By Kevin Sweeney
What had been reported since last week became official Wednesday, when Northwestern officially announced that Mike Bajakian would be Pat Fitzgerald’s next offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Bajakian, who most recently held the same position at Boston College, has also spent time in his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and at the collegiate level at Tennessee, Cincinnati and Central Michigan. He spent much of his college coaching career working under Butch Jones and worked under Dirk Koetter & Lovie Smith in the NFL.
When Wildcat fans first saw the news, reaction was mixed.
Some were pleased that Fitzgerald had landed an established name with a proven track record at the highest levels of college football. Others were hoping for more of a mover and shaker– someone to make significant changes to an offense that was dreadful in 2019.
Some of that reaction likely has to do with the fact that Bajakian was at Boston College, a school not known as a football powerhouse that had just fired head coach Steve Addazio. The good news: the offense wasn’t what led to Addazio’s demise. The Eagles ranked in the top 40 nationally in offense per SP+, representing a jump of more than 40 spots from 2018. Even better, that offensive jump came despite starting quarterback Anthony Brown going down for the season in early October with a knee injury. Others were likely hoping to “air it out” a bit more: Bajakian’s BC team ran the ball about 67.5% of the time, a mark that only one non-triple-option offense eclipsed. In his coordinating career, Bajakian has only had two seasons where his teams threw the ball more than they ran it, and both came during his time at Central Michigan.
So, what exactly can we expect from Bajakian at Northwestern? I took a look at the tape, watching a game from his time at Tennessee and two games from his time at Boston College: one with his starting QB, one without him, to get a clearer picture.
One of the things Fitzgerald mentioned in the press release announcing Bajakian as the new offensive coordinator was Bajakian’s ability to adjust his offense to fit his roster.
“He has helmed offenses that beat you through the air, and others that punished opponents on the ground, depending on personnel,” Fitzgerald said.
Those scheme adaptations are readily apparent when comparing the formations Bajakian deployed at Tennessee with the ones he used at Boston College.
This is the formula he opened a Vols game against South Carolina with in 2014, the first start QB Joshua Dobbs made that season. Four wide receivers and a running back, in the shotgun. In the Tennessee/South Carolina game, the only time Dobbs lined up under center was in very short yardage situations, everything else was in the shotgun.
We also saw Bajakian deploy plenty of “11” personnel– one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers. Northwestern’s base offense under Mick McCall was essentially using “11” personnel, depending on how you classify a superback.
Now, compare this to how Bajakian lined up at BC. He inherited a roster of offensive talent that had been recruited into Scot Loeffler’s system, who left for the head coaching position at Bowling Green. Loeffler ran a pro-style, power run system at BC and in previous stops. For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the formation for the first play of the season: a run up the middle for star RB AJ Dillon.
This looks very pro-style, doesn’t it? It’s “12” personnel: one running back and two tight ends, lined up in a singleback set with an unbalanced line.
Boston College was very multiple: at times, three tight ends would be on the field, while other times, you’d see the quarterback lined up in the shotgun with three receivers. Generally though, BC was base “12” under Bajakian, which can be effective in both the run and pass games when you have tight ends who can be threats going down the field. Here’s an example of “12” personnel out of the shotgun:
So where will Northwestern fall on this spectrum? I’d say a lot depends on Bajakian’s perception of the tight ends/superbacks currently on the roster. Returners Trey Pugh and Charlie Mangieri have a grand total of 10 career catches combined, and while the Wildcats currently have two TE/SB commits for the 2020 class, both are unranked prospects likely to redshirt next season. I’d say with Northwestern’s current roster construction, “11” personnel makes more sense as a base than “12”, but it certainly remains to be seen how the current players fit into a new system.
National perception about offenses with more pro concepts that run more than they pass is that they play slow, “ball control” offense. That has proven not to be the case throughout Bajakian’s career.
In 2019 at Boston College, the Eagles ranked T-8th nationally in offensive plays per game, ranking ahead of the likes of Ohio State, Washington State, Texas, Auburn, and other traditionally up-tempo offenses. Northwestern ranked 58th in plays per game this season. Bajakian’s 2014 Tennessee offense ranked 22nd in tempo.
There are two main advantages to playing fast while running the ball heavily: wearing down the opposing defensive line and creating mismatches by forcing teams to keep run-stopping personnel on the field.
