Speed-spread week

Speed-spread week

Vols prepare for yet a different brand of the shotgun offense

October 2nd, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

Saul Young, Knoxville News Sentinel Tennessee football defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin go over notes during practice on Haslam Field in Knoxville.

Saul Young, Knoxville News Sentinel Tennessee football defensive coordinator...

KNOXVILLE -- Like the veers, I's and West Coast versions that preceded them, no two spread offenses are identical.

But spreads are becoming more common, as evidenced by the University of Tennessee preparing for a third in three weeks.

Auburn, like Florida and Ohio the previous two Saturdays, runs nearly every offensive snap with a shotgun quarterback and multiple wide receivers.

"It's just like anything else," said Vols junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, whose season ended Saturday with a torn knee ligament. "The more you play against it, and the more you get experience against it, it's going to get easier, and things are going to come more naturally. But at the same time, the majority of teams still don't run the spread.

"Our offense doesn't run it. We've played against the I-formation more, the traditional I and the West Coast offense. But as we're seeing it more with the Floridas and the Ohios, and even the Auburns, we're getting more comfortable with it now."

That comfort has come at a steep cost, though. Volunteers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin admitted seeing nothing like modern college spreads during a two-decade stint in the NFL.

"It's something new every week around here," he joked earlier this season. "What's it going to be next week? Who knows? I guess we'll see when we get there.

"Some of these offenses, I tell you, I didn't even know their names until we started watching tape. That's the truth."

All spreads have wrinkles.

Florida's Heisman-winning quarterback, Tim Tebow, is a 240-pound battering ram who occasionally runs the ball more than 20 times in a game.

Ohio placed a single tailback behind the shotgun quarterback in the "Pistol" formation. The spread-single wing hybrid was engineered to get the shotgun quarterback closer to the line of scrimmage and give him more options with counters, draws and options in the running game.

Auburn, under first-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, throws a wild array of formations at defenses in breakneck speed.

"Nobody does what Malzahn does," the popular "Smart Football" blog wrote shortly after Malzahn arrived in Auburn in December. "If some no-huddle teams are light-speed, then Malzahn's spends the entire game in something akin to 'ludicrous speed.'"

Malzahn's offenses have been known to snap the ball as soon as officials blow the whistle to start the play clock.

And many of Auburn's formations, as UT head coach Lane Kiffin said, look like they were "drawn in the dirt."

Lane Kiffin praised Malzahn's approach, saying the legendary former Arkansas high school coach "does things that nobody else has the guts to do."

"It's a wilder offense than Florida's," Kiffin said. "There's so much stuff going on around. My dad said the other night when we were talking about it, he said it's like trying to read a book and someone's waving their hand in front of the book. You're trying to look at what's going on, but you can't really focus, you can't really see it because there's so much misdirection, so many shifting motions.

"Gus has done an unbelievable job. ... They're so explosive and so hard to deal with. It's nothing like my dad and I have seen before."

Suffice it to say, dissecting the Tigers' formation and lining up the defense in mere seconds is no easy task. And the Vols must do that without Reveiz, a captain who lined up the front seven every play and made every defensive audible.

"Losing Nick was a heartbreaker for us," senior defensive lineman Wes Brown said. "He was our quarterback.

"But I'm confident in our coaching staff putting Savion (Frazier) in there. And the guys behind him, I'm confident in those guys coming in and doing a really good job. We're working hard this week, and we'll see what happens."

UT junior defensive end Chris Walker, one of the SEC's premier pass rushers, remains questionable for Saturday with an unspecified lower back injury. But the Vols regained a key component this week when junior Dennis Rogan was reinstated after a one-game suspension.

Rogan, a versatile defensive back, is one of the team's best athletes and more than capable of excelling at cornerback and safety. His absence was clear against Ohio, when UT's vaunted secondary allowed more than 300 yards through the air.

"They do a lot of stuff we've seen before, but a lot of stuff we haven't seen," Rogan said of the Tigers. "They do a lot of little things than can confuse if you're not focused with your mind right."

Malzahn doesn't just tee it high and let if fly downfield. The coach who brought back the single-wing-looking "wildcat" formation back to high-level football as Arkansas' coordinator runs a similar package at Auburn, and tailbacks Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb are two of the SEC's best statistically.

Auburn's balance only enhances its explosiveness. The Tigers are third nationally with 526.3 yards and 45.3 points per game in large part because of a nearly 50-50 run-pass balance -- 265 yards through the air and 261.3 on the ground.

Walker was confident in UT's coaches and his teammates, regardless of his personal effectiveness.

"I think the game plan that we have coming into this game is something that's going to combat everything they're doing," Walker said. "We have to be smart and stay on our keys and not make the mistakes we did against Ohio, and we'll be good.

"I know we can do that, but we've still got to go out there and prove it."