Commentary

Speed, athleticism required to combat fast-tempo offenses

Originally Published: August 8, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

If it's possible to mix pride and sheepishness, that's how Oregon State coach Mike Riley described last season's Civil War victory over Oregon and it's fast-tempo spread offense.

"We had a really good defense and we held them to 31," Riley said.

The Beavers won, 38-31, in double overtime. But the advent of what his archrival is doing brought to mind Riley's freshman year as a defensive back at Alabama, when coach Paul "Bear" Bryant installed the wishbone in preseason practice in 1971.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
Oregon State/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesMike Riley and other coaches are making it a point to slow down the fast-tempo spread.

"We lost, I think, one regular-season game over the next four years," Riley said.

It is a verity of the game that football is cyclical. The offense surges ahead and the defense catches up, unless it's vice versa. Right now, the spread offense played at a fast tempo is at the quarter pole. The defense for it is still loading into the starting gate.

"We'll see where this thing goes, but I think it will be a while," Riley said. "It's very, very good and it hasn't reached its peak yet. It's a beautiful thing and a scary thing to watch. What it does, like option football does, it makes a lot of one-on-one tackling. I mean, you put people on islands, and then you strand them. Every time you do that, it's hard."

Because of that stress, some coaches believe the new offensive thinking will change the way that coaches recruit defenders.

"You got to be able to play in space, with guys who can run," UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker said. "In college football, everybody wants their best players on offense. Most of your head coaches are offensive head coaches. Your best athletes, a lot of them, are on offense. I think that has to change a little bit. We're going to have to try to divvy it up a little bit. We're going to need more of that type of athletes on defense, too. … I may take a hit a little bit with the run game and really just focus on having athletes on the field playing that style of ball."

Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops buttressed Walker's point.

"The biggest issue is your speed on the field on defense," Stoops said. "And athleticism, guys that can play in space, tackle in space, cover, pressure. … I think you're going to see quicker and lighter linebackers overall so you have to try and match their speed."

Stoops acknowledged that such changes might mean sacrificing some ability to plug up the run.

Walker said that when UCLA plays a team like Oregon that operates so fast, he expects help from his offense, and he didn't mean merely by scoring points.

"I would talk to Norm (Chow, the UCLA offensive coordinator) and say, 'Look, when we're able to get off the field, you've got to keep us off the field.' Those offenses are stressful. The more the defenses are on the field, you're giving the offense opportunities to make plays on us. You have to play a little bit more ball control on your offense."

These days, who wants to do that?

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com