Change for the right reasons

More news about: Augustana | Emory and Henry | Rowan
Sam Frasco has a different offense to run this year at quarterback for Augustana.
Augustana athleics photo by Ian Magnuson

Rowan coach Jay Accorsi put it succinctly: “You’ve got to be able to change, you’ve got to be able to adapt, you’ve got to be able to create excitement and change things.”

And if you don’t? Well, then your ability for success becomes stale.

Steve Bell, the first-year Augustana coach, is hoping to break the team out of its three-season funk of ending at .500. He wants success because he has lived it before -- Bell joined the Vikings this year after more than a decade at Monmouth that included four conference titles.

During the hiring phase, Augustana school officials said they wanted an offensive-minded philosophy in their next leader, and Bell delivered. He brought change. He switched the team from a spread option offense to one based on traditional concepts: zone reads and power plays among them.

Though his approach is dramatically different than the past, he said his players were excited to switch things up.

“I don’t think it was difficult at all,” said Bell, whose team beat Mount St. Joseph last weekend. “I think they all coveted the change. The majority of it was because most of these kids came from traditional offenses in high school. So it’s what they were used to.”

The new approach put a new emphasis on senior quarterback Sam Frasco, who last year averaged 132 yards passing and 78 yards rushing a game.

Frasco is “very capable of throwing the ball, but he’s never been asked to throw the ball in the traditional sense,” Bell said. “Everything was mostly shot plays because that’s the offense that they ran. I’m asking him to be more of a true quarterback in regards to what we’re going to do in the passing game.”

After Saturday’s game, which saw Frasco deliver a 237-yard passing performance along with more than 100 yards rushing, the signal-caller was named the CCIW’s Offensive Player of the Week.

While change for the Vikings came with a new coach, Rowan’s Accorsi goes far outside his team’s bubble to recognize collegiate trends and adjust accordingly.

The Profs notched one of the biggest Week 1 upsets with a 24-10 victory over then-No. 12 Widener. This season, the team shifted away from the spread and adopted a power approach to its offense.

Going into the fall, the roster expanded from 100 up to 125 players, the largest increase in new players ever for the program, thanks to a change in conference rules. (Really, there’s not much offensive changing for them because they don’t know any different.) The Profs have had their offensive and defensive coordinators swap places, and there has been an enormous amount of conference shuffling this offseason.

While that helps to explain the timing, it doesn’t fully address the “why.” That’s where Accorsi draws on the big picture of the sport, one that reaches back about 15 years to when the team transitioned to a spread offense.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the spread offense was taking root at Rowan, many of the scholarship schools were scooping up fullbacks, tight ends and bigger offensive linemen. So the type of player most available to Division III coaches was a different stock than what was previously seen.

“We were finding a lot of quicker, faster players. We were finding a lot of longer, leaner offensive linemen, basketball-type players. We were finding fewer drop-back quarterbacks but more option quarterbacks. So the reason we went to the spread when we did ... was because we weren’t getting the type of players who fit the pro-style offense. We were getting players who fit the spread, no-huddle offense.”

Quarterback Kevin Saxton, left, is a sophomore, while Kelman Simpson is in his first year on the Emory & Henry roster.
Emory & Henry athletics photo

Fast-forward to 2015, and major-college football has changed, and thus small-college ball must change.

The spread, with all of its variances, has emerged at dozens of Division I-FBS schools. Those smaller and quicker wide receivers who were crucial to Accorsi’s system years ago have been mostly plucked away. The option quarterbacks and the leaner offensive linemen, he said, are gone as well.

Accorsi looked to what’s within reach and tailored an offense around that.

“I thought one of the reasons would be that we can find fullbacks, tight ends, bigger power offensive players,” he said. “I thought it was an important time to start the switch.”

He used spring practice to help ease his veteran players into the change. And the learning curve is continuous, he notes; the arc of revamping an offensive system isn’t complete just because opening day arrives.

Emory and Henry used a variation of the spread under former coach Don Montgomery, but it’s second-year coach Curt Newsome’s “spread and shred” offense that has shaken the fabric of the ODAC and added another contender to the conference crown.

Bottom line: Newsome likes to move fast.

“The biggest thing about us is our tempo,” he said. “That’s what we feel like causes defenses problems.

“Although spring football in Division III does not allow you to get better in certain areas, it does allow you to get better at using an up-tempo in a passing game because you can throw it without pads on.”

He notes that changing offenses was particularly difficult on his own defense. He said he expect that unit to struggle to be first in the conference in yards given up -- what he focuses on is yards per play.

