Gus Malzahn, like most coaches I'm sure, heaps praise on his signing class as the signatures come in. Last Febrary, he had this to say about Kerryon Johnson, the running back out of Madison Academy.
"He's going to play running back, but he's very good at the Wildcat... The last guy I saw with his skill-set that can do what he can do is Darren McFadden. So he's got the ability to run the read-zone back there. You can put out -- split-out -- and he can jump over just about anybody. He's got a unique skill-set."
With the threat of a running quarterback all but gone, lots of fans and reporters expected the Wildcat to come out early and often. And the player they expected to see taking the snap was Jason Smith, the JUCO quarterback turned wide receiver.
Instead, Malzahn waited until the fifth game of the year to show it and while Smith was in the formation, who was behind center? Kerryon Johnson.
It's been a while since the Wildcat was taken seriously in football circles. Sure, Malzahn has continued to dabble in it, using Quan Bray and Cameron Artis-Payne last year. But the formation and its handful of plays that took college football and even the NFL by storm from 2006 to 2010 has mostly disappeared over the last five years, so I'll quickly go over what it is and why teams use it.
What is the Wildcat?
The Wildcat is a formation, not a play. Just like Shotgun and Pistol are formations and not plays. According to Chris Brown, three things have to happen to truly call a formation the Wildcat.
First, the player taking the snap must be a true running threat. This could mean a quarterback that can run (Cam Newton, Nick Marshall) or a running back taking the quarterback's place (CAP, Kerryon Johnson).
Second, there must be jet motion through the backfield. Auburn uses this motion on numerous other plays as well, but it is always included when using the Wildcat.
Third, the offensive line must be unbalanced. In Auburn's case, this means the left tackle moves over to the right of the right tackle and a sixth lineman comes in as a tight end to take the left tackle's place. See how Shon Coleman (72) is on the right end of the line next to Avery Young (56) and Robert Leff (98) is on the left end? That's an unbalanced line.
Where did it come from?
As I mentioned in my breakdown of Malzahn's common formations, the Wildcat is just a modernization of the Single Wing, a common formation a century ago. The origin of the term "Wildcat" is up for some debate (either coming from Hugh Wyatt or Bill Snyder in the 90s), but it was Gus Malzahn who reintroduced it to major college football in 2006.
According to this Stewart Mandell piece, he used the formation while still at Springdale High. There, it was Mitch Mustain, the every-play quarterback, taking the direct snap, and Damian Williams, a wide reciever, running the jet sweep motion. As offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006, Malzahn brought the formation with him, but used Darren McFadden as the "quarterback" and Felix Jones as the jet sweeper.
Malzahn left for Tulsa after that 2006 season, but McFadden and Jones were still there, so new offensive coordinator David Lee smartly continued using the Wildcat. And when Houston Nutt left Arkansas after 2007, Lee took his Wildcat experience to the Miami Dolphins, where he found Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to take the McFadden and Felix roles. The Dolphins upset the Patriots in week 3 of the 2008 season and the NFL suddenly had Wildcat Fever.
What plays can be used out of the Wildcat?
The good news is that Auburn's most basic run plays can be used out of the Wildcat. Against the Spartans, the Tigers ran Power, Counter, and a couple variations of Inside Zone.
Each team has 11 players on the field for each play, but the offense can't block all 11 defenders because someone has to carry the ball. So the offense is down 11-10 from the start. Next, consider the quarterback. If all he does is take the snap, hand the ball off, and stand there, the offense is down 11-9.
Auburn hasn't had this problem lately because Nick Marshall was such a threat on the ground, but with more stationary quarterbacks (especially those that don't run out the fake keepers and bootlegs), the running game can become a real challenge (unless the passing game makes the defense back off, that is).
The Wildcat formation allows the "quarterback" to be a ball carrier so that no one is handing the ball off and then just standing there. As long as the defense covers the real quarterback out wide, the numbers shift in the offense's favor.
So, the Tigers ran some of their base plays, but that's all they showed. They never actually handed the ball off on the sweep. And, because Jeremy Johnson lined up so that the jet motion ran away from rather than toward him, this play was not even an option. If we continue to see the Wildcat, hopefully we'll see a bit more variation.
