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CIS Corner: Gary Etcheverry, Ottawa Gee-Gees revive the double wing; can it work at the university level?

Neate Sager
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Ottawa Gee-Gees coach Gary Etcheverry, shown in 2009 with the Roughriders

Football fans might get a more jarring visual these days from swinging by one of Gary Etcheverry's practices with the Ottawa Gee-Gees instead of visiting the National Gallery of Canada a few blocks away.

Canadian football offers advantages in the passing game unavailable south of the border such as a 65-yard-wide field and unlimited motion. Etcheverry, the former CFL head coach and defensive coordinator known for his novel schemes, has spurned that with Ottawa, following through on plans to use the double-wing offence that raised eyebrows when he was hired in May. So far, it's had mixed results at best, with Ottawa winless through two games the competitive Ontario University Athletics conference with No. 1 McMaster (1 p.m. ET Saturday, SSN Canada) and nationally ranked Queen's and Western yet to come.

Suffice to say, a scheme heavy on misdirection where 11 of 12 players amass around the ball like it was a campfire on a cold night goes against the trend in CIS. Eight of 13 CIS games last weekend saw one team pass for at least 300 yards, including the York Lions in their win over the Gee-Gees, who threw fewer than five times in the first half and finished with 86 yards.

"What's funny is people don't react well to being different," Etcheverry, who was the Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive coordinator during the successive Grey Cup appearances in 2009 and '10, said on Thursday. "Most people talk about they're not afraid to be different but they're definitely afraid of being different. I look around and I look at most offences look to me to be very, very similiar. It's funny that people talk about looking different when everyone else has similar formationing.

Some coaches might have their O-linemen split as far as a yard apart. The Gee-Gees have no splits at all. Each lineman, wide receiver who's now essentially a tight end and running back lines up like the man next to him is his partner in a three-legged race. A blocking back is only a few feet behind quarterback Aaron Colbon. Almost anyone can take a handoff. Almost anyone could be handing off, since the first player Colbon gives the ball to might not keep it.

"There's a lot of people who believe in this era of so-called spread offences, that taking the receivers and clustering them is an advantage," Etcheverry said. "We do that on virtually every snap."

That is the theory, but football is about what's put into practice. McMaster coach Stefan Ptaszek — who noted he was a Toronto Argonauts receiver in 1999 and 2000 when the Boatmen, with Etcheverry on staff, used the double wing — said his team is on high alert for what underdog Ottawa might spring against his team. An unusual offence takes time to learn.

"It is something scary and it's abstract and you don't get to practise [against] it," Ptaszek said. "It's a nightmare. Our [scout team] kids are trying to learn it so they can run it for them [McMaster's defence]. It creates all sort of havoc throughout our week

"It looks like they have seven different options on any given play," added Ptaszek, who's orchestrated two Vanier Cup-winning offences in the past eight years. "Most of us [OUA coaches] have several things we want to do soundly ... This is nothing they've ever seen before. They significantly improved from Week 1 to Week 2 [doubling their point total]. What scares me the most is that pass game has just been missing. Six for 16 [Colbon's numbers vs. York] last week is not what they're going to get to. When it does happen it's going to be tough to defend — I don't want it to happen for another couple of weeks."

The double wing isn't the only radical change the Gee-Gees have absorbed in the past six months. Etcheverry was hired after coach J.P. Asselin left for cross-town Carleton, the team's second coaching change in barely 24 months. The refurbishment of Lansdowne Park and construction delays with a new campus stadium has also led to scheduling home games at a rural sports complex well outside the nation's capital.

On top of it all, beefy linemen have to do some pretty precise stepping.

"There's no question that operating in such close quarters is difficult from a timing standpoint," Etcheverry says. "We went into it not being surprised by that."

It's only two games, so it's probably early to write off the experiment. (Ottawa's defence, which is ahead of only Waterloo in points and yards allowed, is also a reason for the 0-2 start.)

"This is something we haven't seen in the OUA," said Ptaszek, whose quarterback, Kyle Quinlan, passed for 290 yards in about three quarters' work last Saturday. "It is unique. If they continue to progress, who knows, maybe we'll all be doing this in a few years down the road."

Meantime, football players conditioned to receive and apply instruction know this is their offence. Etcheverry is convinced it will work, although his team has a hole to climb out of to reach the playoffs.

"They're starting to see a lot of things that we've been telling them about our approach. It's very visible. That's been a significant point as far as the [Ottawa players] buying in."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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