Syracuse, N.Y. — When Dino Babers was promoted to offensive coordinator at Arizona in 1998, he inherited a dominant spread offense developed by Homer Smith. And with it, the reins to a roughly 300-page playbook.
Elaborately detailed from play calls and hand signals to front adjustments and cadence annunciation, a copy was given to each member of the Wildcats football team in a blue binder.
“It included every little detail you could even imagine,” former UA quarterback Keith Smith said.
The offense thrived. Arizona jumped from 34th in the country in total offense in 1997 to 18th in 1998 and third in 1999.
But a former player uploaded the playbook to the Internet after that season and in 2000, the Wildcats plummeted to 101st. That offseason, then-UA head coach Dick Tomey and his entire staff were fired.
“I remember us being upset about it just that someone would do that,” former Arizona offensive line coach Charlie Dickey said.
Dickey and Tomey made it clear that other factors also played into the offense’s downturn, but for Babers the experience affected the way he installs and teaches his offense now. He no longer uses a hard playbook.
As Babers installs the hurry-up spread offense he learned from Art Briles at Baylor this spring, Syracuse’s players learn from film study in the meeting room and on-field repetition. Among a generation of visual learners, they have been trained to digest information this way, Babers said. Reserves stand behind starters during practice sessions and more thorough notes are required during meetings.
“You learned football on Xbox where you could actually choose your team and control your players,” Babers said. “You grew up in a visual age. That’s how we teach these guys, is the way they grew up. We don’t make them read, which is the way we grew up.”
When redshirt senior offensive lineman Omari Palmer first heard there would be no playbook, he was quick to question it.
Having already learned three offensive systems in his time at SU, Palmer had established a process.
Receive the playbook. Copy over all pass protections, zone schemes and gap schemes into separate brackets. Write out the assignments for both guard and tackle positions on each play. Repeat until it sticks.
During past installations, Palmer could start this process when he received the playbook before winter break. This year, he had to wait those few weeks until positional meetings started two weeks before the first spring practice.
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily complex,” Palmer said. “I would just say it’s fast. This is a lot faster than we’re used to.”
In addition to learning formations and plays, the Syracuse players are working to memorize the accompanying hand signals.
Before each play, one coach on the sideline will make the signal as the quarterback hurries the other 10 players to the line of scrimmage. The quarterback and wide receivers then scan the coverage (safety to corner) for a hot route, SU junior wideout Steve Ishmael said, and snap the ball if no adjustment is needed.
“It’s really a matter of repetition and focus because when you’re out there on the field you don’t want to think too much,” Ishmael said. “That’s when your mind gets clouded.”
Almost all of the players have operated in a signal system before — some in high school, like sophomore running back Jordan Fredericks, and others under former Syracuse offensive coordinator George McDonald.
McDonald ran a hurry-up scheme in 2013 and five games of 2014 before being demoted midseason. Ishmael recalls an installation process that was “quite confusing” and resulted, in a slower product.
“My freshman year we were implementing a lot of other offenses from different teams,” Ishmael said, “but this year it’s just (Babers’) offense.”
With only seven of 15 spring practices down, players are still acclimating.
Fredericks noted that even in the meeting room, plays are broken down and analyzed faster. Sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey has a compilation of notes that include his footwork and read for each play, as well as the assignments for the offensive line, backs and receivers.
He believes it will take all of spring practice and summer workouts for the signal system to become second nature.
“It’s rough learning a new offense so quick,” Dungey said. “It’s fast. They don’t slow down at all, but as practices go on it’ll get better and better.”
For Babers, the removal of a playbook hasn’t hindered his ability to install his offense at past stops and dominate in Year 2. At Bowling Green last season, he orchestrated a group that ranked fourth in yards per game and sixth in points per game. In his second season at Eastern Illinois, his unit averaged nearly 600 yards per game.
Briles doesn’t use a hard playbook at Baylor. Neither does fellow Briles disciple Philip Montgomery at Tulsa, Babers said.
And while it may mean a little extra work for the SU players this spring, the approach ensures that a complete breakdown of the offense can’t be leaked by any one person.
Said Babers: “It’s a little bit different, somebody’s notes going on Twitter compared to a coach’s playbook going on Twitter.”