So. LSU has its offensive coordinator, and while it wasn’t necessarily the guy Ed Orgeron had in mind when he talked about going out and finding the best in the country, it is unquestionably a big, flashy hire. Coach O went out and brought in one of the hottest coordinators in the country, fresh off his best season leading an offense that hit almost every mark an LSU fan could want. High scoring, a bruising running game and incredibly efficient passing.
But who is Canada, exactly? What is his offensive style? What else does he bring to LSU, and what can we reasonably expect to see from him in the coming season?
We consulted a few different sources and did some studying to try and find out.
Matt Canada is a 44-year-old football coach that has been an offensive coordinator for 12 of his 23-year career. We’ve detailed the resume, but what style of offense are we expecting to see out of this guy here in Baton Rouge? As has been oft-discussed, Coach O referenced “the spread offense” and “dual-threat quarterbacks” in his opening press conference as the full-time head coach. And while Canada has had a ton of experience with the latter, the former is a little more difficult to tamp down.
At Pitt, Canada largely made use of running backs, fullbacks and tight ends — which probably sounds familiar and decidedly un-spread-offense-like to most LSU fan — but with a balanced sensibility that…spread…the ball out among a very wide variety of players through different means. Five-foot-eight-inch slot receiver/return specialist Quadree Henderson might have only caught 23 passes for 241 yards but ran for 555 yards on 54 carries. Fullbacks and tight ends caught a combined 57 passes for 798 yards and nine touchdowns.
“I think we have to utilize our talents,” Canada explained in his opening presser yesterday. “We do have a spread component. We can be spread. We watched the game yesterday, doesn't matter which one. I would say, if you look at it, it looked like a spread team for sure. We were doing a lot of things. We were trying to find ways to score points. So, I don't like to pigeonhole us that we're this or we're that. I think when you watch teams in the league right now.”
At its heart, Pitt focused on a small number of concepts and ran them multiple ways with different looks, formations and shifts. Honestly, that’s one of the defining aspects of what we traditionally consider the “pro-style” offense.
But in action, it looks a bit different from what we’re used to. Take for instance, the Panthers’ first drive from their upset of No. 3 Clemson this season:
Even in an empty backfield with five players lined up out wide as receivers, the Panthers never really break from 21 or 22 personnel with tight ends and fullbacks in the game. A handful of plays feature multiple shifts to create leverage on the defense or manipulate a particular matchup. There’s a jet-sweep motion on an inside-zone handoff to running back James Connor and two different shovel-passes to tight ends, including the opening touchdown, which also featured a fake handoff to Connor.
“Canada's formative time was with Northern Illinois, which was when he developed his pro-style/shotgun/jet sweep heavy attack,” explained Chris B. Brown, author of Smart Football and one of the foremost authorities on football Xs and Os on the internet. “He had his ups and downs with with [Bret Bielema] and [Dave] Doeren at NC state but I always thought his offenses were always creative. Really did some fun stuff at Pitt to make up for a QB I thought was limited — although I hear some scouts like. And he will keep doing something if it works, like running his inverted beer/shovel play like 12 times against Clemson.”
At NIU — and we posted a few highlights here — Canada’s offense looked more like what most would consider the spread, with a lot of three- and four-wide-receiver sets. Although a lot of motion, particularly the jet sweep motion, was still involved, as was heavy use of the power- and zone-reads and the quarterback running game, to take advantage of Chandler Harnish’s talents. Harnish, of course, would rush for more than 1,300 yards on top of 3,200 passing yards and combine for 39 touchdowns in leading the Huskies to the MAC Championship.
“When I was at Indiana, I went out and met with Coach [Chip] Kelly at Oregon,” Canada explained yesterday. “That's obviously very much of a spread style. When we were there, that's what we did. So I think we — our offense hasn't changed the way we — the philosophy hasn't changed. What's changed, if you look at the places I've been, has been the players.”
