Stephens: Don’t sleep on Petrino’s run game

Brad Stephens

Somewhere along the way the words “spread” and “no huddle” became synonymous in football lingo for “pass.”

From Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ‘n’ Gun” of the 1990s at Florida to the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach style “Air Raid” attack, college football fans associate quick, primarily shotgun offenses with a wide open passing game.

But the best football minds adapt their system to their personnel. If you’ve got fast receivers and big offensive tackles, take some deep shots. If you’ve got a big tight end and an accurate quarterback, work the ball in the middle of the field.

And if you’ve got a workhorse running back like Antonio Andrews and a stable of quality backs, run the football.

Much of Bobby Petrino’s offensive reputation has come from his development of quarterbacks, from Jake Plummer and Mark Brunell to Brian Brohm and Ryan Mallet. We’ll see more passing this fall then we did in any of the last three years under Willie Taggart.

Don’t expect that to come totally at the expense of Andrews or any other of the team’s running backs.

A guy who would know is Kolby Smith, WKU’s running backs coach. He played running back for Petrino at Louisville in the mid-2000s before going on to a four-year NFL career.

“One thing about coach Petrino’s offense,” Smith said, “is if you can execute the plays well, you will play.”

So far this spring we’ve seen practice reps split pretty evenly between run and pass. During a two-plus hour scrimmage Saturday the Toppers’ top three backs — Andrews, Keshawn Simpson and Leon Allen — combined for 280 yards on 49 carries.

Included in those numbers were four rushing touchdowns by Andrews.

Backups like Ace Wales, Marquis Sumler and Damontre Warr all also saw several carries apiece.

The formations from which those runs came differ than what we saw under Taggart.

In the last couple of years WKU’s base formations featured a running back, fullback, one or two tight ends and one or two receivers.

This fall the Toppers will typically line up with a single back, one or two tight ends and two or three receivers.

While the style of the carries will change, the volume of carries won’t change dramatically.

The versatile Andrews, powerful Simpson and athletic Allen represent three of WKU’s best offensive weapons. Speedy backups like Sumler and Wales are also intriguing options.

 “I think we have one guy that’s definitely shown he can play and has done it already,” offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm said of Andrews. “We’re trying to build some other backups for him, and they have made progress.”

The receivers, on the other hand, are mostly an unproven group.

We know Willie McNeal (43 catches, 556 yards, six touchdowns in 2012) can play. After McNeal, the only returning receiver to have caught more than 13 passes last year was Rico Brown.

Guys like Lonnie Turner and Austin Aikens have plenty of potential but lack every-down, FBS game experience.

WKU’s receivers will get plenty of chances to prove themselves as the season goes on, but a lot of the offense will still be based around the run game.

Spread or not, Petrino knows who his best players, especially Andrews, are.

He’ll be getting the ball in their hands.