The Slow Mesh: The Evolution Of Wake Forest's Innovative Offense

By Simon Carroll

Offensive innovation defines football. In the all-consuming need to move the ball down the field, teams are constantly finding new ways to keep the chains moving. This is usually a delicate balance of understanding the abilities (and indeed limitations) of your own personnel, as well as respecting the equivalent qualities of your opponent. But once in a while, more radical changes are implemented that can re-establish the priorities for defenses.

Most of these offensive schemes begin life in college football, where the wider variations in ability mean creativity can reap bigger rewards. Some make their way to the NFL, albeit tinkered or modified or ‘dumbed down’. But ultimately, from the Wishbone to the Triple-Option, the Pistol to the Single Wing, or the Wildcat to the in-vogue RPO, it’s football on Saturdays where new concepts are conceived.

Unsurprisingly, most ‘new’ concepts are borne from previous iterations; the Flexbone offense that Air Force employed to great success in the early 2000’s was of course a tinkered version of the Wishbone. In the pro game these would be used sparsely and known as ‘wrinkles’. But at the collegiate level where commitment to a style of play becomes absolute, even the most subtle changes become ideologically their own offense.

One such recent example of this is Wake Forest’s ‘Slow Mesh’ offense; essentially a variation on the standard RPO, the Slow Mesh has been widely scrutinised since The Demon Deacons unveiled their new philosophy almost six years ago. But what is the Slow Mesh, where did it come from, and how has it helped the smallest Power 5 school in the country become a football force in the ACC?

Breaking Down The Slow Mesh Offense

Working out where offenses originate from is difficult. Take the RPO for example; only recently has the run-pass option been given a trendy title. But ask any offensive coordinator and they will tell you that they have been giving quarterbacks the power to make a choice at the line of scrimmage for decades. Rich Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan (2008) was widely regarded as the birth of the RPO. But back in the late 90’s then Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme – petrified of Florida edge rusher Jevon Kearse – gave quarterback Tim Couch two options based on the defense; throw a bubble screen, or run the ball.

There is no such problem with the Slow Mesh. It is undisputedly the creation of Wake Forest offensive co-ordinator Warren Ruggiero, who engineered the offense back in 2017.

The run-pass option resides at the very heart of the Slow Mesh. The quarterback – usually aligned in the shotgun and elongating the handoff to the running back – will key the unblocked defender at the line of scrimmage, and determine whether he is playing the run or the pass. If they are prioritising run defense, the QB will pull the ball back and take advantage of wide receivers operating in less coverage. Conversely, if the defense sits in coverage or blitzes the QB, the ball will be given to the ball carrier. There are obvious nuances both pre and post-snap (enjoy the video above if you want to get more into the x’s & o’s), but essentially the RPO attempts to do the opposite of what their opponents are trying to defend.

Based on that principle, the Slow Mesh does exactly the same thing, but slower. Whereas the typical RPO lasts about 1 second from the quarterback’s read to decision, Wake Forest’s average RPO lasts closer to 2.5 seconds. Instead of quickly reading the defense then making a snap decision, Wake’s quarterback begins the handoff process first then reads the defense while holding the ball against the running back’s chest. This delayed convergence at the ‘mesh point’ between quarterback and running back led to the name ‘Slow Mesh’.

Why The Slow Mesh Works

USA Football

It may seem that slowing down decision making in an offensive backfield isn’t conducive to a successful outcome. It is ingrained in our psyche that the ball needs to get out as quickly as possible in order to minimise the defense’s ability to disrupt the play. But conversely, if you haven’t made a decision, then how does a defense stop it? Delaying the handoff essentially makes a defense commit one way or another to a play, and by the time the ball has or hasn’t been handed off, the offense knows which way they are leaning. The quarterback has allowed routes to develop, and the running back has allowed holes to open. Once they finally commit to a decision, the offense is confident in how they will attack, whether that be on the ground or through the air.

It takes a disciplined and patient defense to try and disguise their intentions for that long. And quite simply, they are unable to do that for sixty minutes; with the offensive line acting in run defense and pushing forward on each snap regardless of the play behind them, they will continually reset the line of scrimmage against an indecisive or dithering defensive front.