What killed the Wildcat?
This is probably too simple of an answer, but without an honest passer taking the snap, the Wildcat can never be a stand-alone offense. It just doesn't have enough constraint plays built in to keep defenses honest. One example of a defense not playing honest is the corner blitz.
This great article from Blitzology not only shows some of the offensive plays out of the Wildcat Auburn used, but also details how corner blitzes shut down those base runs. And because a running back is playing quarterback and a quarterback is playing wide receiver, the defense can mostly ignore any passing threat.
Six Wildcat plays vs San Jose State
Phew. After that wave of late-aughts nostalgia (Hey, is that Joe the Plumber?), let's take a quick look at how the Tigers used the Wildcat against the Spartans.
Play 1 - Power
San Jose State did not bring anyone down to the line of scrimmage, so Auburn had a bit of a blocking advantage, but give the Spartans credit for staying in position against the unbalanced line.
One thing to watch on this play is the path of the pulling guard. Alex Kozan pulls around and gets through the line to the right, but for some reason, Kerryon decides to cut back to the left. He gets a nice gain, but if he had followed Kozan, and then bounced outside to the right, he might have gone to the house. Still, it was a successful play.
Play 2 - Split Zone
On the very next play, Auburn ran Split Zone, Inside Zone to the right with the H-back taking a backside defender. Austin Golson and Braden Smith double team the nose tackle while Avery Young handles the next defender over himself. Smith seems to do the right thing and climb up to the linebackers, but just as Kerryon is reaching the line of scrimmage, Golson and Young lose their blocks and the play fails.
Play 3 - Counter
Later in the quarter, San Jose State is prepared. A safety comes down closer to the line of scrimmage and now the offense's blocking advantage is gone. Auburn runs Counter toward this extra defender and he happens to be the one to make the tackle. But notice how the defender on the other end of the line of scrimmage is left unblocked? He's being controlled by the jet motion. And Auburn will use that to its advantage later in the game.
Play 4 - The Bad Snap
Not much to say here, other than the center snapped it when nobody was ready (Smith wasn't motioning through, he was getting in position) and they were going to run Counter again (Smith begins to pull around after he sees the ball snapped and Kamryn Pettway starts to follow until he falls on the ball).
Play 5 - Counter
Auburn runs Counter again, and watch Shon Coleman and the defensive lineman across from him. Remember, Coleman is on the far right of the line now. He allows the defender to go past and guard against the sweep because he knows the play is going the other way. This allows him to get to the second level immediately, but he doesn't get to the linebacker quickly enough and Karryon is brought down just short of a first down.
Play 6 - Inside Zone with Bluff
Auburn starts messing with the end man in other ways on the next play, but San Jose State has a trick up its sleeve too. While the line blocks Inside Zone, Pettway, the H-back, takes a path as if he's planning to block the end man but then cuts downfield toward a linebacker. The end man is once taken out of the play without being blocked.
Meanwhile, a Spartan defensive tackle retreats as soon as the ball is snapped and a linebacker comes crashing down into the scrum. This messes with the zone blocking and with the help of a safety coming down, the linebacker stops Kerryon for just a couple of yards. Auburn still got the first down, though.
So that's five Wildcat plays (not counting the botched snap), four of which would be deemed a success (according to Football Outsiders). But how many of those were explosive? Zero.
And that's the story of this team's offense. Efficient? Sure. Explosive? Nope.
So, what if Kerryon starts handing it off to Jason Smith or Roc Thomas, both of whom took snaps as the sweeper? Why is Jeremy Johnson out there instead of Sean White (making it the Johnson package of all Johnson packages)? Maybe they're going to find a way to get him the ball so he can throw downfield? But then why is he on the wrong side of the field? There has to be reason, right? RIGHT?
I don't blame Gus Malzahn for trying a new formation to get explosive plays, but he's going to have to try some new plays too. Just changing the formation won't cut it. Auburn can't run base play after base play and expect big gains this season.
Wildcat or not, Jeremy or Sean, Auburn must find big plays and find them fast. If they're not there in Lexington, after the proverbial Malzahn-ian bye week, Auburn may never find them this year.