By David Fong
TROY — Matt Burgbacher was born into the wing-t offense — so much so that it would not have been surprising had his first words been “buck sweep.”
From his days as a toddler tugging on the leg of his father Charlie’s khakis at Portsmouth Notre Dame High School to his own playing days at Tippecanoe, to becoming an assistant football coach under his father to his own coaching days at Fort Loramie High School, the run-based wing-t offense has been virtually all the current Troy coach has ever known.
Just because he was born into it, however, doesn’t mean Burgbacher was ever married to it.
Halfway through his debut season as Troy’s head coach, that much has become obvious.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say we are not a wing-t team anymore,” Burgbacher said as a smile crept across his face. “I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets by saying that.”
The numbers would certainly support that claim.
At the midway point of the 2015 season, the Trojans have rushed for 616 yards and thrown for 1,138 yards. Thirteen of Troy’s touchdowns this season have come through the air, while only four have come on the ground. Through five games, Troy has attempted 149 passes. For the sake of comparison, in 2011 — the last time the Trojans ran the wing-t offense under former head coach Steve Nolan — the Trojans attempted 143 passes the entire season.
Even that 2011 season was something of an anomaly, however. In his 28 years as Troy coach from 1984 to 2011, Nolan — a wing-t disciple — attempted more than 100 passes in a season only six times. The 143 passes thrown by quarterback Cody May in 2011 were the most of any Troy team under Nolan.
For more than a century — save for a two-year span in 1959 and 1960 when a pair of future college All-Americans in quarterback Tom Myers and receiver Tom Vaughn were filling the skies above Troy Memorial Stadium with footballs — the Troy program has staked its claim to producing some of the greatest running backs in Ohio high school history. Legendary running backs such as Bob Ferguson, Gordon Bell and Ryan Brewer helped turn Troy into a no-fly zone.
Burgbacher — along with offensive coordinator Jason McGarahan — had every intention of keeping with that tradition when Burgbacher was hired as Troy’s coach during the off-season. The two coaches planned on wearing down opponents with the same meat grinder offense Troy had been running for decades.
Not long into the preseason training camp, however, Burgbacher realized that simply wasn’t going to be feasible.
“We’re not hard heads,” Burgbacher said of the staff’s decision to scrap the wing-t in favor of a more wide-open offense. “We’re not going to slam down the wing-t if that’s not going to work with the kids we have. We’re going to run an offense that works best with the kids we’ve got.”
More than any other factor, personnel has dictated Troy’s move from the wing-t to its current incarnation on offense. When Nolan was running the wing-t at Troy, he was able to do so with a deep stable of talented running backs, bruising offensive lines and incredible run of tight ends — former Trojan and NFL Pro Bowler Kris Dielman comes to mind immediately — that fit perfectly into his scheme.
Burgbacher had similar personnel during his many playoff runs as an offensive coordinator under his father Charlie at Tippecanoe and as a head coach at Fort Loramie.
Soon after arriving at Troy, however, Burgbacher realized a few things: Troy was thin at running back, the offensive line was relatively undersized and inexperienced running the wing-t at any level, and there was no true, wing-t tight end in the program.
What he did have, however, was a talented quarterback just waiting to emerge as a star, a number of gifted receivers, running backs with good hands, an offensive line waiting to be molded and a hard-nosed h-back.
All of which led Burgbacher to one conclusion — for Troy’s offense to be successful this season, he was going to have to change everything.
“Absolutely, our personnel has dictated our offense,” Burgbacher said. “We think the coaches have learned as much from the kids as the kids have from the coaches. What we are doing now, we are doing because we feel like it gives us the best opportunity to win football games.”
It all started with quarterback Hayden Kotwica, who earned the starting job early last season and went through a series of ups and downs as a sophomore. He’s blossomed this year, having completed 76 of 142 passes for 1,133 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s already set or tied two school records this season — longest touchdown pass (97 yards) and most touchdown passes in a game (five) — and is on pace to break Myers’ single-season passing record (2,009), which for decades had been thought of as an unapproachable mark.
“It’s amazing how far K0twica has come along just from the beginning of camp until now,” Burgbacher said. “His development as a quarterback has been outstanding. He gets better every week — and we expect him to keep getting better not only this year, but as a senior, as well.”
Along with Kotwica, four receivers have emerged for the Trojans. The 6-foot-3, 181-pound senior Luke Robinson and 6-foot-2, 171-pound sophomore Zach Boyer give the Trojans a legitimate pair of outside receiving threats. Hayden Jackson, a 5-foot-8, 142-pound junior, is the prototypical slot receiver. Will Brumfield gives the Trojans an added dimension at h-back.
Through five games, Robinson had 22 catches for 337 yards and two touchdowns, Jackson had 14 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns, Boyer has 14 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns and Brumfield has 10 catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.
In 10 games last season, those same four combined for exactly one reception for 13 yards.
“Our receivers have really emerged,” Burgbacher said. “We knew going in we had some talent at that position, which is another reason we had to change our offense. We needed to find ways to get the ball into the hands of our playmakers.”
Of course, none of the success of Troy’s skill position players would have been possible without the development of the offensive line — which also was a huge question mark going into the season.
Senior Dallas Shamblin returned at center — but otherwise, most of Troy’s offensive line is either new or revamped. Senior Jared Bair — a two-year starter at guard — has moved out to tackle. Senior Chris Linville saw most of his time on defense last year, but has settled in at the other tackle spot. Like Linville, senior Porter Davis played almost exclusively on defense last season, but has taken over one guard spot this season. Junior Travis Hall saw some duty at guard last season as a sophomore, but has truly solidified his role there this year.
“Our offensive line has really started to come together,” Burgbacher said. “That’s the most important thing for an offensive line — for everyone to be able to play together as one unit. I don’t think it was easy at the beginning for this group — really, only one starter returned at that position — but they’ve come a long way, too. Their pass protection has been pretty good.”
All of which isn’t to say the Trojans have complete abandoned the run game. Junior Marc Scordia carried the ball 27 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns against Chaminade Julienne in the season opener, then followed that up with 10 carries for 78 yards against Cincinnati Northwest in Week 2.
As the passing game has emerged, Scordia has seen his carries decease, but he has been rolled into the passing game. Last week against Xenia, he recorded a pair of touchdown passes, including a 68-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.
With the recent promotion of freshman Sam Jackson to varsity, Burgbacher said he expects the Trojans to get back to running the ball more now that they have a pair of viable options in the backfield.
“Our plan is definitely to run the ball more again,” he said. “Now we’ve got two backs we feel confident in, which opens up some of our options.”
And with both Scordia and Jackson returning — along with a fleet of talented running backs and a bumper crop of tight ends at the freshman level — next season, there’s no telling in which direction the Trojan offense may be headed.
“Our offense will continue to evolve,” Burgbacher said. “We’ll see how the kids develop, what works with what kids, and make our decisions moving forward. We aren’t set on any one thing.”
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong