Offensive coordinators blend philosophies to create versatility
Offense is out of control.
Points have never been more plentiful in college football. If touchdowns could be weighed they'd be measured in tons. And yards? On some Saturdays it seems you could get to the moon and back with all the ground that gets covered.
Quarterbacks are better trained than ever before and their skills more diverse. The days when a QB was a rare commodity if he could run AND pass are long gone.
Offensive coordinators aren't afraid to blend eras and philosophies if it'll get them a first down. A little triple-option here. A little West Coast there. A dash of run-and-shoot for flavor.
"Every Saturday you're seeing all of football history in every game," Chris B. Brown, the author of "The Essential Smart Football" and the Smart Football blog, said.
And to top it all off, they're running plays almost as fast as Usain Bolt can run the 200.
Outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a few other spots around the country, defenses have become defenseless.
"In the early 90s, the defenses were ahead and Miami was dominating defensively. Things kind of evolved," Arizona State coach Todd Graham, a former defensive coordinator, said. "But I will tell you, the last 10 years, man, it's been steadily, steadily, steadily the offenses having the edge. The game has changed."
How does a defensive coach deal with it?
"It's hard," UCLA coach Jim Mora said, his eyes widening and his voice rising. "It's crazy." Mora, a former NFL defensive coordinator, is one of the many feeling flummoxed.
Defensive innovators haven't been able to counter with Xs and Os. They're hoping a different approach in recruiting might help or possibly doubling down on fundamentals. Something to turn around a trend that's been developing for years.
In 2008, FBS teams averaged 27 points per game and 371.6 yards. Last year, those figures jumped to 29.5 points per game and 409 yards. Plays per game from scrimmage have increased from 67.7 to 71.5 per team. And yards per play has risen from 5.48 to 5.72.
Even in the Southeastern Conference, which boasts of its defensive prowess, the offenses are taking over. SEC's teams averaged a league-record 402.4 yards per game and 30.4 points, a bit shy of the record of 31 per game set in 2010.
And with more SEC teams picking up the pace of play these days — despite the protests of Nick Saban and Bret Bielema — don't be surprised if the record book is rewritten again in 2013.
So what in the name of former SEC defensive guru Joe Lee Dunn can be done to shift the balance of power back the guys on the other side of ball?
Three areas need to be addressed: player development, recruiting/personnel and schemes.
The rise of seven-on-seven football, a scaled down version of the game played by high schoolers during the offseason without linemen, full pads or tackling to the ground has coincided with improvements in the passing game.
"It's all about the development of quarterbacks," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, who rose through the ranks as a defensive assistant at Miami and Texas A&M, said.
When they get to college campuses, they're ready to play. Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman last year, but it came just a few years after Tim Tebow was the first sophomore to win it and Sam Bradford became the second.
While quarterbacks are working on their games year-round, defensive players are tackling less and less because of injury concerns.
"The thing I really see in college football is the missed tackles," Dunn, who was one of the most successful defensive coordinators in college football in the 1990s and early 2000s, said. "So many missed tackles."
The missed tackles stand out more than ever before because offenses are forcing defenses to defend so much more of the field, stretching them out both vertically and horizontally.
"You have to make a lot more open field tackles," Brown said.
Dunn said the answer is stressing the need to run to the ball. But defenders have so far to go, only teams with lineups loaded with elite athletes such as Alabama and LSU have the sheer speed and quickness to close the gaps.
For those teams that can't pack a roster with blue chip talent, there's a lot of one-on-one football being played, with the defenses at a disadvantage.
"All the better athletes are going to play wide receiver in high school and they're not playing defense," Tuberville said.
Or they're playing quarterback. Back in the day, for the most part, there were running quarterbacks (think Nebraska great such as Turner Gill, Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch) and there were throwing quarterbacks. And the guys with the good arms who could run well (John Elway, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham) were more scramblers than ball carriers.
Now players such as Manziel, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch are just as comfortable running the option as they are reading coverage.
Tuberville was part of Jimmy Johnson's staff at Miami in the 1980s that helped revolutionize college football defense by using smaller lineups and more aggressive schemes. Linebackers became defensive ends, safeties became linebackers, and cornerbacks forced the run at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Hurricanes wrecked wishbone and triple-option offenses that posed little threat with the pass.
Now teams need more defensive backs than ever to defend four and five wide receiver sets and Tuberville is looking at offenses to find them.
"What we have done is we signed a couple of kids this year that played offense, that could run, that could jump, but they've never covered anybody," he said. "We're going to switch them from offense to corners."
More defensive backs and big guys who can rush the passer AND drop into coverage. A player like Carl Bradford of Arizona State, a freak of an athlete who is listed as a 6-foot-1, 241-pound defensive end but is one of a growing breed of hybrid outside linebackers. Morgan Breslin of Southern California, Anthony Barr of UCLA and Ronald Powell of Florida also fit the prototype.
Graham said Bradford's versatility is the key to his defense and he has only one other player on his roster like him, and that player is a freshman.
Until major college teams can regularly stock their rosters with four or five Carl Bradford-types, defenses are going to have problems.
This might be the biggest problem for defenses.
"I think there has been a lot more forward-thinking on the offensive side of the ball," Graham, whose teams have become known for their fast-paced and prolific offenses, said.
And it's not just those pesky spread offenses that are doing all the damage. Even what has become thought of as traditional is, in reality, pretty high-tech.
Alabama's one-back offense has more in common with Don Coryell's Chargers than Vince Lombardi's Packers.
Brown said the ability of offenses to attack so well in so many ways has defenses losing the most basic numbers game. To stop the run, defenses need to have more players closer to the line, but that leaves them exposed to downfield throws. Move those safeties and linebackers back and here comes the run.
It's not quite that simple, of course. Schemes vary and many ways to solve the same problems — or at least try to solve them.
Graham said about five years ago he felt the defenses were starting to figure out how to slow down the spreads, but then — with Oregon leading the way — teams started pushing the pace and defenses have been playing catch-up ever since.
Defensive coaches can't substitute players to match down and distance, and often can't even call plays. It's base defense and hope for the best — and that's not working out too well.
Coaches talk about redefining what it means to play good defense. Don't worry so much about yards between the 20s, but stiffen in the red zone and cause turnovers. The problem with that is turnovers are often as much about luck as they are skill. Not very reliable.
It seems hopeless, but as much as it sounds like a cliche, the game is cyclical and at some point someone will figure out how to turn this around.
Dunn has decided to take at least a couple years off from coaching to follow his son's high school career in Georgia. Maybe when he's ready to come back, he'll have the answer.
For now, when asked the most important thing a defense needs these days, he concedes: "No. 1 thing is you're going to have to have a good offense yourself."