Changing game: Offenses playing faster than ever
Because it’s late October, the temperatures are getting colder and the days are getting shorter, here’s a handy guide to watching football in Ohio for the rest of this season: Grab a hat, some gloves, a blanket and maybe a thermos of hot chocolate. Maybe even a mixer, too.
Most importantly, don’t blink.
Football is being played faster than ever, at every level, and those guiding it don’t see a change coming anytime soon. What used to be three yards and a cloud of dust has become three yards from a swing or screen pass and cloud of those little rubber pellets that fly up from the new artificial turf, followed by another snap and another cloud of dust in 10-16 seconds.
Huddles are going the way of the leather helmet. It’s all about the spread, and not just making defenses defend every inch of the field but beating defenses to the call — and to the punch — with tempo and some college teams playing so fast they’ve run more than 100 plays in a game.
"It’s made football fun again," University of Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said.
Tuberville has been all over the South in a 35-year coaching career before taking Cincinnati job before last season. He guesses that it was in the early 2000s when spring and summer 7-on-7 leagues started popping up in Florida and Texas and that brand of the game started showing up, first at the high school and small-college level.
"It was countering AAU basketball," Tuberville said. "We still had a lot of 6’3 guys thinking they were going to the NBA, but a good number of them started realizing it was fun to catch passes, too. Then quarterbacks started throwing for 400 yards in a game because they were getting the chance too, and kind of a new version of football caught fire."
Urban Meyer has lots of stories about sitting in a crammed, dark meeting room as a first-year head coach at Bowling Green in 2001 and tinkering with a spread offense that not only stretched defenses but used quarterbacks and wide receivers as running backs, utilized the option out of passing formations and kept opponents guessing. He wasn’t in the 7-on-7 line of thinking but instead using the run game and various formations to do what offenses had always tried to do.
Outnumber defenses. Outblock them. Run past them.
Those early designs worked. Meyer’s first Bowling Green team averaged 40 points per game. Thirteen years later, Meyer has two national championship rings and is back in his home state as the coach at Ohio State, and his Buckeyes are averaging 47 points a game to this point and playing faster than ever.
"There have been times in the past when we want to run very uptempo and it looks awful because everyone’s (tired)," Meyer said. "I don’t feel that way at all and more importantly, our offensive coordinator (Tom Herman), he’s a big tempo guy. I’m usually the one putting the brakes on. I’m the one on the field seeing fatigue. As long as I know we’re rotating players, on the headsets it’s, ‘Go, go, go.’
"We have had great offenses. I consider this potentially a really good one, maybe a great one. But this is the first time I feel very comfortable with the tempo because that’s not something (we did) at Florida, Utah, Bowling Green. We never ran tempo offenses."
Herman’s roots are in Texas, at off the radar places like Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. Herman was running the option out of the spread in a different part of the country the same time Meyer was, and his Rice offense got so good and went so fast in 2008 that it finished in the top 10 nationally in three key categories.
That landed Herman a job as Iowa State’s offensive coordinator and landed him on Meyer’s radar. When Meyer was hired at Ohio State in late 2011, he hired Herman as soon as he could because of Herman’s experience wearing out defenses with tempo.
"He’s an expert at it," Meyer said.
Case in point: Ohio State ran 101 plays and racked up a school-record 45 first downs in a 50-28 win over Cincinnati on Sept. 26.
"I’m a defensive coach," Tuberville said. "We pull our hair out trying to defend that tempo.
"When you go fast, you keep people from running a lot of defenses. You don’t give them time to either bring new guys in or see little tweaks you’re making from series to series. If there are only 12 seconds between snaps, you’re really not letting the defensive coordinator communicate with his guys or the linebackers and safeties communicate with each other. They might get a couple words in, but they have to get lined up. You have a play ready for an uncovered receiver. You just try to keep the pressure on the defense all the time, never let them get comfortable."
When Mount Union coach Vince Kehres was still defensive coordinator at the NCAA Div. III powerhouse in 2010, a surprise no-huddle series sprung on the Raiders in the opening game caused Mount Union to eliminate its system of elaborate defensive signals and start giving its defensive players wristbands. Instead of a huddle, Kehres went to a simple system of signaling in numbers.
