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DARRIN RUOT crouches in his stance seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap. The Baylor offensive line fires off, and Ruot cradles the ball high and tight. As the play proceeds, he dodges linemen and crossing receivers until he reaches a spot about 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He stops, places the ball on the turf, collects another ball and sprints back to his starting spot.
Ruot doesn't appear on Baylor's roster. He isn't a tailback. He's a student manager, and he's wearing a striped referee's jersey. While one play is happening, he's racing to beat the Bears' offense to a predetermined yard line so he can spot the ball for the next play. At its highest tempo, Baylor's offense will run four plays a minute during practice. That pace slows for no one, because the Bears certainly won't stop to give the opposing defense a breath on Saturday. So in Waco even the student managers are skill players. Says Brett Bufton, assistant director of equipment services, "They've got one hell of a flag football team."
While Ruot sets the new line of scrimmage, another student manager stands behind the linebackers and collects the ball from players after each play. This trains Baylor's backs and receivers to get the ball to an official after they're tackled rather than leave it on the ground, which wastes precious seconds. "Our goal is to have the ball spotted so fast [in practice] that when the players get in a game, it's like slow motion," Bufton says.
The quest to set the ball at light speed is one small part of coach Art Briles's programwide mission to reach the end zone faster and more often than any other team in major-college football. Through seven games the Bears have succeeded. They lead the FBS in scoring offense (63.9 points per game), total offense (718.4 yards) and yards per play (9.06). Baylor's average time of possession on its 55 touchdown drives was 88.1 seconds. By comparison, Oregon needed an average of 106.4 seconds for its 59 touchdown drives through eight games. Along the way Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty has nudged his way into the Heisman conversation and tailback Lache Seastrunk has emerged as a star.
When did Briles create a fast-twitch offense that stretches the defense the entire width and length of the field? On Friday nights.
BECAUSE HE spent three years on Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech, Briles is often lumped in with other acolytes of the hyperpaced Air Raid scheme. But the offense Baylor runs is based on the one Briles developed in 16 years as a Texas high school head coach. Briles, who took over in Waco in 2008 after five seasons at Houston, has built that system into a spread offense that goes wider than Urban Meyer or Chip Kelly ever dared. It all began on a chilly December night in 1984, when one team took the ball from Briles and never gave it back.
Briles is the flesh-and-blood incarnation of coach Eric Taylor from the TV version of Friday Night Lights. West Texas twang that drips off every word? Check. Skin tanned and creased by years of running practices under the unforgiving Texas sun? Check. After stints as a high school assistant in the tiny West Texas burgs of Sundown and Sweetwater, Briles finally got his chance to lead a team in 1984, when he took over at Hamlin High, another map dot about 40 miles northwest of Abilene. Briles had the Pied Pipers humming with a ground-based veer offense he learned playing receiver for Bill Yeoman at Houston. Hamlin won its first 13 games, but in the Class 2A quarterfinals the Pied Pipers met the Panhandle High Panthers. At the time Texas rules did not allow for overtime in the playoffs: Ties went to the team that penetrated the opponent's 20-yard line more often. On the final play of the third quarter Hamlin and Panhandle were tied 7--7, and each team had been inside the other's 20 once. A Pied Pipers' punt pinned the Panthers on their own one. Then the fourth quarter from hell began.
Panhandle ran 26 plays, throwing only once. It slogged ahead and watched the clock tick. When the Panthers crossed Hamlin's 20, they celebrated as if they had rung up six points. "We had the ball for the whole quarter and never scored," says Chris Koetting, the former Panhandle wingback who scored the Panthers' lone touchdown that night. When the 12 minutes expired, Panhandle had the ball at the Hamlin 11. The Panthers advanced.
Briles immediately began searching for a way to ensure that his team would never be in that position again. Opponents wouldn't get to play keep-away; they'd have to score to keep pace. "As you get deeper in the playoffs, you're always going to come up against somebody that could be better than you, talentwise," Briles says. "So you need to have an advantage that gives you the opportunity to win that game."
Briles didn't scrap the Veer entirely. He made it the basis for a spread-based running attack, a one-back scheme with the quarterback in the shotgun. Inside the tackle box Briles would be old school. Outside, he'd be space age. Through moves to Georgetown High and Stephenville High, he kept tweaking. Early in his tenure at Stephenville, where he would win four Class 4A state titles, Briles positioned his receivers all the way outside the yard numbers, mere feet from the sideline—a move that spit in the face of conventional football wisdom. A receiver lined up that wide has no room to run an out pattern and no time to come back inside to crack down on a linebacker on a run play. That suited Briles, who wanted to create a glamour position that would encourage the best athletes at the school to come out for football. How do you persuade the star basketball player to strap on pads? Tell him all he has to do is run routes and catch the ball.