COLUMBUS, OH - If you want to see a Buckeye fan get worked up a little ask him about the 2016 offense.
In 2014 the Buckeye faithful got used to an offense that was always effective and at times downright deadly. In 2015 there was a changing of the guard in the coaching staff, but the core players that made the 2014 offense go were still there. Still, there was a definite drop off in production and explosiveness despite the veteran talent, and that was a sign of things to come.
In 2016 the Buckeye offense lacked explosiveness and against better competition could not be consistent. The season ended with an embarrassing shutout performance against Clemson.
Changes were made. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck have moved on and been replaced. NFL veteran Ryan Day has replaced Beck as the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Kevin Wilson has replaced Warinner as the offensive coordinator.
Wilson is the guy that has brought the most intrigue and optimism. While head coach at Indiana Wilson was able to turn out consistent offenses with arguably below-average talent. Before that he coordinated record-setting offenses at Oklahoma. Before that he helped Randy Walker transform perennial Big 10 doormat Northwestern into a competitive team that could compete with the best in the league.
It was at Northwestern with Walker that Wilson first was exposed to tempo offense. Walker and Wilson were able to use tempo to level the playing field despite being at a talent disadvantage. That was 20 years ago, and Wilson has studied and analyzed tempo as a weapon ever since. He has plenty of ideas on what tempo is, what it isn't, what it can do, and what it can't do. He's a tempo guru and loves the uptempo game. He's also a realist and understands that it's really not for everyone.
"I don’t think tempo is the answer or the way it ought to be done. It kind of fits me," said Wilson as he began his talk to a packed audience at the Ohio State coaches clinic last night.
Tempo is not so much a style of offense as it is a method of executing whatever offense a coach wants to run. Wilson has run tempo offenses with spread teams, I-formation teams, option teams. wing-T teams, all sorts of offenses really. To Wilson, tempo is the attempt of offenses to gain the aggressor position from defenses who have taken that role with attacking styles of defense.
"John Madden once said that the offense has two advantages. They know the snap count and they know the play," said Wilson. "That made us the aggressor, we dictated the action.
"In the 60s, 70s, 80s defenses played a bend but don’t break cover three 50 defense. Then Miami of Florida in 90s played 4-3 with fast guys coming off edge put defenses in attack mode and offenses on the defensive and reacting."
Attacking defenses put offenses in the position of reacting to what the defense was doing, and that changed the game. Offenses had to adjust to what defenses were doing, and that gave defenses the upper hand. Tempo, said Wilson, is what changes that and gives the aggressive posture back to the offense.
Wilson explained that tempo does not let defenses evaluate the formation and personnel groupings of an offense, and that limits what the defense can do. Beyond that, tempo can mess with a defense even if they do have time to get information on formation and personnel simply by not giving the defense time to process the information and make adjustments. That means the offense gains the upper hand again, even if the defense has some idea about the play.
How it's done
Tempo, said Wilson, is not so much going fast, but instead is creating as small amount of time between showing the formation and snapping the ball. It's really a quick offense rather than a fast offense. An offense might take 15 or 20 seconds to get the play from the bench, but as long as they have not shown the formation the defense has no cues. A play like that is not fast - it still takes 15 or 20 seconds to come in - but it can be quick in that the offense can still get to the line of scrimmage quickly and snap the ball quickly thereby not giving the defense a lot of time to evaluate and adjust. Other times, yeah, it's lining up fast and going, but that is not a necessary component. What is necessary is the short period of time between showing formation and the snap of the ball.
What goes into it.
One of the key components to a tempo offense is quick, efficient communication. That may sound like a trivial statement, but as Wilson explained the concept its importance became more and more clear.
Tempo for the most part means no huddle, and that means hand signals. If your hand signals have to include a formation, pass protection scheme, routes for the receivers, and alignments for backs and tight ends, they end up being very long signals. The length of time itself tips the defense that a pass play is coming. Good tempo teams develop systems in which a lot of information can be delivered quickly, or systems in which it isn't necessary to convey all the information on every play. A certain signal might convey both protection and formation, etc.
Non-verbal communication is so important to tempo that Wilson puts it into practice in every aspect of his coaching. During one-on-one drills or seven-on-seven drills instructions are not given verbally, but by signal. During team meetings if Wilson is talking about a play a graduate assistant is standing next to him signaling the instructions for the play as Wilson talks about them. Making communication tight and effective is a non-stop effort.
Remember 2016? How many times did OSU's tempo offense actually bump up against the play clock? Too many times. One of the reasons for that was a slow communication process that took place after the offense had assumed its formation. That nullified one of the biggest advantages of tempo, the ability to hide the formation long enough that the defense couldn't adjust. In 2016 the defense was given that time too often and it showed in the result.
There's another aspect to the quick snap that is not obvious. Wilson has studied his offenses over the years and found that offensive linemen who are asked to take a stance and hold it really aren't very good. An offensive lineman that has to wait for the quarterback to read the defense and make a call to change a play is at a huge disadvantage.
"If linemen are at the line of scrimmage for 20 seconds while signals are coming in the linemen don’t come off the ball," said Wilson
"The offensive line gets stale and stagnant when delayed at the line of scrimmage. We got stuffed, got our ass kicked when that happened. When we stood around we stunk."
