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September 27, 2013

GAMEDAY: Slowing down the hurry-up, no-huddle offense

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It wasn't long ago when the belief was that a wide open, frantic, get-it-snap-it-throw-it offense had no business in the Southeastern Conference.

No one knows remembers those days better than Tony Franklin.

A pioneer of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, a scheme now trendy enough for its own acronym (HUNH), Franklin tried it at Auburn in 2006-07.

Never given the freedom to run his scheme from the outset, he wasn't able to beat the perception that the offense was a gimmick, even among his own coaching staff, and was fired after seven games.

Six years later there are five league teams - Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Missouri and Auburn - that believe what Franklin did: that their best chance to compete in the SEC rests with running as many offensive plays as possible.

"Yeah it is, it's fun to see it in the SEC," said Franklin, now offensive coordinator at California. "I'm glad to see it because I think it's more interesting for everybody, fans especially. I think it's a nightmare for a defensive coach. I'm glad I coach the other side of the ball."

With almost half of the SEC West hitting the turbo, it has become prominent enough to have Alabama, the antithesis of this philosophy, devoting time year-round to learn how to stop it.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide will get its second dose of quick-twitch offense in two weeks when it hosts No. 21 Ole Miss Saturday.

"It's drastically different now, and I think teams similar to us are making teams defend the entire 53 yards on the field on every play," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "Then you add the tempo to it and some rules that have come in that have probably made defenses a little less aggressive. The offensive world has changed."

How it works

The hurry-up, no-huddle play callers adhere to two principles: spread teams out and run as many plays as you can. Franklin just calls it "playing fast."

The theory has plenty of logic. A quicker pace on offense means more plays, which leads to more opportunities for yards and more first downs. As the theory goes, that should mean more points.

Running one play every 15 to 20 seconds puts the defense on its heels. That's less time for a defensive coordinator to get a call in, less time for defenders to match up with the right skill players and less opportunity for the defense to disguise blitzes and coverages.

"Defensive coordinators would love for everything to be slow to where the only element of surprise is theirs," Franklin said.

In the Pac-12, where high scores are the norm, Franklin is still up to his old tricks; Cal ranks ninth nationally in total offense and is averaging a whopping 95.7 offensive plays per game in 2013.

"Where they can wait until the last minute and line up in one coverage and make it look like they're going to do something, and at the last minute before the snap they show something else, they bring a blitz off the edge and they have something you can't account for and they blind-side and hit your quarterback," he said. "That's what the defensive coaches would love to do. When you play extremely fast, it takes that away from them because the No. 1 thing they have to do is get lined up. And they have to a lot times, when you have to get lined up fast and snap the ball fast, there's no ability to disguise."

HUNH offenses are mostly run out of the shotgun or pistol formations, with skill players spread across the field. Spreading a team out means defenders are less cluttered in the middle of the field, helping the quarterback diagnose the defense's intentions.

From there, the way the teams opt to pile up yards varies.

Texas A&M and Cal essentially run a faster version of the Air Raid offense, using the pass to set up the run. Ole Miss uses the running game more, stretching rushes to the perimeter with speedy skill players and utilizing the now-popular zone read play to attack. Ole Miss ran the ball 57.3 percent of the time last season.

The process differs, but it's the tempo that's cause for the biggest adjustment.

"I think the biggest thing is that you take defensive players completely out of their rhythm, talk about communication being important, everybody's got to get the signal from the sidelines. When they go speed ball or hurry-up and run a play really fast in eight seconds, you barely have time to get lined up," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I think the whole idea is they want to go fast so you're not lined up, you're not ready to play. So you're not really reading your key correctly, you're not really responding the way you should."

Is faster better?

The fast offense brings flash and excitement, it sells tickets and keeps the scoreboard technicians busy. But can a program consistently win games with it? It hasn't been in the SEC long enough to know for sure.

"I don't think Coach Bryant would have liked this kind of game. There's too much finesse involved in it," said Mickey Andrews, a former Alabama player who played for Paul W. "Bear" Bryant and spent 27 years as defensive coordinator at Florida State. Using a scheme that oozed aggression and physicality, he helped FSU win two national championships and became one of the nation's most respected defensive minds.