Given LSU’s returning personnel with Derrius Guice, fullback J.D. Moore and a couple of pretty good tight ends, the 2017 Tigers might look pretty similar to the 2016 Panthers. We even saw Steve Ensminger make more use of the jet-sweep at times this year, even argue that it was under-used. It is worth noting, however, that teams that like to use a lot of motions and shifts need to have a lot of discipline to avoid illegal procedure penalties. Although that’s usually why teams that use them tend to have a narrower focus in the playbook itself.
The Oklahoma State blog Pistols Firing had this spectacular breakdown of Pitt’s attack as well, detailing Canada’s use of the jet sweep in a different series of plays, and also a shovel/Spot concept run-pass option.
In conclusion, Canada’s offense could best be described as a pro-style offense with spread sensibilities and a series approach to play-calling. From an LSU standpoint, the best comparison would probably be former OC and head coach candidate Jimbo Fisher. And Canada’s style similarly has adapted to different types of quarterbacks as well, as this Advocate piece from Ross Dellenger noted.
Matt Canada’s QBs
|Chandler Harnish||N. Illinois||2011||3,216||1,379||28||6||61.7|
|Josh Haldi||N. Illinois||2003||2,544||-65||25||9||59.2|
^Split time with another starter
When Canada’s had a more mobile quarterback like Harnish, Jacoby Brissett or Kellen Lewis at Indiana, he’s taken advantage of that skillset.
“We're going to find the best player that we can who's a winner, who is a student of the game, who's accurate,” Canada said. “I would like him to be 6'6", and run a 4.1 and throw the ball 100 yards and be the smartest person you ever met, but that doesn't happen. We're all blessed with different talents. Some of us are bigger, some of us are faster, some of us throw it better.”
So what does that mean for LSU’s quarterback recruiting, specifically, 2017 prospects Myles Brennan and Lowell Narcisse?
Well, it didn’t take long for Canada to reach out to one of those quarterbacks, and as we learned earlier today, things are good with Brennan. As for Narcisse, they should speak soon, if it hasn’t happened already. Things seem a little trickier on that front, as Narcisse openly decommitted and has been widely reported to be considering Auburn. The Tigers’ acquisition of former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham could be a factor, as he was almost certainly recruited on the promise of several years of starting. LSU, on the other hand, can offer Narcisse a legitimate opportunity to compete for a starting job right away in a new offense, given that he is an early enrollee and would be as fresh with Canada as the rest of the guys on hand. At a minimum, he’d be in a likely three-horse race with Brennan and Lindsey Scott in 2018.
Still, recruiting overall is one of the question marks with Canada. He doesn’t have any track record of doing it at a major level, or in LSU’s recruiting footprint. But then, neither did Dave Aranda, and he’s proven to add some value on that front.
And that’s really what is important: adding value. Coordinators having a major role in recruiting is a relatively recent invention (Jimbo Fisher was considered an outlier in his time here), but the key is that they are able to identify the talents that they want to pursue, in Canada’s case, that means quarterbacks. Personally, I like that he seems to have a utilitarian approach to things, because when a stud player like Narcisse is available, LSU really can’t afford to pass on him for other players because he doesn’t fit a particular system. Adjust the system to the talent on hand. It’s far more important to be able to teach a style that different players can fit, and that’s something the previous regime never seemed to do.
What They Say
Fan reaction to coaches leaving is still something I take with a grain of salt, because everybody gets sick of a play-caller eventually. That said, with a guy like Canada that has bounced around, it definitely wanted to seek some out.
As you might expect, there’s a lot of sadness in Pittsburgh country, per Anson Whaley of SB Nation’s Pitt affiliate, Cardiac Hill.
“Matt Canada did an exceptional job at Pitt,” said Whaley. “I can't think of a single fan that's come across our blog that is happy to see him go. He runs quite a diverse offense and, more than anything, keeps defenses off their toes.”
From a style perspective, Whaley pointed out that Canada’s offense was tailored well to the Panthers’ personnel.
