A month after Utah receiver Britain Covey’s knee surgery and a couple of hours into Andy Ludwig’s second stint in the Ute program, Covey visited his new offensive coordinator in January. He asked one fundamental question: What’s the look of a Ludwig offense?
The answer impressed Covey. There's no such thing as a Ludwig offense.
Ludwig's response reflects adaptability, as opposed to indecision. “He knows exactly what he wants to do,” said running backs coach Kiel McDonald.
That means making sure what he’s doing fits what the Ute athletes do best. From his start with tiny Augustana University to working with five Power Five programs, Ludwig, 54, has done everything from complete overhauls to merely using the team’s old playbook. His current reworking of Utah’s offense falls somewhere in the middle.
Ludwig, a coordinator at the FBS level for 22 seasons, has made a career of getting the most out of his available personnel. He exploited the talent of Ute defensive back Eric Weddle in an offensive package in 2006 and coached quarterback Brian Johnson during Utah’s 13-0 season in 2008. Describing Ludwig as “meticulous” and “innovative” during a campus visit last week, Weddle said, “It’s exciting for guys that have been around him, that know the difference he’ll make for our offense.”
During nine open practices, including the first of two major scrimmages, and in interviews, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff have not been secretive about the scheme. Ludwig’s disclaimer is that only one-third of his offense is installed, so there’s much more to come Yet even in a “very vanilla” stage, by Lugwig’s account, the core elements of his Utah offense have emerged in the transition from Troy Taylor, now Sacramento State’s head coach.
The 2019 season will mark the 10th time when Andy Ludwig has taken over an offense. The previous teams’ records in his first season:
Augustana, 1993 – 4-7
Cal Poly, 1997 – 10-1
Fresno State, 1998 – 5-6
Oregon, 2002 – 7-6
Utah, 2005 – 7-5
California, 2009 – 8-5
San Diego State, 2011 – 8-5
Wisconsin, 2013 – 9-4
Vanderbilt, 2015 – 4-8
• The quarterback run game
Ludwig’s No. 1 job in 2019 is to maximize Zack Moss, the dynamic senior running back who’s sidelined this spring after knee surgery. In an interview after he arrived in January, Ludwig cited “a premium commitment to running the football” among his basic beliefs.
Yet the scheme is not as simple as having quarterback Tyler Huntley hand the ball to Moss 30 times a game. The zone-read option will remain a big part of the offense, thanks to Huntley’s running ability.
“I have not coached a quarterback with that skill set, that athleticism, really, in my career,” Ludwig said after Saturday's scrimmage. “Brian Johnson was an athletic quarterback, but not like Tyler Huntley. … Getting him on the move, getting him in space in the passing game, in the running game, plays to his strengths. That's what we're going to do.”
• Multiple personnel groups
The one-back scheme, almost universal at all levels of football, remains in place. As Taylor did, Ludwig will use tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe in a set with two receivers at times; he’ll also use four receivers and no tight end or three receivers and one tight end.
• Using receivers as runners
Last year, Taylor called handoffs to Covey and forward pitches to him as a misdirection element. Covey is rehabilitating this spring, but Demari Simpkins took fly-sweep handoffs Saturday. Having a receiver as a decoy helps reduce the number of defenders against Moss when he runs it up the middle.
• More responsibility for the quarterback
Huntley is charged with “a lot of thinking” this spring, he said. He’s asked to change plays at the line of scrimmage and even assign different routes for the receivers, based on the coverage he sees.
• Predetermined routes for receivers
Taylor’s scheme featured option routes, with receivers adjusting their patterns to find holes in the defense. Ludwig’s routes are assigned in advance, a method that receivers coach Guy Holliday prefers. “It’s been really good for me, getting back to what I’m used to,” Holliday said.
Crossing routes at various depths will be a bigger part of the passing scheme, along with passes to the backs.
• More presnap movement
Kuithe, a high school running back in Texas, especially will move around in the formation to create different looks.
As defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said, “What you don't [usually] see in spring is a lot of shifting and motioning. That challenges you as a defense. … With Andy, we're getting all that stuff. All the stuff that gives us fits, the shifting, the motioning, the [bootleg], so it's been really, really good for us.”
Defensive end Bradlee Anae also endorsed Ludwig’s work. “I love this offense,” he said. “As a defensive guy, I know this offense would ruin a lot of Pac-12 teams, just by the whole scheme and everything.”
That will become true only if the Utes offensive line improves. First-team ball-carriers were not tackled to the ground in this spring scrimmage, but Anae and the rest of the defensive line stuffed Devonta’e Henry-Cole on every run up the middle.
Overall, Ludwig has made a good impression. McDonald’s quote about Ludwig knowing “exactly what he wants to do” was not intended to be a dig at Taylor. But it was meaningful, coming from a coach whom Taylor brought with him from Eastern Washington.
“I’ve learned so much football from coach Ludwig,” McDonald added. “Every day, it’s been a learning experience. And I’m so fired up to be working under him and just want to continue to get these guys better, because this offense is really something special.”
Taylor is a tinkerer, with creativity. Ludwig is a grinder, with consistency. His ability to adjust to opposing defenses also will be critical.
In Utah’s five losses last season, the offense produced a total of nine points in second halves. Taylor countered the defense’s strategy in some games, but not against Washington (twice), Washington State, Arizona State and Northwestern.
Taylor also deserves to be remembered for wins over Oregon and Colorado with a No. 2 quarterback (Jason Shelley) and running back (Armand Shyne) that secured Utah’s first Pac-12 championship. Subsequent losses to Washington in the Pac-12 title game and Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl left Ludwig with opportunities for improvement, though. That’s unlike the case for him as Utah’s coordinator in 2005, when he took over the offense from Urban Meyer and Mike Sanford after a 12-0 season that included a Fiesta Bowl win – or in ’09, when Ludwig handed over the reins after the Sugar Bowl.