On Maryland’s first offensive drive of the season — and Matt Canada’s debut as the team’s play caller — the Terps drove down the field against favored Texas, picking up yards in chunks. Two minutes into the game, the drive ended when freshman wide receiver Jeshaun Jones took the handoff on a jet sweep to score from 28 yards out.
For Canada, Maryland’s interim head coach, the roots of that play date back nearly a decade to a camp for high schoolers hosted by Indiana, where he worked at the time. At that point he had never before used the jet sweep, in which a player goes in motion before the snap, running parallel to the line of scrimmage, then takes a handoff.
But during this camp, between practices and at night, Canada and the Indiana staff would talk with Mark Speckman, a coach from a Division III program in Oregon who has built entire offenses around the jet sweep.
“A lot of people asked about it, about this offense,” said Speckman, now an assistant at California Davis. “You can kind of tell when they’re looking at you like you’re a lunatic or that’s not going to work or that’s just too quirky. But Matt, you could tell he was really interested. He got it.”
Canada, 46, has never stopped adjusting, changing his offense with his personnel at each of his stops as offensive coordinator at seven Football Bowl Subdivision programs over the past 11 seasons. Though Maryland’s run-oriented statistics might appear one-dimensional at a glance, charts culled from previous seasons reveal that Canada’s offenses have grown increasingly creative — and surprisingly balanced. The jet sweep is a primary example.
Canada downplays his role, saying, “The players win the game. The plays are overrated.” But as the play caller, he has injected innovative touches into the Terps’ offense, many of which have been effective.
“To me,” Speckman said, “deception is the lost art of football.”
At first, Canada wasn’t sure what year he met Speckman. It was either 2009 or 2010, his final two years as Indiana’s offensive coordinator.
“See when Tandon Doss has carries,” Canada said.
Doss, a wide receiver, was the go-to player for jet sweeps when Canada added them to his system. In 2008, Doss did not have a rushing attempt. In 2009, he ran the ball 14 times for 127 yards to go along with nearly 1,000 receiving yards.
“I would guess that was when we started,” Canada said, smiling.
Then, out of curiosity, Canada asked: “How many did he have in '10?”
Doss ran 28 times for 163 yards that season.
“There you go,” Canada said. “There it is.”
Since Doss, a wide receiver in Canada’s offense has finished each season with at least 80 rushing yards. Plus, sometimes stats obscure his usage of the play, such as in 2012 at Wisconsin, when, according to Canada, star running back Melvin Gordon was the primary carrier on jet sweeps.
At Pittsburgh in 2016, wide receiver Quadree Henderson recorded 631 rushing yards, and his position group as a whole had close to 100 carries. The Panthers set a program record for points per game and Canada became a finalist for the Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant.
Getting everyone involved
Thanks in part to jet sweeps, Canada’s run game has typically spread the ball around more than those of his counterparts. Through two games, Maryland had used more ball-carriers than all of last season. Through six games, wide receivers and tight ends have combined for 23 carries and 145 rushing yards.
“If you have one receiver who catches all the balls or one back who gets all the carries, it’s hard to sit there and tell the third-string guy, ‘Hey, be ready to play,’” Canada said. “We don’t do that. We spread it around.”
From 2007 until 2013, nearly every rushing touchdown in Canada’s offense was scored by the natural choices — running backs or quarterbacks. But starting in 2014, other types of players scored a handful of times. At Pittsburgh, wide receivers scored rushing touchdowns seven times and a fullback had five. Even offensive lineman Brian O’Neill scored twice — once on a lateral and again on a reverse.
“I don't know if that's creative,” Canada said. “To me, it's just using the players you have and putting them in a position to make plays.”
In the week leading up to O’Neill’s score on the lateral, Canada repeatedly told the offense that the first time the team was between the 20- and 25-yard lines and on the left hash, that play would be called. For that 24-yard touchdown, O’Neill won the 2016 Piesman Trophy, a lighthearted award created by SB Nation to honor what the website calls “linemen who do un-lineman-like things.”
Canada “wasn’t going to put us in a bad situation,” said O’Neill, a second-round NFL draft pick who plays for the Minnesota Vikings. “That’s something we all truly believed. Once you buy in, it’s a lot easier to go do something that’s maybe a little unorthodox.”
An even approach
In his first six games at Maryland, Canada’s offense has been predominantly fueled by the run. On a game-by-game basis, Canada said, balance is overrated. Teams do what works and what fits the circumstances at the time. Canada has said multiple times that he isn’t concerned about stats.
Though the Terrapins' yardage totals are lopsided (1,471 rushing yards and 723 passing yards), play-calls early in games have been closer to an even split. The stats can be a bit skewed by the fact that sacks are recorded as running plays in college football, and the numbers tend to become more lopsided later in games in which Maryland (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) has led, when it is aiming to bleed the clock.
“A good game, if you said what it would be, you’d like to be 50-50 in the first half run-to-pass, balance, make them defend both,” Canada said. “Third quarter, you’d like to be winning like we’ve had the last couple. Then you’d like to run the ball out.”
When he was the coordinator at Indiana from 2007 to 2010, Canada ran a spread offense that was usually pass-heavy. With three strong running backs at Wisconsin, his offense leaned the opposite way. In the last four seasons, though, Canada’s offenses have been remarkably balanced, with nearly a 50-50 split between run and pass yards each season.
“That’s a good stat,” said Canada, looking at the years his offenses have been almost perfectly balanced. “I like that one.”
Changing through the years
Canada’s experimentation extends to what goes on before the snap. In the spring of 2008, Canada and a few others on Indiana’s staff went to meet Oregon’s Chip Kelly and learn the no-huddle offense — before it become trendy, Canada said. At Wisconsin, he started to incorporate shifts — when players change positions before a snap — that are still present this season at Maryland.
“He’s going fast without going fast,” said Speckman, who visited Canada and watched Maryland practice this spring. “Right now the rage is no-huddle, up-tempo. What you’re trying to do is mess the defense up. But when you shift and then motion, that screws a defense up a lot, too. . . . That’s been something that he’s really put his signature on.”
It’s supposed to look complex, but Canada calls it the “easiest offense in America, no question.”
Perhaps that has helped him to adjust on the fly. Like in many of his recent jobs, the players Canada works with at Maryland are not ones he recruited, so he must blend their skill sets with his philosophies.
“He evolves with the times — maybe better than most coordinators,” Minnesota Coach P.J. Fleck said a few days before Maryland defeated his team, 42-13. “He’s constantly evolving his offense, making it better, changing with the times. Not only that, changing it to the personnel he has. I think that’s the sign of a really good coordinator.”