Spread too thin
Offensive craze causing headaches in Big Ten
By Brian Hamilton, Special to CNNSI.com
So Lloyd Carr has some math issues he'd like to discuss.
First, let's say your program operates a run-of-the-mill, basic defense. But this run-of-the-mill, basic defense has a spread offense to play in a week. Which means you need to produce some defensive backs in a hurry.
You've got maybe eight defensive backs, six that play and two greenhorns for backup. Then a veteran gets hurt. Then your freshmen play. This is not good.
Or, how about the one where you've got a three-tight end, goal-line package in your playbook, which means you usually bring four on a road trip, but you still need those eight defensive backs -- and don't even get us started on the long snapper.
"The problem with all of these different personnel groupings offensively," says Michigan's head coach, "is that you only have so many players."
The spread offense has dawned on the Big Ten in 2001. It's like the Tickle-Me Elmo of attacks -- everyone has to have one. It started with Purdue, then Northwestern. Now Wisconsin has one. Michigan State has one. The spread? Spreading like wildfire.
The basic presumption with the spread offense is that its only effect is to changes what your defense does on the field-- which couldn't be a more short-sighted conclusion. More accurately, especially in the long-conservative Big Ten, it goes so deep as to change the way programs think, from the very early stages of recruiting to problems with travel rosters to the actual on-field stuff.
But get a load of reason two: "I wanted to give our defense a chance to defend it and study it," Alvarez said. "Our defense practices against it every day, so when somebody jumps into a spread against us, we're going to know how to play that. Our defense now understands it a lot better. Had we not practiced it, and let's say we show up and Virginia jumps in it, we'd try to defend it -- but now we understand it a lot better."
In a matter of a year, the spread has instilled so much queasiness in coaches that they'll install entirely new pages in the playbook just so the defense can get it. Gone are days when Big Ten coaches could arrange a two-back, two-tight end scout team with walk-ons to spare. Now, the spread has forced offenses to change so the defenses can figure it out.
But Minnesota coach Glen Mason had a very clear vision through last week's oppressive heat: speed and versatility. A freshman class that featured the kind of athleticism which allows coaches to mix and match against any offensive attack.
"I think you're forced to recruit a little bit differently," Mason said. "There are not many teams where you're playing a true eight-man [defensive] front. You don't even work on goal-line defense with eight run stoppers and three defensive backs anymore. It's more wide open. You look for more athletic-type people."
If Big Ten coaches don't expect the spread offense to be everyone's primary weapon forever, they at least want to have flexibility.
"In the old days, you recruited with the idea that your base defense -- for example, you're a "34" team -- you're looking for three down lineman, four linebackers, and four D-backs," Carr said. "Because in a game, that's what you're going to use. Now, there are a lot of days when you have six defensive backs out there."
Hence, a player like Minnesota's Jimmy Henry, a slight 6-foot, 200-pounder who is first on the depth chart at linebacker when, in maybe every other Big Ten year, he's situational at best. The times, and players, are a-changin'.
"You have some issues with numbers," Carr said.
No kidding. The spread offense doesn't just confuse you on the field. It can force a coach to surrender a part of his team before the bus to the stadium even leaves port.
The spread offense isn't just a weekend phenomenon, at least not in the Big Ten. Coaches are recruiting the kind of players than can best defend it, and everything else besides. Coaches are running it just to shore their defense up. Coaches are tearing their hair out at the personnel mindbenders.
Simply put, in the Big Ten, it's spreading everywhere.
"Defenses will catch up to this, and somebody's going to line up in two tight ends again, and everybody's going to recruit and play with six D-backs on the field," Alvarez said. "Somebody's going to line up with two tight ends, they're going to knock the hell out of you and that's going to be the new wave -- 'How do you stop this?'"
And it was our understanding that there would be no math. ...
Brian Hamilton covers the Big Ten for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. His "This Week in the Big Ten" column will appear weekly during the season.