The solution was simple. The offensive linemen didn't go to the line of scrimmage until after the quarterback got the play call. Instead, they kind of just short-huddled near the quarterback then once the signal was in they hustled to the line and the ball was snapped quickly. Compare that to what you saw in 2016. Yeah, sometime that offensive line looked really bad, especially in pass protection. Can the long wait in a stance be a part of that? Wilson thinks so.
The list of details relative to tempo that Wilson discussed was long and fascinating. It was a talked aimed at coaches, so it included details not just on what changes can help your tempo, but how to coach them. Here are a few:
* Snap count: This can be a powerful weapon for an offense, but it has to be practiced. Coaches, particularly offensive line coaches, tend to go "on first sound" simply to get more snaps in at a practice. That works to get snaps in, but when a scrimmage or game comes around offensive linemen are jumping off side on the first sound. Practice snap count.
* Security of signals and verbiage: Coaches constantly worry about the opponent stealing signals, or defenses figuring out offensive calls when a team has not huddled and the play is called at the line of scrimmage. While at Indiana, high school coaches would come to his clinics then tell coaches at Purdue what their signals and calls meant. His solution was simple. He installed all new signals every year, but not until after spring practice. Sounds complicated, but he found ways to make it easy.
"One year we might use states, but the state itself was not the signal. East coast states meant right, west coast states left. Maybe we use movie title vs. book title, movies left, books right. College team right, pro teams left. Baseball teams right, basketball teams left."
To a defense its an endless variety of calls but very easy for the offense to remember i.e. Yankees and White Socks go right, Knicks and Celtics go left.
Wilson said that the signal changing goes all the way back to his Randy Walker days.
"At Northwestern we started from scratch with new signals and terminology every year. The key is to involve your players. Let them come up with ideas. They're good at it and they learn it quicker that way."
* Substitutions: You probably know that tempo makes it difficult for the defense to substitute, but there's more to it than just making the defense uncomfortable. Offensive substitutions slow down the offense and sometimes actually tire out players.
"First year at Northwestern every third or fourth play we took out a receiver. Finally one of our really good players said. 'Coach, when you take me out I’ve got to sprint 40 yards off the field. Three plays later sprint 40 yards back onto the field and play three plays. Three plays later sprint 40 yards off the field. It's better to play five plays then get a longer rest. You're wearing out running on and off the field.'"
Don't look for a lot of player rotation during drives in the OSU offense this year. It will happen if a player looks tired, but not just to rotate.
* What happens between plays: You've all seen it. A receiver makes a catch for a first down and finds a teammate to chest bump with to celebrate. Wilson doesn't want to see that, not because he is anti-celebration, but because the time that celebration takes is time the player could be looking at the bench for the signal for the next play. The celebration slows down the tempo, and that is what is not good in Wilson's eyes.
Not every play is a touchdown (duh) and players get tackled. What do they do with the football? Wilson says his players will be coached to hand it to the specific official who spots the ball. If you hand it to the wrong official he may take his time tossing it to the right guy, and that slows down the tempo. Even if you get your signals in and the team lines up, if the ball isn't spotted you're standing there in your formation and the defense has a chance to digest it and adjust while you are waiting for the football to be spotted. Getting the football to the RIGHT official eliminates that.
* Spy vs. Spy. Thank you Mad Magazine for that subtitle, but information gathering goes two ways. Urban Meyer noticed that while Wilson was at Indiana sometime the offense got to the line of scrimmage and ended up waiting for the call from Wilson, which is a bit out of character. Wilson said that was not by accident. Here's what he told Meyer about that.
"Well, no, most the time I really didn’t know what I wanted to call the first time, so I was just stalling," Wilson said.
"I really didn’t know.
"What I really wanted to do was see how the three-technique was lined up, or look for blitz. Sometimes I was just stalling, sometime I was trying to give my defense a rest, but also by being fast I did force the defensive linemen to hurry up and get lined up. I put a little more stress on them getting into stances. The defense couldn’t walk to get lined up. They had to kind of sprint out to get lined up for my dummy play. Gave control without being fast."
The Bottom Line on Tempo
Wilson finished his presentation with a fair amount of video of the OSU offense this spring. Some of the plays were successful, some were not. When they were, tempo was a big reason. When they weren't, lack of tempo was often the culprit.
Tempo means at times running a play that isn't ideal against the defense, but trusting that running it quickly will not allow the defense to operate efficiently. That was something that the coaching staff in 2015 and 2016 seemed to have a problem with. They wanted to get to the perfect play and perfect adjustment. In that process, they undermined the whole value of tempo. Wilson showed play after play that worked because a defensive back was one step out of position because he didn't have time to line up properly. He showed plays were defensive linemen weren't quite in their stance when the ball was snapped and therefore couldn't make the play when they were actually in position to do so. He even showed plays where the defense was so far behind lining up that they didn't have to be blocked because they were behind the play when the ball was snapped.
It will never be perfect,Kevin Wilson would be the first to tell you that, but Wilson is committed to tempo and nobody knows more about it than him. You're going to see it this fall, and if past results are any indicator, it's going to help the OSU offense, and more than just a little. It's a difference-maker when directed by somebody like Wilson.