"Our guys had to quickly check that wristband," he said. "We had to be ready."
That sparked a change in Mount Union’s offense, too. The coaches started stressing an increased tempo and playing more multiple-receiver sets. By the end of 2011, the Mount Union staff — knowing its new quarterback, Kevin Burke, was both very smart and very fast — started studying Oregon’s offense, everything from the tempo to the blocking schemes to creating plays with both a run and pass option. Chip Kelly turned Oregon into a national power with his offenses, then turned that into a job with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"From my perspective, what’s evolved is you used to have a zone-read option play and the quarterback had a keep or give choice based on reading the defensive end," Kehres said. "Now, there are all of these plays off of that. The quarterback reads the defensive end, and a linebacker, and sometimes the next linebacker next to him, and in a certain read we throw a pass off that same run look."
Many of Ohio’s most recognizable and successful high school programs — Mentor, Lakewood St. Edward, Coldwater, Massillon, Cincinnati Moeller and Dublin Coffman, just to name a few — are running the spread as a base offense and going without a huddle either exclusively or most of the time. When Youngstown Ursuline beat Massillon last week, it did so with a no-huddle spread but with little intention of throwing the ball, instead trying to wear down the defense and create running lanes for two talented running backs and a 220-pound battering ram of a quarterback.
Kehres said when he sees high school film of potential recruits, he sees "almost everybody" running a spread offense of some sort and many running no-huddle offense.
"Even (high school) programs that were traditionally wing-T, triple-option…double tight (ends) or some combination have worked in the shotgun, the pistol, the same concepts out of a different look," Kehres said. "I think it’s a great thing that with your TV remote on a Saturday night, you can watch three different college football games and get five or six different ideas, all that are new.
"I think a lot of coaches are doing that. I love my remote. I don’t think I’m alone."
Said Tuberville: "There are really two kinds of spreads, a running spread and a passing spread. Urban Meyer has always been a running spread coach. His quarterbacks are mobile, and they’re weapons. The running spread is winning games. Auburn almost won the national championship with it last year. Right now, Mississippi State is No. 1 with it. Urban won at Florida with Tim Tebow. That quarterback at Mississippi State (Dak Prescott), he’s the new Tim Tebow."
The passing spread is what Cincinnati is running this season with strong-armed quarterback Gunner Kiel and a talented group of receivers. It’s the passing spread that’s propelled Triway High School in Wooster — a rural school that plays in Div. IV in Ohio’s seven-divsion football setup — to an average of 56 points and 391 passing yards per game through seven games this season.
It’s more than just experienced and talented quarterback Parker Carmichael that’s sparked the Triway offensive explosion. Triway was eliminated from the state playoffs last year by Kenton — which was then coached by the godfather of the up-tempo spread in Ohio high school football, Mike Mauk — and Lee said his team, which has to play players both ways because it just doesn’t have the numbers, was gassed early in what became a 46-6 Kenton victory that featured a total of 103 pass attempts.
So, with Carmichael and most of the receiving corps returning, Lee adopted Kenton’s tempo for this season. Triway worked on and conditioned for it all summer but hid it in its preseason scrimmages.
In the season opener, 10 touchdowns all came on possessions lasting five or fewer plays. Two weeks later, Carmichael accounted for 11 touchdowns — 6 passing, 5 running — in a 74-47 win.
"I’ve always prefered to coach passing teams, and we’ve always had different versions of a no-huddle offense," Lee said. "We’ve just never done it at this pace. You go quick to keep the defense on its heels, keep it guessing…and eventually, you hope to just break the defense. We’ve been able to do that."
After Mauk won six total games in his first three seasons at Kenton, which sits an hour south of Toledo, in the late 1980s, he adopted his own, early version of the spread offense and installed it at every level of the program. Mauk’s son, Ben, set national passing records as Kenton’s quarterback that were later broken by Maty Mauk, now the quarterback at Missouri. Mauk’s Kenton teams signaled in plays from the sideline, went for two after most touchdowns, almost always onside kicked and had just two designed running plays. Every summer, Mauk’s Kenton teams went south for those national 7-on-7 tournaments.