As with most new offenses, reverse engineering a concept takes time – and Wake Forest have enjoyed the honeymoon period that came with it. But unlike other schemes, the Slow Mesh has proven to be very difficult to combat when executed at a high level. And the last two seasons, The Deacs have had just the man for the job under center…

Sam Hartman: The Slow Mesh Master

Going into the 2021 season, not many people had Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman pegged as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate. Indeed, Wake Forest wasn’t considered a threat to the ACC – or national – status quo. Hartman had already compiled a fair body of work on his resume in Winston-Salem, playing 22 games over three years, throwing for 5,038 yards and a TD:INT ratio of 33:15. But his explosion last year was the culmination of Ruggiero perfecting the offense, and Hartman being the perfect man to execute it.

Hartman has all the tools required to take advantage of the mismatches the Slow Mesh offers. Firstly, he shows incredible poise in the pocket – possibly the main priority in a scheme that forces him to hold onto the ball uncomfortably long. As with any version of an RPO offense, Hartman has the autonomy to decide pre-snap to eschew a handoff for a quick throw if he sees a pass defense outmanned – something he’s happy to do. Furthermore, his field vision and intelligence allows him to not only make the right run-pass choice, but also where to attack when he decides to launch the ball downfield. And when the defense is exposed and beaten vertically? Hartman has the big arm to go deep and hit his talented receivers in stride.

The results? Hartman led Wake Forest to eleven wins and the ACC Championship Game, where they lost to a Kenny Pickett-led Pitt. In what is widely regarded as the greatest season in The Demon Deacons’ history, Hartman threw for more than 4,200 yards and 39 TD’s, – and rushed for another 360 yards and a further 11 scores to boot. Wake Forest finished the season ranked 15th by the Associated Press, their highest final ranking in 133 years of playing football.

Head Coach Dave Clawson must also be acknowledged for the job he has done in not only recruiting talent, but developing it. Wake Forest is traditionally a basketball school, and not known for its prowess on the gridiron. Speaking to both Luke Masterson and Ja’Sir Taylor ahead of the NFL Draft, it is clear that Clawson puts a premium on long-term development, with most of the roster redshirting before seeing significant game time. With a defined culture on both sides of the ball, Clawson and his staff can target recruits who fit the mould of what they’re trying to achieve in Winston Salem – and after nine years with the same HC-OC tandem, the results are beginning to bear fruit.

Wakey-Leaks: The Scandal That Led To The Birth Of The Slow Mesh

Wake Forest OC Warren Ruggiero

Maybe the craziest part of the Slow Mesh story is that the offense may never have been created if it wasn’t for one of the most underhand – and under-reported – scandals in modern college football history.

Back in November 2016, Wake Forest travelled to Louisville to play the Cardinals in a classic ACC matchup. Prior to kickoff, a member of staff found a black binder in a trash can that had the entire Demon Deacons offense playbook inside. It was so up to date, it included some trick plays that the coaching team had drawn up only days before, their attempt to match a Lamar Jackson-led high octane offense.

There had been suggestions from Wake’s players that this had been going on for some time, that opponents seemed to know their every move on the field. What was once disregarded as excuses in defeat became legitimate arguments – and when they turned on the tape Clawson and his staff knew they had been ‘skunked’. Against Louisville, they sent in a call to prove their theory; unsurprisingly, The Cardinals shut the play down from the start. It transpired that Tommy Elrod, the color commentator on the radio broadcast team – previously part of the coaching staff before being let go by Clawson – had been giving Wake Forest’s ACC opponents copies of the playbook since 2014. The Deacs had been handicapped for almost three full seasons, simply out of spite from a former employee scorned.

Once the scandal was confirmed and exposed, Ruggiero went to work radically transforming the offense in an attempt to completely throw opponents. Working within the limits of his roster and the attributes they brought to the table, the Slow Mesh was born. And whilst it was maybe hastily conceived, it is certainly no fad.

Obviously, an allowance has to be made now we know the odds were stacked against the pre-Wakey Leaks offense. But the growth in numbers before and after implementation of the Slow Mesh are astonishing. In 2016, Wake scored 20.4 points per game. The following year, with the same personnel, it jumped to 35.3 points. On that fateful night in Louisville in November 2016, the Wake offense scored a paltry 12 points. The following season they scored 42. A year later, they put up 56. Wake Forest, traditionally an ACC Atlantic Division cellar-dweller, has gone 30-16 over the last four campaigns.