"He just wanted to bloody noses and whoever had the most after 60 minutes would win the football game if you didn't beat yourself," Andrews said. " I still think that's the name of the game. There are so many other things that go into a football game, whether you play a hurry up offense or you playing the old fashioned, smash-mouth type football."

Here's what we do know: Alabama, the team with three of the last four national championship trophies, has operated the slowest offense in the nation for the past five years.

According to FootballStudyHall.com, Alabama ran fewer plays per minute of possession (2.02) than any team in the Football Bowl Subdivision from 2008-2012. Alabama never ranked higher than 57th in average plays per game in any of those five seasons.

A product of its tempo, no team had fewer plays run against its defense than Alabama in 2012. Four of the past five national champions have also finished the year ranked among the top five in scoring defense. Turns out crystal balls are flashy, too.

"Well I don't know, I guess it's the offensive people that think it's the greatest thing going," Andrews said. "There are a lot of people that get on that racetrack, go around those left turns and all of them got good cars, all of them can go fast and all of that. But you've got to avoid accidents and you got to keep yourself in a position to challenge there at the end. I still say it comes down to fundamentals and it comes down to execution more so than the number of plays you ran."

The biggest criticism for the quick tempo is that it operates at the expense of its own defense. When a team's offense operates quickly, it asks its defense to be on the field more. More plays may lead to more offense for both sides, causing shootouts where the aggressor doesn't have the depth to keep up with its own tempo.

Take Alabama's trip to College Station, Texas, on Sept. 14. Alabama trailed 14-0 quickly, then responded with a 42-7 spurt. The Aggies' offense had its way with Alabama's defense, but when Texas A&M needed a stop there was none to be found. The Crimson Tide gashed the Aggies with 234 rushing yards, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and AJ McCarron passed for a career-high 334 yards on the way to a 49-42 victory.

Even worse for HUNH teams, if the quick offense proves ineffective and posts quick three-and-outs, a game can get out of hand just as quickly.

"(Up-tempo offense) forces your defense to play more too, normally," Andrews said. "And if you don't have great depth, you better be in great condition."

Franklin looked at it another way.

"I have a feeling that if Alabama played fast all the time they'd average 60 points a game. It's just not their style, it's not what they do, it's not who they are," Franklin said. "But what they proved against Texas A&M is that if we've got to do that we can. We have to do it, we can. We've got special players on offense as well and we can score 50 if we need to."

The need for defense isn't lost on even the biggest fast-offense believers, but they often measure good defense in different ways. Up-tempo teams focus more on yards allowed per play, not the more traditional yards per game. Change how good defense is defined, Franklin says, and playing defense with an up-tempo offense is realistic.

"You can score 40 points a game but if you don't play good defense, in the history of football I don't remember somebody winning a championship without playing good defense," Franklin said.

He cited Oregon as the standard for fast-paced teams.

"But I do think you can have both. Good defense just is not going to look the same," Franklin said.

The great equalizer

If there's anyone to blame for the increase in fast-paced offenses in the SEC, it's Alabama.

Beating Alabama at its own game - clock-eating power offense, a stable of big, quick talent on defense - has proven overwhelmingly unsuccessful, forcing programs to pursue other avenues to try and take down the giant.

For now, it's the most popular way to try and neutralize the Crimson Tide's conventional advantages.

In 2005, Troy was one of two teams running the hurry up no-huddle offense. This season, Franklin says about 40 of the 125 FBS teams are doing it. According to FootballStudyHall.com, 63 percent of FBS teams have increased the number of offensive plays they have run from 2008 to 2012, suggesting that the game is speeding up across the board, even for non-HUNH teams. "The whole reason in the beginning for trying to do something like this is that it is an equalizer because otherwise, it just comes down to recruiting. You got better players than I do, we line up and we play slow, we run traditional offense, you beat the (heck) out of us and that's the end of the story," Franklin said. "What's happened now is that you can have people with lesser talent that can go out and score points and give themselves a chance to win."

