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Why Matt Canada’s offense can be a game-changer for Maryland football

A breakdown of the motions that the Terps’ new offensive coordinator is known for.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football officially announced Matt Canada as its new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tuesday night. ESPN is reporting the deal is for three years.

At first glance, this is a great hire for DJ Durkin. Canada is a well-respected offensive mind who’s coached some great offenses at Power 5 schools. He won a Big Ten championship at Wisconsin, coached Jacoby Brissett to a third-round pick at NC State and Nathan Peterman to a fifth-round pick at Pitt. His tenure at LSU didn’t go as planned, but reports suggest that was more due to a power struggle with head coach Ed Orgeron than anything else.

At second and third glance, this is a home run hire for Durkin and the Terps. Canada’s offense is as simple as it looks complicated. On the one hand, many of the trademark pre-snap shifts and motions appear to be just for show, as the plays that follow are often far less exotic than his offense’s pre-play routines: off tackle runs, zone runs, play action passes. It’s because of those pre-snap movements that those otherwise simple plays are so effective. The offensive players know where they’re going, and the defense has to react to every confusing movement. It allows his teams to punch above their weight, and why he was able to take a 5-4 Pittsburgh team to Clemson and beat the 9-0 eventual national champion Tigers.

There are many more spread offense components to Canada’s scheme than its “pro-style spread” moniker would indicate. While the pre-snap motions are often confusing, there are a few staples. Each has its “normal” A-to-B movement, but can also be modified as the game goes on to further confuse a defense that thinks it’s seen that one before. Sometimes it’s just one motion, sometimes it’s a combination of two or three, and sometimes almost the entire offense changes places before the ball is snapped. All in the name of getting as many offensive hats to the point of attack as possible and identifying a man or zone defense.

The following gifs are from Pitt’s 43-42 win in Death Valley in 2016. Not every play below gained a bunch of yards or was wildly successful, but the motions used before each snap were successful in setting the defense up for failure later in the game when similar movements were used. The objective here is not to show highlights, but rather to identify the staple motions we’re likely to see the Terps employ next season.

Jet motion

The most common motion in Canada’s offense is the Jet motion, or some variation of it. It’s simple. A receiver comes running across the formation and poses a threat to take a sweep handoff, a direct snap or a swing pass. He could also act as a decoy to stretch the defense horizontally, leaving more room for running backs in the middle of the field.

Jet motion

Every time the jet motion man crosses the center, he is a threat to take the ball with him. In this case, he does and the play only gets just past the line of scrimmage. Plenty of other times, though, he will cross the center and not take it. Either way, the defense has to respect the movement. It also sets up other plays later in the game.

Jet twirl motion

Again, not the biggest of gains, but the defense has to adjust to his motion. This is a role tailor-made for Anthony McFarland, who’s got devastating speed and great catching ability. Guys like DJ Turner, Tahj Capehart and Rayshad Lewis could fit here as well.

Tight end/H-back motion

One of the biggest gripes fans had with Walt Bell’s offense was the lack of tight end usage. No Maryland tight ends caught a pass last season, and they were targeted fewer than a dozen times. Part of that was because the Terps didn’t have the proper personnel, but there also never really seemed to be an effort to get them involved. That won’t be the case in Canada’s offense. The tight ends and H-backs move plenty pre-snap as well.

Here’s a combination of an H-back in motion and the aforementioned jet motion. While it’s ultimately the H-back who takes the shovel pass to the end zone, it’s the jet motion that makes this play possible. The defensive end and outside linebacker both play the jet sweep, leaving the middle of the field wide open for the H-back to follow a pulling guard right through a gaping hole. It was one of two plays on which the H-back scored on a shovel pass in this game.

H-motion + Jet motion shovel option

Other times, the motion is used to move the defense with the goal of clearing out space for where the play is designed to go. With two eligible receivers to the short side of the field from the right hash, teams often try to use the wide side to their advantage. Moving the H-back from the right slot the the left wingback spot makes it seem even more likely the play goes to the offense’s left. All four linebackers shift that way. Instead, the Y-tight end (#83) leaks across the field and up the right sideline. The MIKE linebacker is pulled down because of play action and is too late to cover the route.

H slot to wing motion

This position is interesting because Maryland doesn’t really have a “perfect” fit for it. Jake Funk could be an intriguing candidate, as he’s shown his willingness to block in addition to running hard when he got the opportunity. True freshman Chigoziem Okonkwo could also be a good fit. He’d be a mismatch for any linebacker trying to cover him and while he isn’t afraid to block, he could make good use of the field outside the numbers.

Tackle trade

This is by far the most bizarre of the pre-snap motions. If you pay close attention, though, while it looks like there’s a lot going on, nobody is playing out of position.

Tackle trade

Both tackles end up in their original positions. All that’s really happened here is that Nos. 83, 35 and 10 have switched sides of the line. Clemson’s defense is still trying to figure out what the heck is going on when Pitt snaps it and runs a simple weak side zone run for eight yards and a first down.

Here it is again.

Tackle trade #2

Once again, barely anything changes from the initial formation to where everybody is at the snap. Only No. 10 has come across the formation and the H-back moved from the slot to a wingback position. Zone run to the weak side. It’s almost exactly the same as before.

All this pre-snap chaos forced the nation’s No. 6 defense into its worst performance of the year. Pitt’s offense carried it to an eight-win season, including two over top-10 opponents despite having nowhere near as much talent. At Maryland, a similar talent gap led to 62-14, 35-10 and 66-3 losses last season. Thanks to great recruiting, that gap is rapidly closing. Canada’s offense can put the Terps in positions to punch above their weight even without the same talent as some of the top teams in the country.