By Ed McGranahan.
By Ed McGranahan
Nearly 40 years ago President Nixon signed a law capping the speed on all national highways at 55 mph. His intent was to preserve fuel during a clash of cultures in the Middle East the resulted in shortages of gasoline and higher prices at the pump.
Naturally there was broad backlash. Some states insisted it was unenforceable. Others offered begrudging compliance under threat by the federal government of pulling funding for highway projects.
Among the residual effects was an immediate reduction in highway fatalities. However, the National Academies of Science concluded that the data was insufficient to draw a tangible conclusion. Others insisted it was an anomaly and that car safety played a larger role.
How does this apply to college football – specifically to Clemson?
“I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said nearly a year ago, “that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety.”
Bret Bielema recently concurred with Saban.
“Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now,” Bielema said, “that has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real.”
When Kevin Steele was on staff at Clemson one of his biggest issues beyond the insistence on autonomy as defensive coordinator was Dabo Swinney’s wish to drive a Porsche rather than a Cadillac. Steele felt he could not adequately prepare facing the kinetically hyper scheme that Swinney preferred and Chad Morris delivered.
Defense is the thread that binds Steele, Saban and Bielema. And no-huddle, high-octane offenses designed to score with each possession are the bane of defensive coaches. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Steele rejoined Saban this year.
Most interesting, however, is how some defensive coaches have had their attitudes adjusted. Ellis Johnson, a former Alabama assistant and friend of Steele’s, was a confirmed critic while serving on Steve Spurrier’s staff at South Carolina. Two years ago Johnson said hurry-up offenses were deteriorating college football.
“You can hardly get your players on and off the field. You can’t get your signals in and out,” he said. “It’s not about blocking, tackling, running, route running, throwing, and so forth. It’s something the college football world needs to look at.
“It sounds like sour grapes right now, but there is not a balanced playing field.”
This season Johnson will be at Auburn under Gus Malzahn, an offensive Picasso with an ability to create art and beauty by distorting symmetry.
“It’s not about how fast you go – it’s how fast you go well, and Coach Malzahn has proven he knows how to do that,” Johnson said at his introductory press conference last December. “That is going to help our defense in the long run.”
In a recent interview with War Eagle Extra, he said there were no disadvantages and added that he disagreed with Saban and Bielema that defensive players were more vulnerable to injury.
“I think in the early years with the speed-up offenses, the officials — especially in the SEC, because they didn’t see it very much — they weren’t as good with the consistency of the mechanics,” he said. “I think that they’ve gotten better, and probably we’ve gotten a little bit more accustomed to it on defense.”
Defensive substitutions based on down-and-distance, field position and offensive matchups became more common in the early to mid-80’s after George Seifert helped the San Francisco 49ers win a second Super Bowl under Bill Walsh. Instead of depending almost exclusively on adjusting formations audibly from the base as the Cowboys did from the flex or the Dolphins zone blitz strategies which the Steelers refined, Seifert assembled a group of role players in the front seven to free an extraordinarily talented secondary.
Seifert’s 4-3 base might last for one down with aging Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds at middle linebacker. Most teams started with a run, which played to Reynolds’ strength, but depending where the next play began Seifert usually pulled him after first down and switched to either a three-man or five-man front utilizing any of nine linemen, and nickel or dime coverage. Safety Jeff Fuller became the prototype hybrid linebacker/safety common in today’s defenses with the ability to cover, run stop and pass rush.
Ultimately, coaches began to recruit bigger and faster players at every position, including corner to offset the size advantages at receiver; at safety to accommodate the potential wear and tear required for versatility inside and out, up and down and at end and outside linebacker as pass rush specialists with the skill to drop into coverage against tight ends.
As defenses began to tilt the field, a few offensive coaches tried to regain the advantage by, first, reading on the fly, which led to homogenizations of the run-and-shoot and single-wing.
Sam Wyche, who worked with Walsh at San Francisco, took the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl with a no-huddle as the primary scheme. And Buffalo pulled the trigger on the “K-gun” with quarterback Jim Kelly, who learned the run-and-shoot offense under Mouse Davis in the USFL.
Despite its success in those trials, for more than 20 years the concepts of the no-huddle were regarded as a curiosity, a gimmick in a sport steeped in tradition. Even the spread and spread-option offenses were viewed skeptically by coaches raised on smash-mouth football.
Little changed until Malzahn and several high school coaches, who’d been successful with variations on the theme were pulled into the college game. Malzahn essentially fired the loudest shot of the revolution by winning a national championship at Auburn as offensive coordinator with quarterback Cam Newton. Helping fuel the debate were wildly successful offenses with variations on the theme at Nevada, Baylor, Tulsa, Arizona, Oregon, Oklahoma State and – of course – Clemson that pushed the envelope.
Clemson frequently employed a no-huddle speed game under Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez under the code name “Indy.” Rodriguez’s attitude was time of possession was the most overrated statistic in the game, but when an offense snaps the ball 85-90 times a game as Morris’ offense does the residual effect is controlling the clock.
“Their job is to score points; our job is to stop people,” said current Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who learned to co-exist and scheme for accelerated offenses at Oklahoma. “You manage it, but I feel like that wasn’t really an issue for me just because of my background and coming from that style of a team, where our offense did that as well.”
With Morris—a Malzahn protégé—and Venables, there seems to be a cordial blend that suits Swinney’s vision – refined under eight offensive coordinators before becoming a head coach—is an offense that pressures defenses side to side end to end and a defense with a deep, athletic defensive front seven that should allow for substitution with little if any slip in productivity.
And while it may require plenty of gas to run at those speeds, under Morris the Clemson offense has set records for mpg. It would be a shame if college football tries to legislate it out of existence.