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By: CUBuffs.com
Tailback Rodney Stewart gets set to haul in a screen pass from Tyler Hansen against Cal.
Brooks: Buffs Getting High Mileage From Screens
Release: September 22, 2011
By: B.G. Brooks, Contributing Editor
BOULDER - The screen pass only seems like it's new to Colorado's football arsenal. And it seems that way because new coach Jon Embree is in love with it and his offensive staff - given its largely NFL pedigree - knows how to utilize it.

Oh, yes, having a sure-handed, blink-and-he's-by-you tailback like Rodney "Speedy" Stewart helps a bit, too.

The screen pass, with "Speedy" on the business end, has been among the Buffaloes' most effective plays in their first three games - and Stewart's stats prove it. Last season, he made 29 receptions for 290 yards; in this season's first month, he's tied for a team-high 18 catches for 277 yards - first in the nation among running backs.

In the same breath that Embree professes his "love for the screen pass," he terms it "the most under-used play in college football." That's because in the NFL, where he coached with the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, offensive linemen were restricted from blocking downfield on screen calls.

Not so in college, and he and his staff are gleefully taking advantage. Offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy is fresh out of the NFL (Minnesota) and offensive line coach Steve Marshall has a pair of NFL entries (Houston, Cleveland) on a leg-long resume.

CU's playbook doesn't rival a Home Depot inventory sheet for total number of screens, but there are plenty. Marshall counts "six or seven different types" and says while there are wrinkles for each, "From a conceptual standpoint they're all very similar with a few little exceptions. One rep adds to another rep - and we set them up good.

"We've called them in some great situations this year and obviously they've been effective. They guy running them (Stewart) is pretty effective, too. So that's a big, big part of it."

Stewart's teammates second that motion. "He can make two or three people at a time miss when they look like they have him bottled up," senior tight end Ryan Deehan said. "He's a pretty special player."

Now that the offensive staff's belief that the screen pass could become effective in slowing a pass rush and gaining yards in great gulps has been verified, the task becomes one of creativity and maintaining an element of surprise.

"We've become a very, very good screen team," conceded Bieniemy. "It's something we wanted to get good at and we want to keep utilizing our strengths. Now, obviously, we have to keep getting creative with it because teams are obviously going to catch on. But as long as our guys are doing a great job of executing it . . . sometimes you don't worry about what the defense is thinking. You don't want to give those guys too much credit, you know? Sometimes it's just about us doing what we do good."

For the most part, Bieniemy and Marshall handle the creative aspect, trying to avoid predictability by meeting weekly and "trying to figure out ways to create the 'screen of the week' - just so we can make sure we're utilizing our guys and putting them in the right positions," Bieniemy said.

"I call (Marshall) 'Line Guy' . . . I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of good O-line coaches and he's one of the best. One of the things that makes 'Marsh' special is he's a detail coach . . . he's a great technician. Me and 'Marsh,' we've been through this before. We've kind of clicked because we speak the same language and been involved with the same system. As a screen guy, he's up there."

Former CU coach Gary Barnett agreed; he had Marshall and Bieniemy on his staff in 2001 and said Marshall ranked among the best teachers and innovators at his position in utilizing the screen. Marshall chuckled at being called a "guru" in screen tactics, but agreed with Bieniemy on the screen's importance in CU's playbook.

"It's a big part of this offense," Marshall said. "We don't run the option, we don't do those kinds of things. So the screen is a very, very viable part of what we do. It's part of the West Coast system. You go back to the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers back in the day with (Tom) Rathman (fullback) and (Roger) Craig (running back) and Seattle over the years with Kurt Warner (quarterback) . . .

"Those were the guys that coaches like myself studied on how to run screens from this particular system. So I've obviously been in this system a long time. We've had to find some different ways to do things; we know when it's broke how to fix it."

CU's linemen and tight ends haven't had to make wholesale adjustments in their blocking for the increased number of screens, but there are subtle differences. Senior right tackle Sione Tau called the concepts "pretty much the same. It's really not that hard, once you get the gist of the blocking scheme."

But senior right guard Ryan Miller termed his blocking duties "definitely a lot different from your normal run or pass blocking. You have to be aware of yourself in space and understand that the guy you're going to go block is a lot faster than you are. And you have to be where he's going to be. I love it. It really gives us a chance to get out and show that we can be athletic - or that we look extremely unathletic."

Miller and Deehan indicated that screens have languished in CU's playbook over the past several seasons. "What's changed is that we're actually calling them," Deehan said. "We had a bunch of screens that we had all planned out in the past couple of years, but we just never ran them. Now, we're actually starting to run screens."

Added Miller: "We've always had screens around . . . I just don't remember running a whole lot of them. But I kind of wish we did."

Miller believes Marshall's instruction in what has developed as a coaching strong suit has helped the O-linemen acquire "more of an understanding of how the entire play works instead of just 'this is our assignment' - it's where the ball goes, what the back has to do, how the defense reacts to the reads . . .

"This offense is ever-changing. The backbone is the backbone (the desire for a strong ground game), but there are a lot of moving parts to it. And when you can shake people like 'Speedy' does that definitely helps."

Yes, Stewart can shake and shed tacklers, but he can also make himself hard to find - which at 5-6 and 175 pounds isn't difficult when's alongside or behind linemen like the 6-8, 295-pound Miller.

"I'm kind of small, I just kind of hide and look for the ball," Stewart said. "If Tyler (Hansen, quarterback) drops it off anywhere in my area, I'm going to catch it. If he can get it by me, I'm going to get it and try to make something out of it."

He usually does; he's averaging 3.6 yards a carry (74.3 a game) and 15.4 yards a catch (92.3 a game). "When I catch the ball, there's more space, room for more excitement," Stewart said.

Perhaps Hansen's biggest adjustment has been in lobbing the ball over his linemen after he takes the snap from under center and drops back. "That's definitely an adjustment," he said. "The last three years did some, but they were more bubble screens and outside screens, stuff like that. But we're definitely doing a good job with those screens now. I think coach Bieniemy does a great job of designing some new screens every week. And the guys up front are doing a good job of executing those."

From an opposite perspective, said CU defensive coordinator Greg Brown, the screen pass constitutes "a hustle play" when his unit confronts it. "The defense has to be able to fit it up and have somebody on the outside and the inside of it and somebody forcing it and containing it. It's an extension of a running play really . . . a delayed handoff basically. It's a good play, a tough play. It always gets your attention."

Bet on it having Ohio State's attention this weekend. And bet on the Buffs staying creative (and hopefully successful) with it.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU

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