With his offensive scheme, Chip Kelly is hoping to take Oregon's quarterback to Heisman-like levels
EUGENE -- Chip Kelly knew the knock. It was noon, and his quarterbacks meeting was scheduled for 1:40 p.m. It could only be one guy. "Hey, D, couple minutes," Oregon's offensive coordinator said to his prized pupil, quarterback Dennis Dixon. "You going to be in the film room?" Yes, Dixon was going to the film room. Without the film room and without Kelly, Oregon's quarterback would not be a Heisman Trophy candidate or among the nation's leaders in passer rating or about to play his fifth game of the season without having thrown an interception. And, yes, this is Cal week -- the showdown of unbeatens, the sixth-ranked California Golden Bears and the No. 11 Ducks is Saturday, complete with ESPN "College GameDay" coverage -- but it could be any week. Dixon, the formerly maligned quarterback, is eager to learn from Kelly, the coach from the Football Championship Subdivision who has quickly proved himself eager to teach. To most, Kelly is Oregon's offensive coordinator, but the part of his job title that usually is left off is perhaps the most important part: quarterbacks coach. In the two months since he returned from playing professional baseball, Dixon has formed a bond with Kelly. Together, they have lifted the Ducks to No. 7 in the nation in total offense heading into Saturday's game, which promises to be a celebration of offense (the teams are combining to average 90 points a game).
"I don't know if people have the right perception of him," Kelly said of Dixon, who has earned his degree and is taking graduate classes. "He studies as hard as anybody I've ever coached. He really works at the Xs and Os aspect of the game." Just as he helped interview Kelly before coach Mike Bellotti hired him in the offseason, Dixon has a say in what plays Kelly calls. "It really doesn't matter what I like, because I'm not throwing the ball," Kelly said. "It's what does he feel comfortable doing, or what does he like? He's the one who's going to execute it. "You can be a great scheme guy and call these great plays, but if the guy throws the ball in the dirt, you can't just say, 'Well, the guy was open.' You figure out why he's throwing the ball in the dirt." From the day he was hired away from the University of New Hampshire, Kelly has evaded questions about any confidence Dixon lost after losing the starting job last season. Kelly's stock response: "I wasn't here last year."
Part of it was that Kelly wanted to form his own opinion and part of it was that he knew what he had, after talking to Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, a good friend and fellow native of Manchester, N.H. While at Utah under current Gators coach Urban Meyer, Mullen recruited Dixon to be the Utes' next quarterback after Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. "We recruited him hard," Mullen said of Dixon. "I told Chip he's the guy we really wanted at Utah. He's perfect for the system." To label Kelly's and Mullen's systems as spread-option might be a little simplistic. They are creative, attacking offenses that are fun to watch. "I think we both enjoy trying to do things a little different from the ordinary," Mullen said. "We run sound offenses, traditional offenses schematically, but with outside-the-box thinking. They might spread it to run, pack it in tight to pass -- heck, they might try a Statue of Liberty play and fake another on national television against Michigan.
"It's kind of staying ahead of the curve," Mullen said. "Both of us have kind of found the path. This way of doing things has been successful for both of us." Kelly's offenses at New Hampshire, where he played and then had served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach since 1999, averaged more than 400 yards per game in seven of his eight seasons. It was all spread-option and no-huddle. "I don't think you're necessarily married to a system," said Kelly, 43, who is single but whose fiancee is due in town soon. "It's just about moving the football, and there's a lot of different ways to do it." Take California coach Jeff Tedford, for example. Tedford, an offensive coordinator under Bellotti from 1998-2001 who calls his own plays now, flirted with the spread offense last season before sticking with basically the same offense the Ducks used to run. Spread or no, Kelly admires Tedford's work. "If you don't look and study those guys, then you're probably hindering yourself, because there are always things to learn," Kelly said.
Kelly's offense is fast-paced, unpredictable, at times flashy, but stubbornly dedicated to establishing the run. The Ducks are fourth in the nation in rushing (300 yards per game), and Saturday's game features not only the top two threats to USC in the Pacific-10 Conference, but also the conference's top two rushers in Oregon's Jonathan Stewart (126 yards per game) and Cal's Justin Forsett (121). Tedford, too, is well-grounded -- Forsett is on pace to put up the 10th 1,000-yard season by a Cal running back in Tedford's six seasons. In off-field personality, there are few similarities. Kelly is the fast-talking East Coaster; Tedford, the laid-back Californian. But the common thread as coaches -- one that Tedford has proved through the years and Kelly appears likely to share -- is the ability to coach quarterbacks. "They are capable of not only directing an offensive scheme but coaching up the quarterback in that scheme and making it something that those young men understand," Bellotti said. "The quarterbacks become one with the offense. I think that's what happened to Dennis, and certainly Jeff has had great success." In his 15 years at Cal, Oregon and Fresno State (1992-97), Tedford has developed six NFL first-round draft picks: Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers. Under Kelly at New Hampshire last season, Ricky Santos won the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in -the Football Championship Subdivision. And the strides so far with Dixon, in his senior season, have been remarkable -- although, as Bellotti points out, Dixon was just as impressive last year before the Ducks' debacle at Cal.
Dixon's defining moment so far this season -- even more than his 80-yard touchdown run against Houston -- was his nine-yard scoring run at Michigan off of the fake Statue of Liberty play. Kelly denied that the national television audience had anything to do with that play call. "If you saw the Towson game in 2004 versus the University of New Hampshire with 4,000 people in the stands, you would have seen the same play," he said. Oregon borrowed a play -- a quarterback keeper off a fake handoff to a receiver -- from Kelly's New Hampshire offense last season, before Kelly was hired. Mullen borrows from Kelly, and vice versa. Kelly and his Oregon predecessor, Gary Crowton, exchanged ideas throughout last season. The term "guru" might be a little cliche when used about offensive coordinators, but "junkie" might not, Bellotti said. "They have to be junkies, football junkies," Bellotti said. "They have to really eat, live, sleep football, because they are the guys that are creative within the box and also have to think outside the box. Chip does that."
The spread-option thinking might be outside the box, but it's also inside a close circle, not that Kelly is afraid to share. At times in open practices early in the week, Kelly breaks out some creative plays that have not made it into any game. "I call them high-maintenance plays," Kelly said. "If you've got to run it three, four, five times, you probably should just get rid of it and call something else." For Dixon's lesson plan on this day, Kelly is preparing "cut-ups," video of plays broken down by any situation imaginable -- third downs, blitzes, plays from the left hash, etc. -- that come as rapid-fire as they do in Kelly's real-life, no-huddle offense. Bellotti said this computer literacy was one reason behind Kelly's hiring. "Hey, I still type with two fingers," Kelly said, as he prepared to join Dixon in the film room. It is time to become more at one with the offense. "The thing about football that I've always loved is that you get out of it what you put into it," Kelly said. "Dennis' success is not a surprise to me, because I've seen how hard he's worked at it. He's getting out of it on Saturdays exactly what he's put into it."