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THE SPREAD offense has transformed more than a few games into the football equivalent of a thrill-a-minute action film for fans, but defensive coordinators feel more like they're watching a horror flick. They sit in darkened rooms and witness the carnage on videotape, often seeing next week's opponent carve up some helpless defense with multiple-receiver sets and quick, pinpoint passing, or with running plays that rip off big yards because the D is stretched sideline to sideline. It would be hard to blame the coordinators if they covered their eyes during the particularly grisly parts, when the spread all but tortures a defense, marching down the field in short bursts with remarkable precision.
But like townspeople banding together against a monster, defensive coaches across the nation are joining forces. They are combating the spread with a spread of their own—the spread of information, theories and philosophies aimed at slowing down the offensive surge that has bedeviled them. Coaches who are opponents during the season turn into coconspirators in the off-season, sharing ideas on how to stop the dreaded spread. "Everyone is trying to get a handle on the thing," says South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. "If someone's defense seems to have some success against it, other coaches are naturally going to be interested in picking that coaching staff's brain. I know that we borrowed everything we use."
The stop-the-spread market is booming, with instructional videos, Internet forums and dissertations in publications by coaches from high school to the pros. "Wherever you get two or three coaches together," says Texas coach Mack Brown, "you can be pretty sure the subject comes up."
Burnham's office was a particularly popular hangout in the spring—coaches from Ohio State, Minnesota and Colorado were among the visitors—thanks to South Florida's success against West Virginia's spread option in the last two years. The Mountaineers were 22--4 during that stretch, with two of the losses coming against the Bulls; they averaged only 16 points, 160 rushing yards and 3.8 yards a carry against USF, compared to 39.6 points, 311.8 rushing yards and 6.6 yards per carry in the other 24 games.
Big Ten coaches are especially motivated to educate themselves because Rich Rodriguez, formerly the coach at West Virginia, brought the spread option with him to Michigan this season. Wisconsin's Bret Bielema sent his assistants to several schools—he won't say which ones—to study up on defending the spread. The problems it creates for a defense can be discouraging, but most coaches are optimistic that if other innovations such as the triple option and the wishbone could eventually be contained, the spread should be no different. "It can be dealt with like any other offense," says Brown. "We're just not sure how yet."
A SINGLE, widely agreed upon scheme has yet to emerge, but there are a few tenets regarding personnel and approach that any successful defense would almost certainly have to adopt. Among them:
? START WITH A STOPWATCH. The adage You either recruit speed, or you chase it has never been more true. The spread's main priority, to create mismatches in which skill-position players are covered by slower defenders, is harder to accomplish against a unit with serious speed of its own. That's why defenses are plugging players into positions for which they might once have seemed undersized but in which they have above-average quickness.
Players who might have been linebackers in another era become light but quick pass-rushing linemen, such as defensive ends George Selvie (6'4", 245 pounds) of South Florida, second in the nation in sacks last year, and Dexter Davis (6'2", 252) of Arizona State. Big defensive backs, such as USC's Taylor Mays (6'3", 230) and Missouri's William Moore (6'1", 230), become hybrid linebacker-safeties. "It doesn't matter how creative you are otherwise," says Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, the architect of the Red Raiders' pass-happy spread. "If you can't run, you can't stop the spread."
? A MISSED TACKLE IS A TOUCHDOWN. Defenses have to assume as much when they face the spread, which often leaves them stretched so thin that if a defender blows the takedown on even a short reception, help might not arrive in time to prevent a TD. In Division I-AA Appalachian State's 34--32 upset of Michigan last year, the classic example of the spread eviscerating an ill-equipped defense, the Mountaineers' first touchdown came when wideout Dexter Jackson caught a short slant and safety Steve Brown let him slip out of his grasp. The Wolverines didn't get a second chance at the tackle, and Jackson dashed 68 yards for a score.
"It's not always a matter of great X's and O's," says Portland State coach Jerry Glanville, a longtime defensive coordinator at the college and NFL levels. "Part of it is just a case of execution, of tackling properly. I would think that every team getting ready to face a spread would spend time going back to basics, pulling out every tackling drill [the coaches] have ever run." Teams don't need a deep passing game because the chances of one mistake turning something short into something long are there on almost every snap. "A defense basically has to approach every tackle as if it's a touchdown-saving play," says Glanville, "because most of the time it is."