Hurried and Harried: The New Normal in the SEC

Hurried and Harried: The New Normal in the SEC
July 25, 2013, 10:30 am
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The Hurry Up Offense Is Now Part Of The Culture Of The SEC - Get Used To It

On second-and-8, the wide receiver for the hurry-up offense runs 20 yards down the sideline to take a defensive back away from the play and out of run-support. At least that’s what it looks like, until that wide receiver casually disappears like a ghost onto his sideline. A fresh wide receiver steps on the field in his place and jogs back to the huddle.

What just happened?

A substitution, that’s what. The defense is flat-footed. They might have seen the sub, but the officials don’t always see it. The defense cannot get the referee to stop play and ask for its turn to substitute.

By rule, if the offense subs, the defense is allowed to sub. But it does not always happen by the book in the SEC. The officials are trying to get lined up before the next snap and miss the subterfuge. It’s like a slight-of-hand card trick.

A lot of people scoffed at my question at SEC Media Days to Nick Saban, the Alabama coach, about hiring the Ole Miss coach Tyler Siskey. It is these kinds of “tendencies” that Siskey can help the Bama defensive staff with. How and when do the Rebels get a fresh player on the field? Siskey knows. Mark Stoops, the Kentucky coach, also understood the question and said Siskey has some value that way.

The umpire who is spotting the ball is supposed to get a count of players before the next snap of the ball and the crew is supposed to make sure there are enough players on the line of scrimmage. Officials are also supposed to make sure the offensive players come set. But the official spotting the ball barely has time to wipe the sweat from his eyes. The only thing he can tell the center is, “Don’t snap this ball until I’m out of the way.” The umpire spots the ball and quickly moves to a position safely behind the middle linebacker….if he is fast enough to get there.

It’s like feeding alligators. Watch your fingers. Snap, snap, snap. The continuous offense in the SEC goes fast. Who has time to count?

Did both wide receivers stand still at the same moment, or did they both move, which is illegal? Did the tackle get set or did he get a running start into the defender?

There will be continuous football in the SEC this season and continuous debate.

Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M will try and get an extra 15-20 plays a game with their vroom tempo offenses.

They do not want the Goliath from Alabama to get his helmet straightened and shirt tucked in and get in a comfortable stance. They want that Georgia player to be stressed from the fast pace and bent over like he is looking for spare change on the ground. They want that future NFL player from LSU to wish he was sucking oxygen on the sideline.

The revved up offense is a sight to behold. Look at Oregon. Look at Texas A&M. The numbers put up are dizzying and the fans of the hurry-up offense are delighted by the energy and scoring. It is an electric game where a big play can happen any moment.

And so here we are.

A full-blown debate.

There are two things to remember about the SEC when discussing the hurry up offense:

  1. The top three teams in the conference last season were conventional, rock-em, sock-em squads: Alabama, Georgia, LSU. In that mix, too, were South Carolina and Florida who also prefer a huddle and then a handoff, but occasionally go fast themselves.
  2. Nothing is going to keep the physicality out of the SEC. Big people beat up little people and the SEC gets fast, big people.

The hero for conventional wisdom in football—blocking and tackling straight up—is the Alabama coach Nick Saban who wondered at SEC Media Days if there was a safety risk of players going 15 straight plays without a break. Saban asked the question about safety, but it was clear he had already formulated an answer. Yes, there is a safety risk.

And yet, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze told me, “Give me some research. There’s no way that is putting more people at more risk than they are already at.”

For me, the issue is not safety. It’s following the rules. If Ole Miss can run 15 consecutive plays without substituting and create an aura of excitement like Oregon, let the Rebels run. They call it “Backyard Basketball” and I’m fine with that.  But here’s the line that should not be crossed. The SEC umpire, the striped shirt who usually spots the ball, has to make sure the offense is set and there are not multiple players in motion. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has the same concern.

“What I notice time and time again when you're watching the film is that the officials are not in position to officiate the game,” Franklin said. “You watch time and time again, not everybody's set when the ball is snapped, and they can't officiate that because the pace of the game they can't keep up with.”

The officiating crew has to stop play if a defensive player starts to limp or cries injury. This is not open for debate. If trainers are allowed to run on the field to examine a kid, play stops. They cannot strap a lie detector to a defensive player to see if he is faking the injury to slow down the pace of the game. I was told categorically by an SEC referee that play has to stop and the player needs to be checked out. The offense can complain all it wants.

We should expect more of this cunning in 2013. A cramp becomes a catastrophe…for about two or three plays.

Shaw said his officials’ marching orders are this: don’t try and be too fast, don’t try and be too slow. Just spot the ball. Go at your pace.

“We’re not going to go slow, but we’re not going to jump over people to spot the ball,” Shaw said.

The coaches are the ultimate arbiters of the rules. There is a 12-person NCAA football rules committee and that group examines questionnaires it sends out to coaches. It compiles answers and acts according to the wishes of the coaches, Shaw said.

This year, the coaches did not want a protective window for the defense where the defense is allowed to substitute on first downs. The thought is to allow the subs on first downs following third downs so not to take away the offenses entire up-tempo look by subbing after every first down.

But….

Shaw said there is some noise among coaches nationally to allow a protective window for the defense. “There is a growing concern,” Shaw said, implying that more coaches than just Saban feel the no huddle might have some risk factors.

For 2013 at least, the rules are the rules. The offense controls the pace. Ole Miss and others want that official spotting the ball to be a 4.3 sprinter. They also don’t care if the umpire has a towel to wipe off a wet ball. Shaw had a story about that.

“We had a weather delay for the Oregon-Tennessee game one season and after we came back out to the field, Chip Kelly (the Oregon coach) walked up to me and said, ‘Steve, you don’t have to dry the ball off for us. I don’t care if you spot it in the mud, just put it on the ground so we can go’.”

I remember late last century when the South was aghast at Steve Spurrier’s Fun N Gun offense. The Ball Coach was going to turn the SEC into a bunch of wimps with four wideouts and passing galore and the SEC would lose its identity as a line of scrimmage league. It never happened. The SEC still has tailbacks and fullbacks and blocking.

The hurry-up offense is just a twist, a different way of doing business for some teams. Embrace the diversity and don’t worry. There will be plenty of head-rattling play to come in 2013. 

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