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A look at what Chip Lindsey brings to UNC

UNC’s new offensive coordinator comes from a different tree than we’ve seen in the past, and signals a re-emphasis on the ground

NCAA Football: Troy at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a few weeks late to writing this, but it’s not like much has changed, so here we go anyways:

Phil Longo was a polarizing figure for UNC football fans and media. There are those who saw him as possibly UNC’s best ever offensive coordinator, putting up top-20 offenses in just about every stat that matters while recycling through a bevy of NFL-caliber players nearly every year and uncovering the program’s probably two best-ever quarterbacks back to back with the kind of explosive offense rarely seen in Chapel Hill. And there are those who see his disproportionate red zone failures, short-yardage struggles, occasional lack of rhythm or feel for complementary football, and some other things and find him to be a good-not-great coordinator who got lucky with some of UNC’s best ever talent at quarterback and skill positions but was always very replaceable and probably upgradeable. I won’t make any bones about the fact that I fall in the former camp — I’m not blind to those issues, but I think several were exaggerated and the ones that weren’t were more than mitigated by how easily he managed explosive plays, which are pretty much free points: they turn drives that aren’t likely to score into either much more favorable ones, or even just six points immediately. It’s a moot point, as Longo’s now left of his own accord for the same position in Madison, Wisconsin, but it’s worth keeping in mind, especially because Longo’s replacement, Chip Lindsey, said in his first press availability that “the nucleus of our offense is in place” and that his job is going to be more to tweak than to install a new system. So, as I did more than four years ago when Longo was announced as UNC’s new playcaller, let’s take a look at Lindsey’s career and figure out what we can expect from him with this UNC offense going forward.

Lindsey certainly isn’t being seen as the rising star in the industry that Longo was; while the latter had several media profiles written on him, his scheme, his ethos, and his journey when UNC hired him, Lindsey’s exposure is comparatively minimal. Part of the reason for this is that most of his coaching experience lately has been as Gus Malzahn’s offensive coordinator, for two years at Auburn and then this past year at UCF. Malzahn’s a hands-on offensive coach, and even though he publicly said he’d be giving up the playcalling reins to Lindsey in 2017, things looked so similar that nobody really believed it, and Malzahn was the playcaller in 2018 and 2022. In the interim, Lindsey had the head coaching job at Troy to comparatively little fanfare, where he pulled a Malzahn himself and called plays from the head spot and led a program coming off three straight double-digit win seasons to 15 wins and no bowl appearances in his three years, probably putting a kibosh on any hope he might get that kind of notoriety.

While it’s not nothing, media exposure is little more than an asterisk in this kind of situation, so let’s move forward and ask: What kind of offensive coordinator did Mack Brown hire?

Despite substantial experience at the high school and college levels before he ever worked with Malzahn, including two years at Southern Mississippi with Todd Monken, Lindsey appears at this point in his career to be a branch on the Malzahn tree through and through. Malzahn’s power-based spread is of course heavily documented, as he’s one of the most decorated offensive coaches in the country, so we’ve got a pretty good idea of where we’re starting: I’m not going to rehash Malzahn’s offense here, both because this isn’t the place and because you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what he does: a creative run game predicated on power, inside zone, and outside zone that feeds into a heavily play action-based passing game. Watching Lindsey’s offense at Troy, that influence is heavily felt. Lindsey leans heavily, arguably too much so, on his run game, with a healthy dose of inside and outside zone mixed in with a decent but not Malzahnian amount of power. Longo ran a lot more split zone than IZ/OZ, but the reads for the running back are pretty similar either way, so scheme-wise it shouldn’t be a huge adjustment and might even help UNC’s current stable, who generally seem a lot more comfortable going with the grain than cutting against it. Lindsey isn’t as much of an option guy as Malzahn when left to his own devices, but he uses enough of it to where having a running threat at quarterback is more or less a necessity for his offense to work well — though I didn’t see him call designed quarterback runs much if at all, a marked departure from Longo building in draw options on a seeming majority of his pass plays the last couple of years. What he does do is use a lot of jet motion, both to try and get the defense in conflict and for actual plays, including swing passes, sweeps, and where most of his trick play architecture comes from.

To complement this, Lindsey, like Malzahn, is a big fan of screens, especially bubbles, as an extension of the run game. This seems to have been one of Troy fans’ biggest complaints about his time as a playcaller, that he called way too many bubble screens that didn’t work, and I can understand the complaint: the call seems to fail more often than it works and even after just a couple of games, Lindsey’s stubbornness towards the play stood out. I don’t like bubble screens much generally in college football, especially today. Defensive backs are generally the most athletic players on the field and a bubble screen gives them the leverage advantage to the ball, asking blocking receivers, tight ends, and maybe even offensive linemen to catch up with them. A tunnel screen, with a receiver coming towards the quarterback to make the catch, gives the offense a lot more of a chance to make a play because the distance between blockers and their spots is reduced while defensive backs have to cover more ground, and that’s something we saw a lot of in Longo’s offense, particularly going to Josh Downs to manufacture touches for UNC’s best playmaker. But I also think an extensive screen game isn’t really called for as a complement to an east-west run game, because defenses are already preparing to attack the sidelines with your run game — the screen isn’t taking advantage of or adding anything. Screens are an important part of any offense; I’m not advocating for their removal, just for a reduction in prominence. Especially with a quarterback weapon like Drake Maye, I’d hope to see a bit more prioritization of the intermediate areas of the field in the passing game.

