This offseason has seen a debate flare up between coaches split on the topic of up-tempo, no huddle offenses. It started with Nick Saban and Bret Bielema of the SEC voicing their concerns over the “safety” of up-tempo offenses. Noted up-tempo enthusiast and new Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury responded that he would coach slower when Saban recruited smaller and weaker. Now, the debate has reached the Pac 12 where USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin is the lone dissenting voice against the new wave of fast-paced playcalling.
Kiffin expressed his concern during a Pac 12 mini-media day at ESPN headquarters on Wednesday. His stance boils down to rules limiting the amount of time players can hit in practice negatively affecting their ability to hold up in a game with 20 extra plays or more are getting run by the offense. He told reporters that he thinks “there is a conversation there,” that needs to be had. It’s important to note, much like Saban and Bielema, Kiffin’s offense was slowed way down in 2012, running an average of 67.5 plays per game, last in the Pac 12.
He finds himself in the minority partly due to the Pac 12’s tendency to pick up the pace as a conference. Four teams finished in the top 15 in the country in plays per game last season. The Arizona Wildcats (83.2), Oregon Ducks (82.8), UCLA Bruins (81.7) and Arizona State Sun Devils (81.5) all put the pedal to the floor and found plenty of success doing so. Obviously, those coaches came out against Kiffin on this debate and will be trying to get even faster in 2013.
UCLA coach Jim Mora came to the college ranks conditioned to the traditional, methodical pace of huddling after every play. But he grew to love the up-tempo style quickly as coach of the Bruins, especially as he recognized the offensive advantage it gave him. He doesn’t see any safety concerns associated with the style of play, noting that if an offense substitutes a player, an official stands over the ball and doesn’t allow the offense to snap until the defense gets a chance to sub out as well, making it more than fair.
ASU head coach Todd Graham feels the same way about the debate. He even thinks coaching at a faster pace is a bigger challenge than lining up and running at a more traditional pace because “It doesn’t do you any good to go fast and mess up.” Rich Rodriguez, Arizona head coach and one of the Godfather’s of spread, up-tempo offenses, finds the whole debate laughable.
“It’s silly. I think maybe they should look at blitzing more guys than you can block and see if there’s a safety issue in that, too. How many quarterbacks have gotten hit when a guy came unblocked? Maybe you shouldn’t be able to bring seven when I only have six to block.
“…I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it wasn’t a safety issue before. Who goes to a game to watch a huddle? Maybe the concessionaires like it so they can sell more hot dogs.”
Not even Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, whose offense finished No. 11 in the conference running just 67.8 plays per game, sides with Kiffin. Whittingham does think the college game is too long and there are too many plays, but he doesn’t think adding rules to slow down offenses is the answer. Instead, he suggests finding ways to organically shorten the games, like eliminating the rule that stops the clock after a first down. He believes there are ways to shorten the game without dictating how teams play the game.
Kiffin, much like Saban and Bielema before him, comes across as a guy who is upset teams aren’t playing to his strengths. Lining straight up and playing head to head, there are few teams that can match USC’s talent. But the Trojans’ struggle with depth and can get fatigued late in games, so they have struggled against fast-paced, no-huddle attacks. So the real question in this debate becomes: Is Lane Kiffin more concerned for the safety of his players or his job?