Here’s a terrific example of the power of playing fast, even with an attack predicated on running the football:
BC is on the move offensively into VT territory, and now picks up the tempo. Virginia Tech runs on a man late to inject some energy into its defensive line, and BC picks up a nice gain with Dillon on first down. Dillon’s body hits the ground with 12:21 on the game clock, and the Eagles go into warp speed. Without subbing, BC goes from a heavy I-formation set to the shotgun, with the same “12” formation on the field. With the safeties still crashing down in run support, Bajakian draws up an attack down the field to speedy wide receiver Zay Flowers, who wins his one-on-one matchup and goes for six.
Jet Sweep Concept:
One central tenant of Bajakian’s offense both at Tennessee and BC has been jet sweep looks. The constant pre-snap motion is very reminiscent to the offense run by Matt Canada, the former interim HC at Maryland who was thought by many to be a candidate for the Northwestern offensive coordinator position.
The concept can be used both under center and in the shotgun. Sometimes the motion is just smoke and mirrors to create extra space in the downhill run game, other times it sets up an actual sweep play. It can even create a mismatch with a wide receiver on a safety or linebacker that allows the offense to stretch the field.
Here are some examples of different ways with which Bajakian has deployed jet sweeps at his various stops:
My favorite look by far was the last one: showing the jet sweep and having that receiver (Von Pearson) run a wheel route out of the backfield. It isolates a skill player against a corner who had to run across the field and was caught up by the in route from the outside receiver. It’s that type of creative playcalling that Northwestern needs in order to open up explosive plays in the passing game despite not having the most explosive receiving corps and questions at quarterback. Personally, I think senior WR Kyric McGowan would be perfect in these jet sweep looks: he has experience carrying the ball, is likely the best receiver Northwestern has in space, and has the speed to set the edge combined with the power to run through tacklers. Fellow senior WR Riley Lees could also play a role in the jet sweep game.
Tight End Usage:
Bajakian’s preseason quotes about using tight ends have gotten a lot of run with Northwestern fans since his name surfaced as a candidate.
“I learned a ton about how to utilize tight ends better in an offensive scheme,” Bajakian said of his time with the Bucs, per The Heights. “Obviously, we had had some good ones in my past … but when I went to Tampa, and we had guys like Cameron Brate from Harvard and O.J. Howard and various other guys, I thought Coach Koetter did a great job of using those guys.”
“I always thought, in the back of my mind in my four years in Tampa, that if I had the opportunity to coordinate again at the college level, I would utilize an up-tempo scheme,” Bajakian said per the Boston Globe, “but I would be much more multiple in formations and personnel.”
It’s obvious that Bakajian likes the versatility of the tight end, but I really interpret these quotes more about finding creative ways to get your best playmakers in space. At BC, those playmakers were tight ends: under Loeffler and Addazio, the Eagles had recruited extremely well at that spot and had just put Tommy Sweeney in the NFL as a tight end. At Tennessee, TE Ethan Wolf caught 23 balls for 212 yards, while WR Pig Howard was a major factor running the football in the jet sweep game and RB Jalen Hurd caught 35 passes out of the backfield.
Again, a lot of this is tied to whether Bakajian decides to embrace “12” personnel again or whether he goes back to “11” like he used at Tennessee and in previous stops. Perhaps big WR Bennett Skowronek could be deployed as a pass-catching TE in this new offense, which would certainly create some mismatches if he can prove to be a steady blocker. Skowronek remains in the transfer portal as he continues to weigh his options for his final season of eligibility. Early recruiting targets for 2021 could give us a better sense of how much of Bakajian’s vision involves tight ends, but for now, we’re left to speculate.
That said, it is fun to watch some of the creative ways that Bajakian has gotten his tight ends involved in the offense. They’ll line up split out, along the line, or even as fullbacks and are used in a variety of ways: stretching the defense, serving as safety valves over the middle, or in the screen game.
We’ll see who can emerge at the tight end spot– it’s clearly a weapon in Bajakian’s offense IF the Wildcats have the right guy for the role.
It’s hard to project exactly what all this means for the 2020 season for Northwestern. As frustrating as the playcalling was at times, Mick McCall wasn’t the only problem for this Wildcat team. Quarterback play was abysmal, and the injury bug came back to bite the ‘Cats time and time again. Without knowing what players will actually be on the field, it’s really hard to know what to expect.
Despite that, I’m fairly optimistic about the future of the Wildcat offense under Bajakian. He runs a style that makes sense for the way Pat Fitzgerald wants to play, and he seems like he’s able to adapt well to the personnel on his roster. His background in the NFL should give him credibility on the recruiting trail, particularly with QB recruits. On the field, he does the most important thing a good coordinator does: finds creative ways to get his best players touches in space.
Time will tell on this hire, but I believe Pat Fitzgerald got it right.