Think Fast: Pace, Not Patience, Spreading On Offense
Though he hasn’t won a game yet as the Texas Tech head coach, Kliff Kingsbury has won the offseason.
Whether it was the publicity that came with the booster memo encouraging the athletic department to market its new coach properly or the grace with which Kingsbury handled it, Kingsbury has been hailed for his style on the field and off of it.
And true to his reputation, the former Red Raiders quarterback is on the offensive, striking quickly and scoring big points at the expense of his opposition.
Don’t look at the scoreboard, though. Read the newspapers.
Prompted by Ralph Russo of the Associated Press to react to Alabama coach Nick Saban’s year-old concern about the danger of high-speed offenses, as well as new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s urging that the NCAA legislate a 15-second gap between plays, Kingsbury went guns up with his reply.
''You want me to play slower, well, OK, you need to get smaller, less strong defensive linemen,” Kingsbury told Russo.
If that wasn’t totally transparent, Kingsbury removed the mystery about the identity of his target audience.
''Stop recruiting these beasts up front and we won't run as many plays,'' he said.
That’d be you, Mr. Saban, and you, Mr. Bielema, and you, Mr. Miles, and the rest of you waging trench warfare in the SEC by gobbling up the pro-prospect defensive linemen from high schools around the country.
From 2003-12, the SEC had 90 defensive linemen drafted — an absurd, though impossible to ignore 20 percent of all linemen drafted in those 10 years.
And that was nothing. Last year, 18 SEC defensive linemen got drafted. Every other conference in every other level of college football accounted for 31.
But there’s another statistic out there that deserves our attention, if for no other reason than because it has the SEC’s attention. The Big 12 had three of the Top 25 teams in average offensive snaps per game last season. The SEC had three of the Top 50.
Of the 25 slowest teams, the Big 12 had one, though that was conference champion Kansas State. Of the 25 slowest teams, the SEC had seven, including the slowest in Auburn and the national champion in Alabama.
This is football, where there is no right or wrong, but only winners and losers. Saban and Bielema aren’t whining, and there may be something to the idea that faster play and more snaps can put players at a greater risk for injury. What they are truly concerned about is the competition and they might be better served either accepting or adapting to the change.
College football's focus has gone from the run to the pass, from offenses tightly-packed to ones spread across the field. Now you’re seeing these spread offenses with gifted quarterbacks and an array of receivers evolve some more by hustling from one play to the next. Points per game is the most valuable statistic and teams know you can score more points if you run more plays.
These offenses overwhelm defenses physically and mentally with an avalanche of action. It can wear down burly nose guards and linebackers and force them to the sideline. It can tax the mind to the point it makes a player lunge for a running back as he comes through the hole instead of asking him to step into the hole and close the alley.
An offense that operates quickly can make it hard, if not impossible, to avoid mismatches, to substitute tired players for fresh ones or backups for starters.
The solution is tricky. It’s hard enough to recruit the most exclusive defensive players. It’s significantly harder to recruit a bunch of them to create the sort of depth that guarantees every position is manned by a confident and capable player for every snap.
It’s simpler for an offense to stockpile depth on offense and find fast and elusive players who are potent in space. An average offensive player needs one play to beat a skilled cornerback for a touchdown. That skilled cornerback has to make a series of tackles to prevent a big play.
Pace is a major divide between the two conferences. The SEC has built a wall around lines of scrimmage and goal lines. The Big 12 runs around walls. The culture is changing, though. Two of the SEC’s fastest teams last year were Texas A&M (No. 37), where Kingsbury was Johnny Football’s Geppetto and the Aggies’ offensive coordinator, and Missouri (No. 48). They’re Big 12 expatriates.
The fastest team was Tennessee (No. 32), which fired Derek Dooley and replaced him with Butch Jones, who thanks to some time spent with Rich Rodriguez would rather not huddle. Dooley’s Volunteers ranked three spots better than Ole Miss, which used a no-huddle in the first year with coach Hugh Freeze. Texas A&M was in its first year with Kevin Sumlin.
Jones is one of four new coaches in the SEC. Bielema, raised by time spent on plodding staffs at Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin, is the outlier. Auburn hired haste-happy Gus Malzahn. Kentucky hired Mark Stoops. The Stoops brothers, whether at Arizona or Oklahoma, have always gone fast. Kentucky will, too, having hired Neal Brown from Texas Tech to run the offense.
Who have Big 12 schools hired recently? There’s Dana Holgorsen at WVU and Kingsbury at Texas Tech, while Oklahoma State has kept pace proponents on staff as offensive coordinator, be it Holgorsen, Todd Monken or now Division II prodigy Mike Yurcich.
And then there’s Kansas, where Charlie Weis is the coach. His offenses at Notre Dame or later Florida were never especially fast. Last season, his first with the Jayhawks, his offense ranked No. 46 in snaps per game, which was faster than Oklahoma and Texas and everyone in the SEC except Tennessee, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
It’s that important in the Big 12, but it’s needed throughout college football. First-year coaches at Arizona, Houston, Arizona State, UCLA, Penn State and Akron all ranked in the Top 20 in snaps per game last season.
This is happening before our eyes. The SEC has the proven brand. It's the conference winning trophies, producing NFL talent and rewarding coaches handsomely. The Big 12 is an exciting brand and it's leading the movement that may end the reign of the SEC’s elite.