HARRISONBURG — Everett Withers hopes James Madison runs an offense so thrilling that fans won’t want to leave their seats, even if nature calls.
“We want to be exciting on Saturdays,” the Dukes’ new football coach said at his introductory press conference this week. “If we can get into the 80s, the 85-90-play range, that’d be really good for us. So don’t go to the bathroom.”
Withers — who spent the last two seasons as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach — has hired two men to share offensive-coordinator duties. Former Portland State offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Brad Davis and former OSU graduate assistant and Rice quarterback Andrew Mehringer will serve as co-OCs.
It’s an unconventional system, but Withers believes the Davis-Mehringer pairing will work — and the situation has an interesting dynamic.
Davis, a former offensive lineman at Oklahoma, has a background in the run; Mehringer has been immersed in the passing game.
“They’re two young guys,” Withers said. “They’re two guys with a lot of ideas, and again, I go back to the old adage: Energy plus creativity equals production.”
As for who will have final say on play calling on Saturdays? It’s unclear.
“We’ll determine that as we go,” Withers said.
Both Davis, 33, and Mehringer, 27, have experience in successful offenses.
Davis — who worked with Withers while they were both assistants at North Carolina — graduated in 2003 from Oklahoma, where he played offensive line and was on the Sooners’ 2000 national championship team. He spent five seasons at I-AA Portland State in Oregon. In 2013, the Vikings (6-6 overall, 3-5 in the Big Sky) set school records with 6,486 total yards and 3,330 rushing yards out of a pistol-based offense.
Portland State’s 540.5 total yards per game and 277.5 rushing yards per game both ranked third in I-AA. The Vikings averaged 263 passing yards, 24th-best in I-AA, and 34.9 points, 21st in I-AA. They ran 77 offensive plays a game.
At Ohio State, Mehringer, a 2010 Rice graduate, spent two seasons as a graduate assistant, working with the offensive line in 2013 and tight ends and wide receivers in 2012. In 2010-11, he worked with wide receivers at Iowa State.
Mehringer went to Rice as a quarterback, but an injury ended his career. He’ll also coach JMU’s quarterbacks, which Mike O’Cain — a 59-year-old former head coach at North Carolina State — did last season.
In 2013, the Buckeyes averaged 511.9 yards (seventh in I-A) and 45.5 points (third in I-A). OSU averaged 72 plays.
In 2012, 18 I-A teams ran 80 or more plays and just three 85 or more, led by Marshall at 92.8 per game.
“I spent two years at Ohio State with Urban Meyer, and I had an opportunity to see an offense that was really explosive,” Withers said. “...I’m excited for what we return on offense here. I think we can be explosive. I want to be fast-paced. I want to be up-tempo. We’d like to be able to play with three to four wide receivers, play some empty backfield, throw the ball around — be exciting.”
Ironically, JMU coach Mickey Matthews was fired in November after overseeing an offense that produced its best season since 2008 and had the best passing season in program history. Of course, that didn’t keep the Dukes (6-6) from continuing their half-decade long slide into I-AA irrelevance, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
Sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong set JMU records for yards in a season (2,728), touchdowns in a season (22), yards in a game (355) and touchdowns in a game (five). Overall, the Dukes averaged 28.2 points and 407 yards while averaging 75 plays.
Madison plans to run a multiple-formation offense next season, and Withers said he wants JMU’s offense to be balanced; he also said he wants the offense to be adjustable, based on the game situation.
“I think you have to have a mixture of run and pass,” he said. “I think we’ll try to be balanced as much as we can, but when you get into a ballgame, you have to do what works. I think we’ve got some talent. I think one of our strengths on this football team is the offensive line. So we will have the opportunity to put it back there and run it and be able to keep the ball. I think you have to be able to run the football to be successful.”
Withers, 50, also has promised to install an aggressive defense. He has not yet announced the hiring of a defensive coordinator.
Ohio State this season was much-criticized for giving up to too many passing yards. During the regular season, Ohio State’s defense ranked 21st out of 123 I-A teams in scoring defense (21.3 points per game) and 29th in total defense (362.2 yards per game). However, the Buckeyes’ pass defense ranked 102nd, allowing 259.5 yards per game.