“It stresses your own defense out, because they’re on the field a little more,” said Newsome, a 1982 E&H graduate who has experience coaching Division I. “You score fast, or if you go three-and-out, it’s fast also.”

He adopted this offense because opponents get fewer opportunities to plan blitzes and, he said, he appreciates that the quarterback has the opportunity to throw the ball or hand it off on just about any play the team calls.

Compared with 2012 and 2013, E&H averaged more than eight points better per game in Newsome’s debut season. Part of that was because his starting quarterback and running back were freshmen and didn’t have to amend their style of play. They were immediate contributors to the new system. Last Saturday against Ferrum, E&H had the ball for just 23 minutes but ran 73 plays compared with Ferrum’s 72 plays.

“You have to practice that way to get in shape so you can have this kind of offense,” the coach said. “It’s tough on the offensive line. The more depth you have at receiver the better so you can get a few guys in and out for certain series.”

At Rowan, Accorsi acknowledges that on the coaching level as well as the player level, change can be unwelcomed, no matter how necessary. He said it’s not in people’s nature to accept disruption.

“I think people are adverse to change, so I thought it was important that we change but change for the right reasons,” he said. “Certainly we’re much different than what we were over the past several years. My hope is that not only the new teams that are in the conference but also the old rivalry teams will have to make some adjustments off of our style of play, too.”

The goal in football, it seems, is to make change on an opponent harder than on oneself.

Newbie’s guide to D-III

Back in 2007, during ESPN’s on-air announcement of the pairings for the Division III playoff bracket, the network famously butchered the pronunciation of two team names.

Muhlenberg and UW-Eau Claire fans cringed, as did many in the D-III community.

For those of you who are new to small-college football, I’m going to help you from being “that guy” (or “that lady,” if such were the case).

To point, Muhlenberg’s nickname is the Mules, which should give you a pretty good clue as to how those first four letters are pronounced.  For the other team that ESPN mentioned, think of it as UW-Oh Claire -- there’s no “ew” sound in eau.

But that just scratches the surface of mispronunciation pitfalls across the country. With 247 teams this year, the largest the division has ever had, it’s certainly easy to get lost. I’m not immune, either.

I made a mistake for the first couple of years pronouncing Gallaudet as “Gaul-yoo-det.” Turns out, it’s supposed to be something a little closer to “Gal-luh-det.”

There are several other teams that have pronunciations that stretch the realm of normalcy.

For example, take a four-letter word as simple as Kean. If you’ve rhymed it with lean, mean, football-playing machine, you’d be wrong. Rather, it sounds just like the word “cane.”  

There’s also Wooster. Don’t say it like you’re ooh’ing and aah’ing over the Scots. The double-o follows suit with the word “wood.” Expect Buena Vista and Willamette to be a bit deceptive, too.

If pronunciations don’t trip you up, perhaps you’ll wonder why you’re seeing -- or hearing -- double in columns and on the ATN podcast.

Wooster has a bit of an audio doppelganger in Worchester State. There’s a Bridgewater (in Virginia) and a Bridgewater State (in Massachusetts). There are two Trinitys, one in Texas coached by a former NFL player and one in Connecticut that will never ever make the playoffs. Westminster seems to have an epic reach from Pennsylvania to Missouri, until you realize that there are two colleges with that name 750 miles apart. There’s also MacMurray and McMurry, the latter which has returned to Division III after trying its hand in Division II for the past three seasons.

If that’s a lot to digest, stay away from the NACC, which boasts two Concordias -- one in Chicago and the other in Mequon, Wis. While they both had a down 2014, the former made the playoffs as recently as 2012, while the latter was there in 2013.

What else do you need to know? Well:

  • Mount Union and UW-Whitewater are not moving to Division II. Get over it.
  • It’s Hampden-Sydney, not Hampton-Sydney or Hampton-Sidney.
  • You can argue the public vs. private school thing all you want. It’s been done to exhaustion before. Division III is what it is: a mixture of both.
  • While there are lots of Tigers, Panthers and Cougars in D-III, the coolest nickname is probably Knox’s Prairie Fire. Runners up are the Continentals, Greyhounds, Golden Tornadoes and Little Giants. I’ll leave the research to you to see who those belong to.

All of this is a way of saying that there’s a lot to learn at this level, and the curve never seems to end. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that if you’re referencing the highest division in college football, it’s Division III. Players play for the purity of loving the game and wanting to balance both their lives as students and as athletes.

The door to my email inbox is always open. And even if you’re a veteran of the D-III world, keep an eye on changes to the ASC, E8 and NJAC. Kickoff hopefully helped you to navigate those switcheroos, but they will surely take time to sink in.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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