ask questions about certain players and positions to each one of us based on what our focus was. I paid close attention to the linebackers as they were the RB’s blocking responsibility in pass protection, as well as as the gap fillers in the run game.

In a co-coordinator system, it streamlines this process in that the Coach Scott can focus on the defensive secondary and pass schemes to attack it, where Coach Elliot can look at the front seven and come up with a run game. This also allows both coaches to work with their other position coaches in a smaller group to scheme (WR Coach with QB coach for pass game and RB coach with OL Coach for run game).

Once those schemes are devised, the co-coordinators come together to merge the plans (RPOs get formulated here mostly, but more on that later). From there, the in-game play caller will go over the other co-coordinator’s plan with him and watches film as well to understand the thought process of the co-coordinator. This is essential as the play caller needs to be able to know when to go to certain concepts that the co-coordinator chose for the game plan. It must be comfortable and easy to call for the play caller to assure the success of the the whole offensive scheme.

Some staffs may have both coaches call some plays but typically it is one play caller and a back-and-forth dialogue on the headset to help frame the entire game plan in the play caller’s mind. It’s a different dynamic but one that I have found often yields great collaborative results and gets the best out of the game plan. This is of course a simplification of the process as I have experienced it, but hopefully that answered the question for you.

Ryan: Football, even more than baseball or basketball, seems to stylistically evolve over the years. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in just the past few years and what do you see coming that will soon impact collegiate football?

Coach Banfield: Well, I actually think you are watching evolution in real time in college football. Obviously the growth of the up-tempo offense and the RPO (note to broadcasters, not everything is an RPO! Sometimes its just play action) is the most noticeable change in the past few years.

Now we are seeing programs merge different styles to constantly adapt and stay ahead. Oklahoma is a great example of this, Lincoln Riley is one of the brightest minds in the game in my opinion. He managed to combine Spread Option with an Air Raid system, and results obviously have spoken for themselves. These kind of hybrid offenses are the new wave I see in the game. Defenses are getting more sophisticated every day, with some of the most creative coaches working on that side of the ball, so its up to us as offensive coaches to take the advantage we have right now of being slightly ahead (rules play a huge part in this) and making sure we stay there.

Ryan: Player safety is a big deal for the players’ long-term health and the long-term health of the sport we love. Unfortunately, the targeting rule has been challenging to implement and infuriating to many fans. Is there much the NCAA can do the “get it right”? Do you foresee any other safety-related rule changes coming to college football soon?

Coach Banfield: That’s a tough question for sure. First, I would like to say as frustrating as it is, I believe the game officials have done a great job with the rule. It’s very ambiguously worded, as I see it, and I really think referees are doing very well with that rule and its application as written. That being said, I am not a fan of the rule as it is written. I agree that player safety is our main concern and that we should find a way to eliminate certain hits from the game (don’t even get me started on how unsafe and useless these summer 7-on-7 camps have become), but the rule as it is now isn’t solving the issue.

Kicking players out of games for hits that are so tough to determine that you must go into slow-motion replay, doesn’t seem like the correct way to improve safety. I am not sure what can be changed now that the genie is out of the bottle, but hopefully the committee will revisit the rule and make some changes.

As for further changes, I know cut blocking has been under attack for years. As a former triple-option coach, I still believe there is a place in the game for it and do not want it gone from the game. Unfortunately, I see that block and the “crack back” block, which is often seen on punt returns, becoming illegal as a possible step to try to enhance player safety.

Ryan: For years, many Clemson fans haven’t really been sure what to think of our offensive line play. Even in our national championship season, we were absolutely elite in pass blocking, but not really above average in run blocking. Can you educate us a bit on how a team can be so good in pass blocking and poor in run blocking or vice versa.

Coach Banfield: Offensive line play can honestly be a series of posts on here. It’s and incredibly intricate and difficult position. There are many different reasons an Offensive line can excel in certain areas and struggle in others. The best way I can sum it up would be; its all about skill sets, body types, and reps. When you recruit lineman, you are always looking for certain body types and skill sets. As it is with anything else, recruiting has ebbs and flows of certain skill sets in each year and there will be years when the team brings in mostly run blockers or pass blockers. This then effects the schemes and thus the reps. If a staff goes into camp with a group that excels in pass protection and communication, then the staff will do its best to tailor the offense to the skill sets of the players. This then leads to more reps in certain schemes and a line that can be more specialized in one aspect or another.

