Bajakian building Northwestern's offense from scratch
New Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has already started building the new Wildcats’ offense. He’s starting from a clean slate.
And when we say clean, we mean clean.
Not even Bajakian himself knows what the offense will look like. The former Boston College offensive coordinator doesn’t really have a system. His offensive philosophy is more of a guiding principle: build your offense around your personnel.
“Find out who your players are, and then find ways to get the ball in their hands,” said Bajakian, who held a videoconference with select media members on Monday afternoon.
Bajakian knows that his offense will be up-tempo because he thinks there’s an advantage to it. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
When Bajakian was the offensive coordinator at Central Michigan, from 2007-09, he built his offense around quarterback Dan LeFevour, who eventually became a sixth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, and a couple of talented receivers: one was Bryan Anderson, the other one was Antonio Brown; you may have heard of him.
When he directed Cincinnati’s offense, his system emphasized tight end Travis Kelce, now an All-Pro tight end with the Kansas City Chiefs. Last season, in his only year at BC, Bajakian’s offense centered around star running back AJ Dillon and finished sixth in the nation in rushing, at 267.8 yards per game.
So will Northwestern abandon the spread system that it’s been running since 2000? Bajakian is not sure yet. If the team’s talent lends itself to the spread, that’s what he will run.
Just don’t call it the spread. He hates the term.
“You hear ‘spread’ and think finesse,” he said. “Our goal is to be a physical, tough team. We’re going to smack you in the mouth.”
Bajakian has already begun breaking down Northwestern’s film from last year. But when it comes down to the quarterback position, it’s going to be more about the future than the past.
“It’s a clean slate for everybody,” he said. “More than what they did in the past, it’s what they’re going to do moving forward.”
That may be a blessing because Northwestern’s quarterbacks didn’t do many good things on film last season.
Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith started 11 of the Wildcats’ 12 games and combined to complete less than 50% of their passes, with four touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Andrew Marty stared the season finale and led the Cats to their lone Big Ten win over Illinois, but he did more damage with his legs than his arm, running for 111 yards and passing for 55.
The Wildcats finished 127th in the country in passing and 130th (dead-last) in passing efficiency.
Bajakian says that his No. 1 criteria for his starting quarterback is being a winner. Beyond that, he’s looking for leaders “who get players around them to elevate their level of play.”
Those are difficult qualities to measure. But in terms of tangibles, he says he would prefer having a quarterback that can run, while at the same time pointing out that he’s had success with pocket, dual-threat and running QBs during his career.
“I like guys who are a little bit more athletic,” he said, “guys who can improvise and scramble.”
One reason Northwestern struggled so much offensively last season was a lack of explosion plays. The Wildcats had just 27 plays go for more than 20 yards all season.
That’s one area where Bajakian wants to see improvement. He explained that there’s “a statistical correlation” between explosion plays and winning football games, and he’s already got the numbers to back himself up.
While he didn’t have the exact figures in front of him, he said that, over the last five years, the Wildcats scored on just 8% of the drives where they didn’t have an explosive play – defined as a run of 12 yards or more or a pass of 16 or more.
When they had just one explosive play, the percentage of drives resulting in touchdowns – not just scores, but TDs – went up to “38 or 39%.” When they had two or more explosive plays, around 60% of drives wound up in the end zone.
“The numbers are crazy,” he said. “It shows how important explosive plays are.”
Northwestern was often criticized for not throwing the ball downfield enough to loosen up a defense. But Bajakian doesn’t care if the explosive plays come because of long throws, yards after the catch or broken tackles. As long as they come.
Bajakian has made several coaching stops in his career, which began in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Williams College, where he played quarterback. He spent seven years in the NFL, with the Chicago Bears and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and made college stops at Michigan, Rutgers, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Boston College.
But he said that this is the first opportunity he’s had to “start from scratch” and build an offense from the ground up since 2007 at Central Michigan. He is responsible for the big-picture schemes they will run, as well as the minute details like naming formations and personnel groups.
He doesn’t know what the offense will look like yet, but he is well aware of what traits it will have.
“It will be an easy system to learn, and flexible,” he said. That will be music to NU fans’ ears, as Wildcat quarterbacks seemed to take a long time to pick up the offense last season.
“It will fit the personnel that’s here and the personnel that’s going to come through the door.”
For much more on what Bajakian had to say in the videoconference, go to The Rock, WildcatReport's premium message board for subscribers only.