To Carton, offense is the basis of what wins football games. And throughout his coaching experiences, he has learned what makes one stand out over others.
The greatest football cliche is “defense wins championships.” Yes, in other sports this same platitude applies as well. However, there is no other sport in which defense is played solely through competitors who don’t contribute to the offensive production at all, making this statement for football not only trite but also dry.
How do you win in this sport? Creativity through offense. Outsmarting your opponents with plays that confuse them. Having the other sideline question whether their defensive schemes are capable of matching your level of production. All these components can be encapsulated into one simple concept: score.
This is the first word that comes to coach Rudy Carlton’s mind when asked to define an offense.
“A lot of people have different philosophies and different backgrounds. There are those that apply a spread offense and want to run as many plays as possible. And there are those that focus on ball control and eating the clock. But the best thing an offense can do for the team is score points,” he noted.
Thankfully for the Cougars football program, since Carlton was placed on staff as the offensive coordinator his offenses have had minimal struggles when scoring touchdowns.
The numbers are staggering. Since becoming the play-caller, Azusa has held a record of 63-17 (.788). During Carlton’s second year under former head coach Victor Santa Cruz, he led an offense that broke multiple school records including total yards in a season with 5,957, rushing yards earned with 3,915 and points scored with 547.
His success wouldn’t alter after his sophomore play-calling brilliance. Ultimately, his offenses averaged 30 points or more in a season eight different times, with the only outliers being the ‘12 season and last season. But, most importantly, all of these scoring onslaughts led to four Great Northwest Athletic Conference titles and two trips to the NCAA playoffs, which was a first-time experience for the program.
“It was all about the talent of the players and the technicality of the coaching staff,” Carlton said when asked about what attributed to such success. “Having those talented players and learning how to best utilize them and maximize their abilities was the key. The collaboration on the offensive side of the ball in which so many great minds came together always seemed to put us in the best position to win.”
It is a program that takes immense pride in their ability to scout and mentor players who have the ability to showcase the impressive quality of their schemes. Luckily for Rudy, he has had a plethora of these caliber-type players incorporated through his play-calling, coaching an incredible 26 All-GNAC first-team selections.
None of these selections may be more important than tailback Terrell Watson, who Carlton coached during the ’13 and ’14 season, and quarterback Andrew Elffers, who consistently played for the Cougars since appearing as a freshman in 2013.
Watson, who would go on to have a stint in the NFL and is currently a free agent, became the most established runner in program history under Carlton. In 2014, he ran for a program-record 2,153 yards. With that, he even led all NCAA running backs, regardless of division, in rushing average with 195.7 yards per game. Carlton’s offense was built around Watson, as they had averaged 46.8 rushing attempts per game and scored a league-leading 40 rushing touchdowns by year’s end. In a double-overtime game against No.2-ranked Grand Valley State, APU didn’t throw the ball a single time.
It would be easy to assume, then, that Carlton is a run-first type of play-caller. Yet, this was proven false just two years later. In 2016, Elffers was the player that ran the Cougars’ offense. He was the perfect combination of throwing accuracy and speed that Carlton’s offense desperately needed at the position, and in ’16, Elffers won the GNAC Offensive Player of the Year due to the production of his arm. He threw for 2,120 yards and 21 touchdowns that season, which in effect allowed him to lead the 30th highest scoring collegiate offense in the country.
“What a great coordinator does is work with the philosophies and components of the game that they see as non-negotiable, and use the personnel they are given to maximize the offense,” Carlton said. “It makes no sense to place your philosophy over everything else when you have a guy like Terrell or Andrew to build your offense around. It’s so important to be flexible.”
Carlton would argue, also, that strong coordinators need to adapt to the new trends of the game. Sure, some of the fundamental components will always remain the same: the physicality, the tackling, the catching, the blocking. But the game is almost constantly evolving, especially on offense, which carries almost an unlimited number of personnel schemes.
APU must attribute most of their recent offensive success to this evolution. For example, the plus-one running game with the quarterback is a tactic that Carlton has heavily credited for being able to obtain success.
“It was a huge component for us and what we were doing. I will always be a firm believer in having that extra half of being able to incorporate the quarterback in the running game,” he said.
Yet that shift of making the thrower a runner continued to build an extra layer of evolution that seemed to only favor offenses over defenses. With the new weapon in the running game, Carlton noticed that defenses were being forced to place more defenders in the box in order to anticipate that rushing attack. This led to offenses implementing run-pass options, which are plays that allow quarterbacks the ability to read coverages and decide whether keeping the ball and passing or handing it off to their backs would be more effective.
When executed right, these types of plays give an immediate disadvantage to the defense. Defenses are no longer capable of anticipation, as doing so will inevitably lead to failure. The opposition can only be reliant on their instincts. So, would you rather play on your toes or set your feet and play with strategy? To Carlton, the answer is easy.
“RPOs have really revolutionized football,” he noted. “It is really catered to offensive football. Being able to run a run play and a pass play in the same call – it is not fair to defenses. They should be at a disadvantage. It becomes almost impossible for a defense to be able to stop the run or the pass. You make them pay for trying to beat one or the other.”
It is his philosophical schemes on offense. It is the players at his arsenal. It is the trends that are continued to be placed in the modern age of football. These are all reasons for Carlton’s success as a coordinator, and they will likely be imputed during his tenure as the head man.
“I am a firm believer in balance, beating defenses with your ability to run and throw the football. Anytime you are forced to become one-dimensional you will struggle,” he said.
Yet when push comes to shove, what matters most is what is working and allows you to win the most football games. This is why guys like Watson or Elffers or even receiver Weston Carr, who acquired over 3,000 receiving yards in his three years with the program, made Carlton’s offenses sometimes look predictable. But when you have talent that can redefine your offense and the way you coach it, only a fool would not trust their ability to bring you success.
“Surely it is about recruiting talent, along with developing that talent. But when it comes to my job as a play-caller, I will always tailor my offense and my scheme to my best players,” Carlton said.