With that Mauk offense as the model, Carmichael is listed by the national high school website MaxPreps.com as fourth nationally in passing yards — though he’s played fewer games than the top three — and second with 38 touchdown passes. The national leader in passing yards plays at Glendale High School in Springfield, Mo., under first-year Glendale coach Mike Mauk.
Like it was at Kenton all those years ago, some of the spread and tempo concepts are borne of necessity. Triway has offensive linemen who aren’t quite 200 pounds, "but they’re tall and athletic and we throw quick passes out to the edge, and they get out help us spring big plays," Lee said. "We get rid of the ball fast. We get to the line fast. We feel like if we get more plays off than the other team, we’ll have a chance to win."
Herman has said on multiple occasions that his prolific offenses at Rice were run "with doctors and lawyers" taking on superior athletes. So, Rice went fast to wear out opposing defenses and changed things up with the option game out of the spread instead of traditional set to stay ahead of adjustments. That’s how it started at Baylor, too, under Art Briles, who’s now been able to recruit better athletes across the board.
Now, fast quarterbacks and fast offenses are beating defenses all over the country, not just in Texas.
"Art Briles at Baylor was about a decade ahead of the times," Tuberville said. "I knew about Robert Griffin III, and I thought he’d be a star running back and then maybe be running track in the Olympics. (Briles) put RG3 at quarterback and a whole bunch changed."
New Bowling Green coach Dino Babers was at Baylor under Briles from 2008-11 before becoming the head coach at Eastern Illinois and bringing a tempo offense that became the best in the FCS with New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garopolo leading the way. Last season, Eastern Illinois averaged 589.5 yards and 48 points per game, both FCS bests.
Under Babers, Bowling Green has run the second most plays of any offense in the country this season and almost always sticks with the turbo tempo. Cincinnati has two versions of tempo it runs, one with changing personnel — the NCAA has changed the rules to allow defenses to sub when the offenses does — and one with the same 11 players that’s designed to go really fast.
"There’s fast," Tuberville said, "and then there’s NASCAR fast."
Coaches at various levels have all sorts of names for it: Oregon, Lightning, Zoom and Turbo. Mount Union called it "Star Wars." At Bowling Green, it’s branded as "#FalconFast" in a social media-based marketing program that also includes signs around campus.
It’s no longer a gimmick or a package. At Bowling Green specifically, it’s a philosophy that starts not just with emphasizing tempo but building a roster that thrives going fast and is conditioned to keep going fast.
"We’re very comfortable going 15 rounds in a fight," Babers said. "We prefer to play as fast as possible."
Last spring, Babers said his staff was emphasizing tempo but understanding that its desired speed at BG wouldn’t come until a year or two from now. Despite losing gifted quarterback Matt Johnson to a season-ending injury after one game this season, Bowling Green ran 113 plays and scored 45 points in a September win over Indiana. Two weeks later, BG got 47 points off 108 snaps in a win at UMass.
"We don’t have Baylor’s offensive linemen, Baylor’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback or Baylor’s 4.3 speed wide receivers across the board," Babers said. "Structure-wise, yes, (it’s the same offense). But there are things we can’t do the way Baylor does with that mauling offensive line.
"We’re still trying to get mismatches, to attack certain people. It’s a lot more about the Jimmys and Joes than the Xs and Os. We try to find people and spots we can take advantage of."
Baylor, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Arizona and Washington State — all programs well-versed in their version of the up-tempo spread — rank among the top 20 nationally in most offensive snaps to this point of the season. Toledo and Miami-Ohio crack that list, too. Meyer is also getting his wish as Ohio State is averaging 78 plays per game this season, up six from last season and 10 from Meyer’s first season.
"I think it is where football is going," Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "It’s something that you really didn’t see that much in the NFL a couple years ago, and now I think just about every team has some form of (a no-huddle offense). It makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels.
"It stresses you defensively, limits your ability to substitute, can get you tired pretty quick. I don’t think it’s going to be a trend that’s going to fade away. I think it’s going to be a part of everybody’s offense, whether it’s like (the Philadelphia Eagles) and that’s how they live in it or a team like us where we have the ability to have varying tempos and can change from series to series."