What was an academic debate in July in Hoover, Ala., becomes a very real-world problem for South Carolina’s football team Thursday night in Williams-Brice Stadium.
At the SEC’s Media Days this summer, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn traded barbs about potential safety risks posed by fast-paced, no-huddle spread offenses.
“When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke,” said Malzahn, a no-huddle devotee. “As far as health or safety issues, that’s like saying the defense shouldn’t blitz after a first down because they’re a little fatigued and there’s liable to be a big collision in the backfield.”
“I’m not a comedian,” huffed Bielema, who has floated the idea of a mandatory time stoppage after first downs to allow defenses to substitute against teams that have a fast-paced offense.
“All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault,” Bielema added. “I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense. If you want to play hurry-up offense, play it. I'll play you, I don't care, but it doesn't mean that I cannot try to protect my players offensively and defensively.”
Alabama’s Nick Saban has also broached the issue of player safety in relation to fast-moving offenses, and Bielema’s spot on the NCAA Rules Committee gives him an opportunity to help push through a rule change in the future.
“If you’re going to look at rule changes, we need to look at the guys on defense that are faking injuries to slow down these pace teams,” Malzahn said. Fast-paced offense “is where college football’s going.”
(If you think Malzahn worrying about fake injuries seems a bit paranoid, you’re wrong, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told Jon Solomon of AL.com.)
Kirk Herbstreit: "I've talked to defensive coaches. These guys are actually practicing fake injuries." http://t.co/QTATaqU0Bv— Jon Solomon (@jonsol) August 27, 2013
Lorenzo Ward agrees.
As South Carolina’s defensive coordinator, his job Thursday is to slow down North Carolina and head coach Larry Fedora’s one-back, spread offense. Whether rules need to change in the future doesn’t mean a thing to the No. 6 Gamecocks this week, Ward said.
“I think it’s football. Football is about offense. I have always believed that,” Ward said. “That’s what sells tickets. I don’t think most fans would like to come here and see us win 7-0. They are going to complain about our offense if we do. The tempo of offenses is to sell tickets, and people are spreading you out. It’s just something we have to adapt to. It’s like the world, everything evolves. I am not going to complain about it.”
Ward has had no reason to recently. South Carolina finished third in the SEC and 11th in the nation last year in total defense, allowing 315.5 yards per game. The Gamecocks stifled Clemson’s fast-paced offense, holding the Tigers to 328 yards on 59 plays, 23 fewer plays than their season average.
“I think (the Tar Heels) try to do a little bit like Clemson, snap it quickly and go,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “A lot of teams are doing that, and of course, the answer is, you stop them, and make them punt. That’s one answer. And the other answer is hopefully your offense can stay on the field a bit. We’ve been fortunate obviously to do that against Clemson the past two years. But who knows what will happen this game?”
(DID YOU KNOW? The one-back version of the spread that Larry Fedora runs traces its roots to John Elway, whose father/coach Jack Elway is credited as one of its developers. Here’s how Chris Brown at SmartFootball.com sums up the offense: “The basic theory behind the offense is the one that has been adopted by almost all spread teams: count the safeties, identify how many defenders are in the “box” to decide whether to run or pass, and call your bread and butter stuff until defenders get of of position, then when they do hit them with the constraint plays like bubble screens or play-action.”)
Clemson actually went faster than North Carolina last year, averaging 82 plays per game to the Tar Heels’ 75, but most observers, including Ward, expect North Carolina’s pace to pick up in Fedora’s second season. The Tar Heels (8-4 last year) finished second in the ACC and 14th in the nation in total offense (485.6 yards per game) in year one under Fedora, whose mantra is “smart, fast and physical.”
Ward called the Heels “probably the fastest we’ve seen.”
“There are times they snap the ball seven or eight seconds after the (last) play ran,” he said. “You see the offensive line running to the ball when the play is still going. They are running to the vicinity so they can get ready and lined up. It’ll be something different.”
(You can see the pace of the offense in this video of UNC’s spring game. Pay special attention here to the offensive linemen hustling to get back into line.)
Beyond the fatigue factor, fast-moving offenses can also force defensive players to be out of position before the snap or even dictate defensive calls by allowing little time between plays.
“If you can get up there real quick, you may know what defense the other team is in all the time,” Spurrier said. “They may just have one defense and say, ‘If they get up there real quick, just play this.’ It’s an advantage to the offense if you know what they are in all the time so you have to change it up. It’s a challenge to the defensive guys to change it up all the time, can’t just send in the same signal. Got to get lined up. Those linemen have to get lined up, ready for it. They can’t be standing around. You have to practice against it. Hopefully, we have enough to be ready.”
There can also be disadvantages to going too fast on offense, TCU head coach Gary Patterson said. Like South Carolina, TCU runs a 4-2-5 base defensive alignment that allows more flexibility without substitutions.
“The problem with going fast is if you go too fast, you don’t get a chance to check, and if I have a better call than you have on that play, you're going to get thrown for a loss or a sack,” Patterson told the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail. "I’m calling a different blitz (every play). One time I’m man blitzing, one time I’m zone blitzing, the next time I’m slanting. We’re going to audible by where they put their back, by what the formation is, by everything they do.”
Simulating the Tar Heels pace in practice is difficult, Ward said, and the key for South Carolina will be responding well early, said defensive line coach Deke Adams, who coached under Fedora last season at North Carolina.
“Most teams when they start going fast on you, they are trying to catch you out of position,” Adams said. “When they find out you are in condition, you are adjusting to it well, then they start to settle down and get into their game plan.”
For North Carolina, that means a heavy dose of the run. The Tar Heels ran more than they threw last year (457 to 441), and Ward considers many of their screen passes extensions of the run game.
“Like any game we go into, we have to stop the run first,” he said.
(Lest you still think Fedora doesn’t take this stuff seriously, he quoted George Patton in his introductory press conference in Chapel Hill. “Let's talk about the X's and O's. General George S. Patton said this: `Instead of waiting to see what might develop, attack constantly, vigorously and viciously. Never let up, never stop, always attack.' As a football team, we will always be attacking.” Later, the Raleigh News&Observer sat down with Fedora to talk more offense.)
North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner is not a major threat to run in the offense but has drawn praise for his accuracy and ability to make the fast decisions required by the offense. Renner was at the helm last year as the Tar Heels set a school record with 40.6 points per game. Overall, North Carolina set 35 UNC offensive records last season.
“You just have to be focused, keep pace with them,” South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said. “We are just trying to slow their pace down so we can come out and play our game.”
The players at South Carolina and around the SEC have stayed out of the larger debate about whether the emergence of the no-huddle offense needs to be met with rule changes for safety’s sake.
“The veer at one point was the offense to have and now it’s not,” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said. “It’s just the nature of the game, and it’ll continue to change as long as it exists.”
(In fact, Bear Bryant and Frank Broyles were debating basically this same thing in 1968, as you can see in this Sports Illustrated article. "There isn't a defensive coach in America who can sleep at night without taking pills,” Broyles said. Bryant broke it down even further: “What's happened is obvious," he said. "First of all, due to the pro influence, there are more good pitchers and catchers coming out of high school. They all want one of those Joe Namath contracts. Then, of course, most colleges use their best athletes on offense, as backs and receivers. That's not necessarily true in the pros. They've got some of their best athletes on defense, especially corner-back. When the defense is forced to spread out, it must go to man-to-man coverage. But if the offensive boy—the pass receiver—is a better athlete than the defensive boy, he'll beat him. So you have to go to double coverage, and that weakens you against the run.”)