Let’s not discount the defenses in all this. Certain defensive schemes and defensive lines may be more worried about the run or pass game which can of course play a role in all of this.

Ryan: On this topic, can you explain the difference between zone blocking and gap blocking. Is there a situational reason to use one versus the other?

Coach Banfield: A zone scheme literally tells the offensive line to block a certain zone, typically in a 45 degree angle. It gives the running back a zone to run through with more freedom to choose a running lane. Gap schemes block certain men or gaps and give the running back a specific gap to run through.

Typically a coach prefers one scheme to the other. I mix it up in-game based on my lineman’s abilities against the defensive line.

Ryan: Even Coach Saban has been flummoxed by elite spread offenses with speedy QBs at times. Thinking about defenses trying to stop spread offenses, is there a unique strategy defenses employ to give themselves the edge over that style of offense? Is there a single defensive position that’s most important?

Coach Banfield: This is another question that we could be here all day on if there was a white board around. Defenses are constantly getting more sophisticated and doing a slew of new things to try and attack these offenses. They have also done a masterful job of being able to communicate complex calls in simpler and faster ways to be able to have diverse defensive schemes called and not just safe coverages and fronts. However, the two biggest I see on a daily basis (that also directly effects me and my pass game) are mixing or splitting coverages and false keys.

DC’s have come up with ways to take common coverages such as Cover 2, 3, or 4 and split them on each half of the field to confuse quarterbacks on their progressions. If pre-snap the QB sees Cover 3 and knows where he wants to go with the ball but then gets Man on one side and Cover 4 to the other, this will make him hesitate or make a mistake. There are so many creative ways coaches are mixing coverages and its up to coaches like myself to recognize the most common combinations and anticipate them.

DC’s have also started working with false keys to slow down the option and RPO games for offenses. The premise of most of these spread offenses is that “we will make it so the defense can’t be right.” This has been true for years as offenses can go so fast and give so many options for their QB’s that defenses will guess, be wrong, and then look up at the scoreboard and be down 30. However, now DC’s have done a great job of taking the read keys for QB’s in these schemes and making them dummies or switching responsibilities with other players to give the QB a false key and make the wrong read, which puts the defense in the advantage that the offense was attempting to create.

As for a most important defensive position, I’m not sure there really is one. That being said, having a veteran safety and interior LB is very important if for no other reason than being able to get the defense set up and in the right position. You’d be shocked how often, going against young defenses without those veterans, that we would line up and the defense would still be shifting around and give up big plays.

Ryan: The run-pass option (RPO) is rapidly growing in popularity. Its advantages are pretty evident. How are defenses evolving to counter this?

Coach Banfield: I touched on this in the previous question with talking about false keys and splitting coverages. Both things throw a wrench into certain RPO concepts. One other aspect that defenses are coaching now is slowing down their own reads. I call these hop steps or slow reads. This is where defenses will coach linebackers, defensive lineman, and safeties to slow their reads or “clear their feet” which has them hop in place before making a move. This gives the QB pause before his read and can make the read murky.

Ryan: Dabo Swinney has proven to be one of the top three coaches in college football, but back when we were undergraduates and Tommy Bowden was let go, he was neither of our first picks for Clemson. Aside from being a great spokesperson and ambassador for the program, what has he done that allowed him to overcome his lack of coordinator experience and lead the program to new heights?

Coach Banfield: I think its simply two things: he has hired some great coaches, and he has stayed true to himself. This Clemson staff is loaded with coaching superstars and great minds. Coach Swinney, has brought together a great collection of excellent coaches but more importantly, excellent people. Everything I have seen and heard about the staff from their on field success, game planning prowess, and off field personalities has been nothing short of stellar. The same can be said of Coach Swinney. From day one he has stayed true to his personality and never tried to be someone else for the sake of the job. He embraces who he is and Clemson as a whole and this has led him to great success and I believe will continue to do so.

Ryan: Thank you for doing this. I learned a lot.

Coach Banfield: Thank you so much for having me on to talk. I really enjoyed it and would like to thank the readers for being so passionate about the game and allowing coaches like myself to continue to grow the game and share what we love!

Ryan: Readers, if you enjoyed this, please give Brett a follow on twitter at @CoachBanfield.