Slowing down no-huddle offenses: Bielema, Saban lobbying for what would benefit their team

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Is the offensive huddle becoming an endangered species?

The days of bland, vanilla offenses are indeed becoming more obscure. The biggest equalizer against dominant defenses, other than sheer talent, is hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. We’ve seen it with Alabama and Nick Saban over his dynasty-stricken tenure with the Tide.

The speed of no-huddle offenses like those of Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze have become a defining characteristic in college football. It’s almost a loaded weapon waiting to deploy at anytime. And in a copycat game like football, it’s being displayed even in the country’s best defensive conference, and it’s even been successful at football’s highest level in the NFL.

And that isn’t sitting too well with some current head coaches.

Saban’s Tide lost to the spread-‘em-out, hurry-up Aggies last season in what was the only blemish on Bama’s historic championship run. But the hurry-up offense had Alabama worried long before the Aggies. Alabama seemed invincible early in the year, only to look mortal against seven-win Ole Miss’ style of play. And after the Tide beat the Rebels and after Saban had another refresher against the hurry-up offense, he had a few negative words to say about it during the coaches’ teleconference in the name of player safety.

“I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety,” Saban said. “The team gets in the same formation group. You can’t substitute defensive players. You go on a 14-, 16- or 18-play drive and they’re snapping the ball as fast as you can go, and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can’t even get lined up. That’s when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt … when they’re not ready to play. I think that’s something that can be looked at. It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points a game. More and more people are going to do it.”

But it’s not just Saban; he has a new partner in town in Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, who is also lobbying against this style of offense. Bielema told AL.com that he wants to implement a rules change also in the name of player safety to allow a 15-second substitution period after every first down, in an effort to slow down the high-octane offenses and keep guys fresh.

“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, there’s times where you can’t get a defensive substitution in for 8, 10, 12 play drives,” Bielema said. “That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real.”

Will Muschamp and Steve Spurrier were also quoted as being proponents of slowing down the no-huddle attacks, while Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze are against it, for obvious reasons.

While Bielema and Saban lobby to slow these sexy offenses down in the name of ‘player safety’, they really only want a remedy that benefits their team. Who can blame ‘em for that?

Rules preventing up-tempo offenses would give any defense an advantage. And the game of football is all about finding a schematic advantage to exploit your opponent. Defenses with tremendous depth like Alabama – with an added rules change – could rotate players at a higher pace, keeping players fresher, and ultimately help swing some momentum back toward their direction by getting more stops.

Hugh Freeze points out that offenses have big uglies who move at a fast-pace, too. Why are we not talking about them? The quantity of plays run also affects the offensive team, which sets the pace in any drive.

“If the offense doesn’t sub, the defense shouldn’t sub, and that’s the way the rules are,” Freeze told AL.com. “Offensive players are playing, too, the same number of snaps. Are they in danger also? … They’re having to play the same number of plays.”

But Saban alluded to the real reason why coaches don’t want to face hurry-up attacks last fall, and it isn’t because of player safety.

“I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking: Is this what we want football to be?”

Fairness.

Just like Les Miles wants to abolish permanent cross-divisional rivalries in the name of ‘fairness’, Saban points that direction, too. Fairness doesn’t belong in the SEC, and it doesn’t belong in lobbying for a rules change to slow down offenses that give your defense trouble.

What’s to stop defenses from having more multiple looks than offenses? In fact, some defenses have just as many looks, if not more, than offenses. Advantage? Defense.

Regardless of whether or not any coach wants to slow down offenses – even the Coaching Czar Saban himself – the college football rules aren’t going to simply change because coaches are hiding behind the veil of player safety in the name of fairness. College football is asymmetrical, and that uneven nature is what makes this sport we love so unique.

The continued evolution of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses is only the latest response to the long and drawn out struggle between offenses and defenses in a game we like to call football.

Photo Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

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  • This reminds of boxing matches (Marvin Hagler v Sugar Ray Leonard, Foreman v Ali), where one fighter is like a rabbit, dancing around the ring, striking from the outside. The other is built for hard hits, but can’t catch his opponent. The only difference, in this case, is Alabama has already begun to adapt to these offenses, mainly the use of the “rabbit” rush package. This scheme allows for a LB to play down at DE, and shifts normal DE’s to the inside. Folks might remember Donta’ Hightower doing this quite a bit. Last season, Hubbard, Dickson, and Devall all made appearances as the rabbit. We’re also seeing some of Bama’s larger DE’s losing weight, in order to improve on their fast-twitch abilities. Namely LaMichael Fanning (the suplex vs Mizzou guy), who has dropped his weight from 295 down to 270. I’ve also read that Dakota Ball has lost a considerable amount of weight. So I think this year, when playing the up-temp offenses, we’ll see more of those sets featuring Dickson and Devall on the outside, and a combination of Pagan, Stinson, Tomlinson, and Ivory on the inside. Another guy to expect is LB Ryan Anderson, who made the switch from DE during the Spring, as well as newcomers Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster. Nick Saban may complain about facing these fast-pace offenses, but he is definitely not waiting around for the conference or NCAA to make a change.

    • I’m really excited to see Fanning and Allen play. Also I hope for some plays they might put Sunseri up front and spy Manziel (he’s obviously our biggest problem) the whole game. Let Landon Collins play cover safety along with Ha-Ha. Sunseri isn’t super fast to cover some receivers but he can tackle well and can stay on Manziel with a good angle.

      • I don’t necessarily think Alabama’s gameplan against A&M was all that bad. If anything, Bama’s offense failed to sustain any type of drive early, which left the defense very little time on the sidelines to make adjustments. Once the offense started clicking, the defense seemed to follow suit.

  • Being a lifelong Bama fan and attending MSU I would sooner beat myself with a 2×4 than agree with anything Malzahn or Freeze says. However, I see their point. I don’t think rule changes to prevent one type of offense are necessary or even right. Like they keep saying the defense is doing no more than the offense is, so why all the fuss about defensive player safety. I mean I’m sure they would concede if there was some evidence that defensive players (or offensive players for that matter) were actually being injured at a higher rate due to the up-tempo offensive attacks that they run.
    I think in a season or two this will be a non issue, defenses will develop schemes that work against the no huddle offense and defensive players might have to start shedding a little fat and getting a little more muscle so that they are still heavy but they are in better shape. The wishbone was once thought to be unstoppable too, just look how often it is used now. Don’t worry everybody the dominance of the hurry up offense will pass, it’ll just take some fancy scheming.

  • You could also make the case that the teams running hurry up offenses are doing more for player safety than traditional offenses. A major factor in injuries, as Saban pointed out, is fatigue. Well, teams running hurry up offenses are in better condition and experience fewer injuries.

    • Well then eventually defenses are going to run enough sprints to keep up with these flashy offenses. Then what?

    • good point Rab! i laughed last year when Saban same same things – If “…your players are walking around and can’t even get lined up. That’s when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt …”, well what about the offensive player that doesnt get substituted out ever – and he has to go up against a giant, fresh off the bench 2nd or 3rd line guy – he could get creamed so maybe he should quit subbing in those huge linemen hes got stockpiled LOL – Coaches, let the teams play – keep working on those defensive schemes – Gig Em!~