“This year, Pitt had a lot of success with jet sweeps utilizing the speed of some wideouts and shovel passes,” he said. “He basically turned a mostly blocking fullback into a cult hero with nine touchdowns this year off some really innovative stuff.”
But Pitt wasn’t Canada’s only job in the last 12 months. There was his very odd exit from North Carolina State, after his best season there and a 2015 contract extension. Naturally, we went to Steven Muma of Backing the Pack.
“Prior to the 2015 season, Canada signed a three-year extension,” said Muma. “He was one of the highest-paid coordinators in the ACC at that time. He reportedly flirted with the open Tennessee OC job that offseason, and that prompted NCSU to step up with that extension. And then, of course, a year later he is fired by Dave Doeren.”
Reportedly, Doeren and Canada’s falling out was due to control of the offense. This cryptic tweet from last November only added to that speculation.
It's amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit. Thanks to all those who "pack our players parachutes" #H2P— Matt Canada (@CoachMCanada) November 13, 2016
“A bit of rumor regarding discord within Doeren's staff has been floating around for a while,” said Muma. “And was not limited to just a spat between Canada and Doeren. Canada didn't post bad numbers. Like half the fan base thought Doeren fired the wrong coordinator. There was lots of confusion. There were suggestions that Doeren may have handcuffed Canada, overruling him on a regular basis.”
Muma also added that Canada wasn’t universally popular with Wolfpack fans, either.
“There were significant spans where tight ends Jaylen Samuels or David Grinnage were either ignored or simply were not on the field at all, and that became a running complaint,” he said. “I'm not saying this is entirely fair, because Grinnage had injury problems. But he still seemed oddly non-existent for a team without much in the way of wide receivers. Samuels flat out wasn't on the field for as many snaps as he should have been. Again though, if Doeren is nixing a bunch of stuff, it might be more his problem. It's pretty striking how little the offense changed in 2016 despite changing coordinators.”
I also reached out to some Wisconsin sources as well, since a similar rumor followed Canada in his one year on Bret Bielema’s staff. This report, from Madison.com’s Tom Mulhern, details some of it, including how Canada fought for more use of a seven-linemen “Barge” formation, which featured a direct snap to a tailback with a jet-sweep.
It’s worth noting, that Canada’s attack yielded more than 500 yards and eight touchdowns in the Badgers’ 70-31 smack-down of Nebraska in the Big 10 Championship Game that season.
“Honestly, it does make you wonder if Canada would have had more ‘control’ — how that season would have went,” said Jake Kocorowski, of Bucky’s Fifth Quarter. “The 70 points against Nebraska, I think people still wonder about that.”
Kocorowski also detailed a laundry list of the issues that Wisconsin dealt with that season, which also wound up as Bret Bielema’s last in Madison.
“Canada had a lot to go up against in 2012,” he said. “First, he had most of the fan base lamenting Paul Chryst leaving to become HC at Pitt. Then there were issues at quarterback, where Danny O'Brien was the grad transfer who was benched in favor of Joel Stave, who is now the most polarizing player in Wisconsin football history. Then Stave broke his collarbone during Michigan State loss and Curt Phillips took over, a former dual-threat QB who had THREE knee surgeries and was thus not as mobile. There were issues on offensive line where Bart Miller took over for Mike Markuson as O-Line coach just three games into the season due to differences in philosophy in blocking. Plus, star receiver Jared Abbrederis’s injury early in the year led to the loss against Oregon State and offense was anemic vs Utah State (against Dave Aranda’s defense).”
Autonomy for assistant coaches has been a big part of Coach O’s philosophy to date, both for coordinators and position coaches. So one would think that would hold for Canada, and was also likely addressed in the interview process.
So there it is — good, bad and otherwise. Canada comes in to Baton Rouge with nearly every accolade you could ask for in an OC. But he’ll be asked to hit the ground running quickly. We’ll find out if he’s up to the task.