O’Cain: It’s Not Tech’s ‘O’

But JMU’s Offense Will Be Pro Style

Posted: March 27, 2013

Quarterback Michael Birdsong throws a pass during spring practice. JMU’s new pro-style offense is being tailored to his skill set. (Photos by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
New offensive coordinator Mike O’Cain spent seasons as Virginia Tech’s quarterback coach. He called plays in 2011 and ’12.
HARRISONBURG — It’s not the “Air Raid,” but James Madison’s new offense will certainly be different.

Freshly hired offensive coordinator Mike O’Cain said this week that the Dukes will sport an up-tempo pro-style look next season. The offense will be built around new quarterback Michael Birdsong, a classic pocket passer, and is intended to transform JMU from a team that runs 70 percent of the time to one with a more balanced — but pass-leaning — attack.

“We want to be fast-paced,” said O’Cain, who was officially hired last week. “We want to run a no-huddle offense. We’re going to try to go, within reason, as fast as we can, but, at the same time, be able to change the pace. It’s not racehorse, slow it down a little bit, give defenses something different to prepare for. Spread you out, tighten you up, just about everything you can from a formation standpoint.”

O’Cain spent the last seven seasons as Virginia Tech’s quarterbacks coach and 2011 and 2012 as the Hokies’ play-caller under then-offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, prompting questions about how much JMU’s 2013 offense will resemble Tech’s offense — one that has been criticized as ineffective in recent years, especially last season as the Hokies stumbled to their worst record in 20 years.

The offensive struggles led to a staff purge that cost O’Cain and Curt Newsome, now JMU’s offensive line coach, their jobs. But don’t look for a copy of Tech’s offense in Bridgeforth Stadium next season.

“It will be different than when I was there,” O’Cain said. “It’s not Virginia Tech’s offense. There are some similarities, but it will be different.”

The major similarity is that the offense will be pro-style rather than the run-oriented spread JMU borrowed from former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. The major differences will be in the pace and in the preference to pass more. Tech’s offense was predicated on the run game.

“He likes to throw the ball,” said Newsome, who spent seven seasons at Tech with O’Cain. “And I think we’ll be different than we were in Blacksburg and we’re going to be more of an up-tempo team.”

 Birdsong, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound rising sophomore with a powerful right arm, is looking forward to the change. He also said he prefers O’Cain’s style to that of Hal Mumme, the Air Raid guru whom coach Mickey Matthews initially tried to lure to Harrisonburg to replace the fired Jeff Durden as OC.

“It’s more my style. It’s straight pro-style,” Birdsong said. “A little bit of everything — play-action, getting the ball downfield as opposed to Mumme. Felt like that was a lot of short, quick stuff. I feel like [O’Cain’s] going to take advantage of the arm strength and he’s not going to leave out [running back] Dae’Quan [Scott] and the run game, either.”

Last season, Virginia Tech ranked 81st out of 120 Division I-A teams in both points (25.1 ppg) and yards (376.8 ypg). Starting quarterback Logan Thomas, considered a first-round NFL draft pick after his sophomore year, also appeared to regress as a junior after leading the Hokies to record offensive numbers in 2011.

The Hokies’ 2012 performance sparked a lot of criticism. O’Cain said some of it was unfounded and that the struggles had to do with losing so many key players off 2011’s team, notably running back David Wilson, now with the New York Giants.

“We lost four offensive linemen, we lost three wide receivers, we lost a tight end, we lost a first-round draft choice running back,” O’Cain said. “And so you’re replacing them with rookies, and we just never had the confidence and the consistency on offense that you need to play at a very high level.”

O’Cain, 58, said Thomas’ struggles had to do with the inexperience around him.

“When a quarterback loses one receiver, there is a dip in confidence level,” O’Cain said. “When you lose all three of them and you’re replacing them with guys that have played very little … it’s like swinging a golf club and not knowing where the ball’s going to be.”

Matthews defended Tech — and O’Cain — by pointing to the Hokies’ performance over several seasons.

“They set school records,” Matthews said. “It was the best kept secret in college football how good they were on offense, so I was very aware of how he called plays, and he’s a very honest person. He has a tremendous reputation in college football. I think we’re very fortunate to hire him.”

JMU picked Mumme — whose air-it-out offense has produced big numbers at other schools — as its new offensive coordinator in February, but he bolted at the last minute to become SMU’s passing-game coordinator.

 “It was really close between Mike and Hal,” said Matthews, who is close friends with Mumme. “… I offered the job to Hal — and he accepted — because I had worked with Hal before, so I knew him better on a personal note. I wasn’t for sure that Mike O’Cain wasn’t a better fit, so it was really close on who to offer the job to, but I went with Hal initially because of that.”

O’Cain said he was OK with how he ended up at JMU.

“I understood,” said O’Cain, North Carolina State’s head coach from 1993-99. “He said he decided to hire Hal and that was it, and then I talked to some different people and just nothing materialized, and [Matthews] called me back the day, I guess, Coach Mumme decided to [leave] … and asked if I was still interested and I said, ‘Absolutely,’ so here we are.”

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