As Matt Canada explains it, his offense — the one so hyped up and ballyhooed since his December hire — is simple.
“Our offense,” LSU’s new offensive coordinator said, “is the easiest in America.”
For an hour Thursday night at LSU’s high school coaches clinic, he explained why.
He discussed the foundation of his scheme, the one he’s implementing this spring, and, yes, he said, the rumblings are true: The Tigers are way ahead of where he thought they’d be halfway through 15 spring practices.
In fact, much of Canada’s installation — those “simple” foundation principles — are installed, running back Derrius Guice said earlier this week and Canada confirmed. It’s just “repetition” now, Guice said.
Canada has more in the bag, though — much more. He’ll now begin building layers on that foundation, adding structures to the concrete slab, as he described it.
“Obviously, we build and add this and this and this,” Canada said. “Our offense is a solid foundation of these core plays, these core concepts and then we add and go from there.”
The 45-year-old Indiana native displayed Thursday night the pizzazz, charisma and personality coach Ed Orgeron has raved about — the flashy, out-going nature that helped land him this job.
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He completed his speech, popped off his clip-on microphone and literally ran off the stage, running into a reporter and brandishing a smile that conveyed a message: Did you like that show?
If it wasn’t for his tall, thin frame and Midwestern accent, you might mistake him for the head coach himself.
They share the ability to fill a room with an infectious personality. Canada’s fiery makeup oozed out in front of the couple of hundred high school coaches. He yelled, he screamed, he laughed and poked fun at himself.
He admitted to getting “nervous” before calling some of his patented trick plays — those touchdown passes and reverses to offensive tackles, for instance. But he doesn’t call them trick plays. They’re “exotic” plays, he says. And despite his nervousness, he runs them.
“He’s a fighter in the best sense of the word,” said Chandler Harnish, Canada’s QB at Northern Illinois in 2011. “He doesn’t back down. You can see that’s the kind of guy you want in your corner when times are tough.”
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That offensive intellect of his came out, too. He’s humble about it, though, squelching any hype around an offense that’s averaged 30 or more points the past three seasons (Pitt and twice at North Carolina State).
"Matt is one of the brightest guys I’ve been around," LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph said. "I know just in the short time being around him, I’ve learned a lot of things. He has a wealth of knowledge."
At one point during the speech, he glanced around to the coaches after explaining another simple lesson regarding his system, “No way! This is it?” he told the crowd smiling. “This is it!”
So what is it?
The base, he says, is a pair of age-old running plays: the zone and power. There’s an up-tempo facet, too, and an ability to move the pocket. The last base principal is a vertical passing game.
Canada’s plays — those jetsweeps and shovel passes — are built around these elements, but there is so much more to his system, which, he says, changes every year, depending on his new group of players. He’s on his fifth new team since 2011, so he’s used to this installation process.
And he never stops adding to the scheme. He recently added a high school play to his system, seeing it on a film reel and tossing it into his playbook.
“We don’t have a system every year that’s the same,” he said. “Our offense changes every year. We have a system, same formations last 12 years, same verbiage, same plays in a sense.”
His different styles are well-documented.
He led a QB-run scheme with Harnish at North Illinois (2011). At Wisconsin in 2012, he employed a power run system using the “barge” formation, an arrangement that includes seven offensive linemen. He ran a pass-leaning spread at N.C. State, and he rolled up 42.3 points per game last year at Pitt with a power-run, spread mixture.
His offensive points goal is always 40, he told coaches, “but we’ve got to score 30. No matter where we are, where we’ve been. We’ve got to do that.”
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He showed coaches several plays from a game that arguably serves as his greatest as an offensive play-caller: Pitt’s win over eventual national champion Clemson last season. The Panthers won 43-42, saddling Dabo Swinney’s team with its only loss.
He would need more than an hour to explain just how his offense rolled up six touchdowns on the champs. So he chose the most important detail in that victory: his change in tempo, from fast to slow, back to fast, to slow again and back to fast.
“We believe if you always go fast, they get used to that. If you always go slow, they get used to that,” Canada said. “So we change the tempo. Every game is different.”
Said Canada on the Clemson win: “That is what did it.”
Against a team like Clemson, stacked with star-studded players, Canada found trouble identifying his opponent’s weakness. He does this every Sunday night during game weeks, a film study session with players that he refers to as, “Where’s Waldo?”
The Waldo is an opponent defense’s weakest player.
“The key to that matchup for us was getting our best player or players on the Waldo,” he said.
Thursdays of game weeks is quarterback-focused, he said. In a meeting between Canada and his starting quarterback, the two settle on a group of third-down plays — 3 to 5 yards in length — to run during the upcoming game. Canada is cognizant of his quarterback’s preference. If the quick slant is his top choice on a third-and-3, then the quick slant is what Canada calls on the team’s first third-and-3 opportunity.
It’s just that simple, he says.
Practices are difficult on Canada’s quarterbacks. He admits that, and reporters have noticed this during the open portion of spring drills. Practice is “the hard part,” he said. He hopes that makes the games easier. In the game, he wants his QBs to have tunnel vision. That’s the goal: developing a quarterback who can block out the crowd and anything else and focus on reading one or two defensive players, dropping back and releasing the ball before the count of 3.
His exotic plays — those tight end shovel passes and reverses to offensive tackles — are his ways of making a defense feel different.
“We want them to be a little uncomfortable, want their cleats to be out of the ground,” he said. “We are on offense. It’s offense. Be offensive. We don’t want them lining up saying, ‘Here we come!’”
The best advice Canada has received? That came from Joe Novak, the former longtime Northern Illinois head coach who gave Canada his first big-time offensive coordinator job in 2003.
“Don’t be afraid to run the same play over and over,” he told Canada.
Canada then flashes a play on the screen from one of his past offenses. It’s a reverse. It goes for a 70-yard touchdown.
He flashes another play, the very next play after that touchdown. It’s a reverse, out of a different formation, that goes for 70 more.
See, he says, simple.