If anyone knows how new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor formulates a weekly game plan, it’s Ohio High School Football Coaches Hall of Famer Vince Suriano.
Taylor said this week what everybody knew. He’s going to call the plays and Suriano saw him do it two years ago when he sat behind him in the coaches’ booth during Taylor’s season as the University of Cincinnati offensive coordinator.
“Very calm. Very analytical. Very confident,” is how Suriano described it Wednesday. “Extremely well organized. Part of his mindset is he was going to attack what they were doing. He was very aware of what the defense was doing and what we had to do to counter it.”
Suriano is best known in Cincinnati for turning water into wine on Beechmont Avenue in a 20-year run that transformed Anderson High School football from an afterthought into a state champion. He moved on to head up offenses at Cincinnati’s College of Mount St. Joseph and Thomas More College before becoming UC’s director of high school and player relations. That’s where he worked with Taylor for that 2016 season helping out the offense in practice and games.
Even then Suriano was telling friends on Cincy’s east side that Taylor was terrific, a bright mind on the fast track. Maybe a little faster than anyone might have thought, but Suriano isn’t surprised he ended up as an NFL head coach and likes the move.
“I watched his news conference,” said Suriano of Tuesday’s rollout, “and that was him. Very unassuming. He doesn’t act like he’s important. Like that story about his mother saying he’d win the Heisman Trophy and he said he didn’t come close. He’s not afraid to laugh at himself. That’s why people like him. He’s not a phony. Acting one way in front of the cameras and another way when they’re off. Good guy. Good guy to work for.”
Suriano has had a taste of the NFL taking notes in spring camps in Cincinnati and Baltimore, home of former Anderson recruiter John Harbaugh. But he got a bigger dose of the league when Taylor arrived after four years with the Dolphins that included a half season as offensive coordinator.
“He did a lot of different things and you could see the NFL influence,” Suriano said. “We were under center almost as much as we were out of shot gun. For every run we had out of shot gun, we had it from under center and play-action passes off of everything.”
Play-action was one of those details that Taylor, the ultimate detail man, made sure was always ironed out. It absolutely had to mirror a play in the running game. When the Bearcats were playing a 3-4 defense with athletic enough outside linebackers to remind Suriano of ACC or Big Ten basketball forwards, he watched tape showing the backers half as effective against blockers than they were playing in space. He approached Taylor suggesting the deployment of double tight ends, two flankers and a back on a zone run.
Taylor watched Suriano draw it up on the board and quickly followed up by asking what kind of play-cation pass protection Suriano would tie into that.
“He didn’t shut me down and just blow me off,” Suriano said. “He took the time to listen.”
Play action always seems to crop up in a Taylor influenced playbook. During games Suriano’s job was to keep track of runs and passes on each down and distance, as well as what kind of play was run as the first snap off the bench. After he alerted Taylor against Purdue that the last five or so cold series began with a run, Taylor dialed up a long play-action pass against a run set.
“I think something else he probably took from the NFL is that if he saw a team beat a defense with a particular play, he’d put it in,” Suriano said. “He’s not afraid to add things that other people used successfully.”
Taylor called plays like a CPA on April 10. All business. Workmanlike. Decisive. Rare flashes of emotion. UC won only four games and ranked lowly in offense. But no one was pointing fingers at Taylor. The head coach was under fire. There were more quarterbacks (3) than answers. Yet Taylor won praise for saying nary a word in a simmering fire storm and continued to lead.
“I saw him get frustrated once or twice,” Suriano said. “But you’re talking about 80 plays a game in a 12-game season. I never saw him yell at anybody in a staff meeting where he just tore into someone. That’s not him.”
But Suriano saw Taylor command the offensive room in other ways, such as engaging with the players by getting them involved in the meetings, often flipping them a marker to grease the board themselves.
“He’s sure of himself, but he’s not arrogant,” Suriano said. “He knows what he wants to do.”