At Freeze's last two head coaching stops, Arkansas State and Lambuth University, the offense has mitigated any shortcomings in personnel.

"I do believe firmly that if you have the best offensive line in the country, the best backs and the best defense, I don't know that this is the best answer for you," Freeze said. "But if you don't feel like in you're in a place where you're always going to have that, I do think it's a great equalizer. At the places I've been fortunate to be at, I always felt like I don't know that we'll have the best talent top to bottom and depth-wise, so what gives us the best chance to compete with those that do? This was the answer for me."

Ironically, it was Alabama that gave Franklin the inspiration for his offense. He watched the Crimson Tide play Michigan in the 2000 Orange Bowl, and one series in both halves, Alabama broke the huddle, rushed to the line, snapped the ball immediately and handed it off to running back Shaun Alexander. It was basically the same play each time, but Michigan wasn't prepared for it.

"First time I'd ever seen anyone do it," Franklin said. "That was the lightbulb."

Franklin, who was out of coaching at the time, turned it into a successful system that he sold to high schools nationwide. In 2005 he was hired as offensive coordinator at Troy, shattering the school's offensive records in two seasons. After his rocky stint at Auburn, he posted gaudy scoring numbers at Louisiana Tech and is doing so now at Cal.

"It doesn't mean you're going to win, and obviously look at Alabama three of the last four years they've been national champs," Franklin said. "It hasn't destroyed them but what it has done is given people a chance. It's not going to be 'OK, you've got a lot better players than we do so we're going to go take our butt whipping and go home."

The counter attack

Consider the 20-0 first-half deficit to Texas A&M last season as the wake-up call.

Alabama coaches and players have said that the focus on preparation for up-tempo offenses has increased dramatically since the end of the 2012 season. When NFL coaches visited campus to pick the brain of Saban in the offseason, Alabama returned fire, asking about ideas to thwart the quick attack.

"We're a lot more prepared. The coaches have put an emphasis on it in spring ball, fall camp, everything," Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest said. "And we still do it during the week. We go red ball. We're definitely more prepared for it than we have been."

For Saban, it starts with replicating the speed in practice.

"The key thing for defensive players is, you've got to have a sense of urgency, man. And it is really, really hard to simulate in practice, really hard to simulate in practice the pace that they go. So that the defensive players get used to having to play at that pace," Saban said. "So it's challenging, but I think communication and experienced players, guys understanding how fast they've got to play and how fast they've got to get lined up are critical in this game."

Andrews likened the preparation to what teams used to do to combat the option offense. At Florida State, he would have two scout teams rotating in and out against his first-team defense, often without using a ball. It was all about teaching assignments and getting accustomed to tempo.

With the speed comes simplicity. Since players are having to turn to the sidelines quickly to get each call, the play calls are narrowed down.

"There's an upside and a downside to fast tempo. Because when teams go fast tempo there's a lot of things they can't do at the line," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said in August. "We try to create an advantage for us by being able to give them negative plays, and I think if we can do that it can hurt them with their up-tempo. We're excited about the challenge of facing it."

Can the hurry-up, no-huddle last?

Football's natural evolution is never kind to new schemes. When something pops up, the opposite side of the ball gets to work on perfecting a way to shut it down. The Wildcat had a short lifespan in college football. The zone read, the hottest thing going in the NFL last season, hasn't seen the same success early in the 2013 season.

"I think that everything in football is check and checkmate. You do this, then they do that," Franklin said.

Franklin may have been ahead of his time when it comes to quick-tempo offense in the SEC, but even he knows there's limited time until the defense finds its own edge. How long the up-tempo craze lasts remains to be seen.

"I used to tell my high school clients six and seven years ago 'Look, you're probably only going to have five years of this before everybody is doing it.' I said in five years everybody is going to be doing it and I was probably a year or two off," Franklin said. "But, you know I think it will last for a while, from there, they will go on to something better, newer, and 10 years from now people will be doing that."

Until then, the toughest league in the nation will just have to get used to a little speed.

Reach D.C. Reeves at dc.reeves@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0196

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