Speaking of the passing game, here as well Lindsey is a Malzahn disciple through and through. Both of them prioritize deep-ball connections on concepts like Four Verts, Post/Dig, and Post/Wheel, which makes them like approximately 90% of offensive playcallers in college football. From what I’ve seen, Lindsey’s a fair bit less enamored with the deep ball than several of his contemporaries; I was pleasantly surprised by how often I saw his receivers attacking the middle of the field instead of just getting vertical. I’d have liked to see more, but I’d been primed to see none. Some UNC fans lamented Phil Longo’s famous 27-play playbook for its predictability, and I get the sense that Lindsey isn’t all that different. He has a few concepts that he believes reliably create passing lanes and calls them repeatedly, with the variations coming from different formations, motion in and across the backfield, variations in protection, and play action. I think that third thing is the biggest eyebrow-raiser to me — Lindsey is certainly not the kind of offensive coordinator who wants or expects his offensive lines to do all the work in pass protection. Running backs and tight ends have to pull their weight, which is something that sounds admirable but has to be balanced, especially in a spread-type offense, lest you end up needing to play 4- or 5-out in condensed-clock or come-from-behind scenarios and needing your offensive line to handle blocking on their own. I saw plenty of reps of Lindsey’s Troy offense where his offensive line was overwhelmed even with numbers advantages. Maybe they were just out-talented, but it sure looked to me like it was often a case of a line used to getting help and not having been challenged to step up and take on their opposition alone. I also saw offensive lines much more comfortable with run blocking than pass protection — as I’ve said prefer, if the choice has to be made, I’d rather have the opposite. Some of that will be down to UNC’s new position coach on the offensive line, Randy Clements, so there’s a lot of unknown there, but it’s worth bringing up all the same.

I think it’s instructive to judge a passing offense based on the average level of difficulty of its completions. Sometimes, a quarterback has to make an outstanding play, no matter what system he’s playing in, but a key difference between good offensive process and bad offensive process is how well you’re able to give your quarterback easy completions that aren’t manufactured touches. On this metric, I found Lindsey a bit of a mixed bag. He’s certainly not somebody like Norv Turner, but a lot of the plays that gave his quarterback easy completions involved receivers stopping and facing the quarterback around 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, which is a play a defense is okay with. There were a few of the RPO slants that have become a college staple that threatened something after the catch, but precious little in the vein of speed outs, bent seams for tight ends like we saw Bryson Nesbit catch at least once a game, or anything else that created not just easy passes but also space for receivers. Lindsey’s isn’t an offense that looks, at first glance, to ask its receivers to make a lot of plays with the ball in their hands. Sure, it’s great if they do, but the onus to move the ball is firmly on the quarterback. I’m not sure how I feel about that — I like an offense that trusts is quarterback, but I also find that a defense can get pretty emboldened pretty quickly given the opportunity to hit a lot of receivers before they can run. One exception to this tendency was this, probably my favorite of the pass plays I saw Lindsey call:

Lindsey uses jet motion productively to turn 2 over 2 to the boundary to 2 over 3, and the motion man runs a simple wheel and is all alone for six, as the inside defender is caught between two receivers to cover. If the slot DB picks up the motion receiver, there’s a shallow cross in front of him that walks into the end zone. Lovely. This is what I mean when I say Lindsey’s innovations are more in pre-snap motion than they are in action, and it’s an example of such an approach working.

Finally, I want to briefly discuss Lindsey’s effects on the fanbases who’ve seen him most recently. There are those who dismiss public opinion out of hand because the public isn’t, generally speaking, all that football-educated, but I find that the wisdom of the crowd in football is right more often than it’s wrong. Notable examples include Longo himself, whom Ole Miss fans warned would have a prolific offense that couldn’t score in the red zone and couldn’t compete with teams with talent similar to his. It may not have been to the extent they predicted, but those were, ultimately, the things we saw UNC’s offense struggle with during his tenure. Another is former offensive line coach Stacy Searels, whom fans of every one of his stops in the decade before he was hired at UNC warned would take big, physical linemen and turn them into overweight, technique-lacking turnstiles, and that’s pretty much what we saw happen over his three years in Chapel Hill. Louisville fans, by contrast, had pretty much only good things to say about Jack Bicknell, and he turned one of the worst offensive lines in college football to a mediocre one in the space of just an offseason. So, I hear you asking, after all that preamble, what are fans saying about Lindsey?

Generally, you can split comments between the things that Auburn and UCF fans say and the things that Troy fans say. The former think of him as much more a quarterbacks coach than an offensive coordinator — even when he called plays for Auburn in 2017, fans report seeing so little change from Malzahn’s tendencies that they didn’t really believe Lindsey was in charge of playcalling, and by the end of Malzahn’s time in Auburn, that was not a favorable comparison. To that end, Lindsey gets some lukewarm praise for his work with Nick Mullens and Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, neither of whom were expected to do much and became fringe NFL prospects. UCF fans seem cooler on his ability to develop quarterbacks, seeing little improvement during his single year in Orlando, but that’s a pretty small sample size. On the other hand, Troy fans are loudly unimpressed with Lindsey. Part of it has to come from his disastrous win-loss record as a head coach; three consecutive 5-win seasons sandwiched between seasons winning double-digit games with other coaches is not great. But they also seem particularly frustrated with his offensive tendencies, calling his offense repetitive, predictable, and especially bad on third downs — I’ve seen “nonstop bubble screens on third and long” used as a pejorative several times. So. Take that for whatever it’s worth to you.

Ultimately, it’s much harder to predict what we’ll see at UNC under Chip Lindsey than it was with Longo — partially because Lindsey moves the national needle a lot less, partially because he’s had less opportunity to just be his own offensive coordinator. There’s certainly room for him to surprise, and even his claim that Longo’s offense is similar to what he wants to run indicates that there will be at least a little bit of a break from what I’ve seen in his previous work. Still, four years ago, I was excited, positive we were going to see a step forward in UNC’s offensive philosophy and execution. This time, I can’t quite say the same.