The Slow Mesh is legit. How do you stop it?

The Limitations Of The Slow Mesh

The Slow Mesh is not without limitations. The varying success of each Wake Forest season since its conception firstly tells you that the offense is only as good as those executing it. Sam Hartman has obviously grown into the role so much that, in 2022, he can probably operate it in his sleep. But he relies on his offensive weapons to challenge defensive backs vertically for big chunk plays. The running back, with whom the QB spends 2.5 seconds in very close proximity, has to be prepared to make blocks the instant the ball is pulled away from him, such is the extent of the penetration by the defense. And the offensive line needs to have a pass protection mindset despite driving forward off every snap. Essentially, if you’re employing the Slow Mesh and you want consistent results, you better have the personnel to operate it.

Even then, elite defenses will be able to exploit the slow handoff. In 2021, Wake Forest was taking the ACC by storm. 9-1 in November, The Deacs travelled to Memorial Stadium to face an unranked Clemson team having a down season under Dabo Swinney. A poor year or not, Clemson had a defensive front laden with 5-star talent, and were able to concoct exotic blitzes and bring pressure from unexpected sources. An unprepared Sam Hartman had his worst outing of the season, unable to decipher a defense determined to obfuscate with smoke and mirrors. The Tigers destroyed the fairytale ending of a playoff spot for Wake, the final score of 48-27 not fully doing their dominance justice.

Hartman ate the humble pie and did his homework, and in less than a year the Slow Mesh was much better prepared for Clemson’s gameplan. Last Saturday saw Wake Forest go down in triple overtime to The Tigers, but not before they put 45 points on a defense that had far less success in this game than they did in 2021.

The Future Of The Slow Mesh

AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez

The success of the Slow Mesh has not gone unnoticed. Every opponent’s head coach is asked about the offense and how best to combat it. Many understand aspects of the Slow Mesh and are happy to offer their thoughts, but few have created a defensive scheme able to counter it. Earlier this season, Vanderbilt HC Clark Lea called it “Dangerous. When you’re reckless with this offense, they end up in the end zone.” The Commodores gave up 450 yards of offense and 5 TD’s in a 45-25 rout.

A week later, Liberty HC Hugh Freeze was just as wary. “Offensively, they’re a problem. Their tempo — everything about it — they’re averaging a lot of points against a lot of good defenses.” In Wake’s slowest offensive output of the year, they still stuck 350 yards and 37 points on The Flames. In four games so far, The Demon Deacons have scored an incredible 171 points as Hartman and the rest of the offense take the Slow Mesh to another level.

Wake face another tough challenge this weekend, heading to Tallahassee to face the #23 ranked and undefeated Florida State. Head Coach Mike Norvel has earned praise this year for helping to turn round the Seminoles, who have fallen away in the ACC since the days of Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston. Even with confidence high amongst those in garnet and gold, Norvel showed due respect for what The Deacs bring on offense:

“It’s challenging. You try to implement the timing and the tempo of it … it’s like if you play the triple option, you can try to get as much of it simulated as possible but until you really understand the speed of it in the game, it’s tough to replicate.”

Word has gotten around. 2,800 miles away in Palo Alto, CA, the Stanford Cardinal are attempting to install their own version of the Slow Mesh. Trying to galvanise a stagnated rush attack, David Shaw has borrowed Ruggiero’s playbook rather than stolen it. Clawson and his staff are understandably reticent to share information on the offense on the back of Wakey Leaks, and Shaw said he only got ‘cryptic answers’ when enquiring about the scheme. But that’s not stopped the Cardinal embracing the offense, and the early results have been promising. Against USC earlier this year, Stanford averaged 6.3 yards a carry, almost double their 3.2 YPC from the same game in 2021.

This radical scheme was inevitably going to escape North Carolina and be replicated elsewhere. It’s a testament to the success of the offense. If other programs can do half the job Wake Forest has done implementing it they should be happy.

Embrace the wait folks. The Slow Mesh is here to stay.

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