Creative and aggressive play-callers fuel high-powered offenses for No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Texas

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FILE - Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian talks to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against TCU, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas. No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Longhorns meet Monday, Jan. 1, 2024 in the Sugar Bowl in a matchup of offenses known for aggressive and creative play calling. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

NEW ORLEANS – Washington coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb have coached together for 12 years, a partnership that started in NAIA and made stops in the Mid-American Conference and Mountain West before taking the Huskies to the College Football Playoff.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Kyle Flood became friends while they were both out of college football, working with the Atlanta Falcons. They helped Alabama win a national title before leading the Longhorns to their first CFP appearance.

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DeBoer handed play-calling duties over to Grubb when he became head coach at Fresno State and kept that set-up at Washington, where the Huskies have one of the most prolific offenses in college football.

Sarkisian made Flood his OC when he got to Texas, but remains the play-caller for one of the most balanced and productive attacks in the country.

The second-ranked Huskies (13-0) and third-ranked Longhorns (12-1) meet Monday night in the Sugar Bowl in a matchup of offenses known for aggressive and creative play calling.

Determining who makes the calls and how is far from an exact science. What works for one program might not for another, but it's never completely a one-man job. No matter how the Xs and Os are drawn up, success or failure often comes down to trust.

“The confidence (Sarkisian) has in us makes it even better,” Texas offensive lineman Christian Jones said Friday.

Flood, the former Rutgers head coach, is also Texas' offensive line coach. He said his role in calling plays is being keenly aware of what his boss likes to call and when so his linemen can execute it.

“I think he’s the best play caller that I certainly have ever worked with and I think maybe the top play-caller in all of football right now,” Flood said.

Jones said Texas' slogan under Sarkisian — all gas, no brakes — is epitomized by his play calling.

“It's aggressive. He's like a wolf. He's very out there with the calls,” the sixth-year offensive lineman said.

Flood said Sarkisian's ability to operate outside the gameplan sets him apart.

“I think as the game is happening and as the teams that we’re playing are adjusting, he’s adjusting with them,” Flood said. “And I think that makes him unique, his ability to do that at a really high level.”

Often coaches rise to head coach because of their play-calling but then feel the need to give it up because running an entire program is such a massive job. Sarkisian is comfortable delegating.

“Everybody has got jobs to do that ultimately help me do all of the jobs that are on my plate.” Sarkisian said. “I trust them to do their jobs really well.”

DeBoer rose through the ranks as an offensive coordinator who was considered a sharp play-caller. Calling plays for someone who used to call plays can be complex, Grubb said.

“It can be a little bit brutal or it can be awesome. And mine definitely would be the latter. I think that part of that is the relationship that you have with the person you’re working with can be either that of a sounding board or a critic. I think Kalen’s always been good at that,” Grubb said.

For years, Grubb was the sounding board for DeBoer. Grubb calls plays with the confidence that he and DeBoer are usually viewing the game through a similar lens.

“So I’ve always felt the ability to stay creative. Not worry about the critical part. Only that there would be just a constant flow of information: Hey, I see this, I see that. And then just knowing that he doesn’t have to have the pressure of doing that; that there can be trust both ways as far as letting me take care of the offense,” Grubb said.

No. 1 Michigan (13-0) takes on fourth-seeded Alabama (12-1) in Monday's other semifinal at the Rose Bowl, where the play-callers are a couple of 30-something coordinators working for veteran coaches and future Hall of Famers.

Tommy Rees, 31, is in his first season working for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who has won seven national championships with six offensive coordinators during his time at Alabama and LSU.

It's a position that comes with much scrutiny and high expectations.

“You come here for that challenge. You come here because you have that competitive spirit,” Rees said.

At Michigan, offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, 37, has gained so much of coach Jim Harbaugh's trust in recent years that Moore was acting head coach when his boss was suspended for the final three regular-season games.

Michigan beat Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State without Harbaugh and Moore drew praise for his play-calling, mixing in some wrinkles and being assertive on fourth down.

“I think the biggest piece, he lets me be me as far as calling the game," Moore said.

Maybe the most memorable play call of the 2023 college football season came from Washington. Facing a fourth-and-1 in their own territory late in a tie game against Washington State, Grubb and DeBoer called an option play with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. pitching to receiver Rome Odunze.

The play fooled everybody (even the television camera operators) and went for 23 yards, and led to a game-winning field goal as time-expired.

It was all about trust. Grubb and DeBoer trusting each other and the coaches trusting the players to execute a play that — as unorthodox as it looked — the Huskies had been prepping for weeks.

“Always have it in our back pocket being ready for — I wouldn’t say ready for that situation, but just ready for any situation it needed to be brought up,” Penix said. “It was just perfect timing.”


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