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What's "The Next Big Thing"?

Paul Carcaterra asks a simple question: Where's innovation going to come from?

Rob Carr

Paul Carcaterra -- the cat with about a quart of product in his hair to keep his dome looking absolutely perfect during lacrosse season -- asked a pretty interesting question on the Twitter machine the other day:

I'm not exactly sure what's being implied in that question (if anything)? Is it that everyone is doing the exact thing rightthisverysecond and that lacrosse needs some mad scientisting to open up all the potential that it holds? (I don't think that's the case. Carcaterra is sharp and has a sophisticated eye. Division I lacrosse is more than a bland replication of itself.) Is it that lacrosse hasn't experienced any innovation in the last five, 10, or 20 years? (That, too, probably isn't what Carcaterra is getting at. The contemporary iteration of the game at college lacrosse's highest level doesn't look exactly like it did when Frank Urso was crushing skulls or when Gary Gait was eating souls). Or is it that Carcaterra is driving at something else -- that the game has the potential to change in important ways, and it's unclear what that spark is going to be? (Hint: I think that's where Carcaterra is going.)

It's interesting that Carcaterra specifically mentions football's spread as an innovation that changed on-field philosophy. (Without getting into an argument about what "spread" means -- and there are folks that will bludgeon you with words on what "spread" actually means -- we'll use it in the encompassing way that includes read-option spread principles.) The spread wasn't an approach that proposed a paradigm shift like the A-11 offense, a scheme that totally changed how offensive football is played. Rather, the spread was an evolution of conceptual thought, changing how offenses attacked defenses and providing a new model for achieving defined goals. That delineation is important in approaching Carcaterra's question: Innovation isn't limited to radically altering the landscape; innovation -- important innovation -- can come from highly refined and sophisticated design.

Gus Malzahn at Auburn is widely considered one of the strongest offensive minds in college football. His offense -- a bonkers iteration of the spread -- is a machine that has eroded the hearts of opposing defenses. Like many spread offenses, Malzahn and Auburn -- and this is written in the broadest way possible -- seeks to create space and put responsibility on players to make decisions that keep the defense in a muted position. This aspect of Malzahn's spread -- beautifully illustrated in a piece on the pop pass over at The Mothership -- is ultimately the core of his innovation in offensive football:

It's a complicated orchestra of individual decisions, but the offensive players have a chance to always react perfectly to whatever the defense calls.

Malzahn isn't necessarily dictating plays in his offense; he's dictating concepts that put the onus on his players to hold the responsibility for executing the imperatives of the concepts. The plays merely reflect the conceptual approaches that Malzahn has adopted and armed his offensive players with. When thinking about innovation, the lead that Malzahn has taken has important potential corollaries to innovation in lacrosse: The development of on-field philosophy in lacrosse may heavily draw from college football's embracing of concepts rather than plays and leveraging in-game decision-making away from the sideline and onto the shoulders of those in pads and helmets. In other words, innovation in lacrosse philosophy may ultimately lie with coaches teaching concepts and allowing players to execute those concepts on the field with greater responsibility and impact (within, of course, the limitations of the conceptual design).

College lacrosse has, arguably, started to move in the philosophical direction of football's spread offense. Looking around the nation for examples, there are obvious pockets where conceptual execution and player decision-making are more important than sideline dictates:

  • Matt Brown's box-influenced offense at Denver has adopted concepts over chess-like puppeteering. From a piece in Inside Lacrosse last season:

    Hours of whiteboard sessions and endless skeleton offense with repetition help the Denver offensive players develop a second nature for a variety of sets, and then a number of "read and react" responses to how a defenses behave versus those sets.

    "It can be overwhelming for some of the new guys when you come in," saw Law, now a standout attackman with the Denver Outlaws.

    Law said it's accurate to compare the Denver systematic approach to attacking a defense to an audible system in football. He credited Brown for his excellence in helping players truly grasp what a defense is throwing at them.

    "You've got five or six sets that are going on, and with those it's just reading the defense and seeing what they do and what they allow to do, and taking advantage of what they give you. Within the five or six sets, there's another five or six options, and you're reading the defense. "

  • Villanova has run a basketball-influenced, pick-heavy offense that looks different -- in a approach and desire -- than some traditional looks that many teams give.
  • In a recent coaching clinic video, John Danowski spoke of his staff's philosophy around conceptual structure promoting creativity and freedom. "We want to be able to trust the kids. We have to believe in our kids." It's the core to his offensive approach.
  • Scott Marr and Albany clearly went in a different kind of direction over the last few seasons, using a full-speed approach that unequivocally embraced freedom of choice and execution:

    In lacrosse, coach Scott Marr and the Albany Great Danes have used the Phoenix Suns-style run-and-gun offense for years. Scott Marr, a native of Yorktown, N.Y., has attributed parts of his scheme to Yorktown’s legendary coach, Jim Turnbull. Since 2009, Marr’s club has been top 10 in pace every season. After finishing 2012 with the 23rd ranked offense and eighth highest pace of play, Albany has become an even faster, most efficient unit. The Great Danes currently rank first in pace and also have a top five offense.

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    Part of what makes this offense so successful is the team’s strategy — or purposeful lack of stringent strategy. As one coach put it, "this freedom is often where they flourish." When Albany does run these two-man games behind and on the inside, there is no one better at finding the open man than Lyle Thompson.

    "Having played for coach Marr and now coaching with him he has always promoted an up-tempo style of play. He really encourages our players to be aggressive and not to be afraid to make mistakes. As long as they are going at full speed and giving full effort, we will take the mistakes as they are bound to happen anyway," Albany assistant Eric Wolf said.

The innovation -- at least the innovation that underlied the growth of the spread -- is already here in college lacrosse. Division I is adopting -- in some measure -- a player-oriented approach to the game, taking Geppeto-like control away from coaches and allowing players to make decisions within the structure of particular concepts. Division I lacrosse is in the midst of philosophical change, but what separates lacrosse's innovation at this point from that of football is that lacrosse is missing its pop pass. The important part of innovation is in motion; it's just a matter of how deep it will permeate the game.

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As an aside, because none of the above hardly addresses specific innovation, I always thought that the Dutch system of totaalvoetbal could have important applications in lacrosse, especially in an era where skills are as high as they've ever been all over the field. Adaptability to positional responsibility is, arguably, the next big thing that college lacrosse could pursue with technical demands -- rather that role demands -- on each individual player heightening the on-field responsibility of making decisions that has already hooked its teeth in the college game.