No team gave N.C. State coach Dave Doeren more trouble as a defensive coordinator than Texas Christian, which narrowly defeated Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl immediately before Doeren became the head coach at Northern Illinois. He showed up for his first day at work at NIU with an entirely new offensive philosophy.
“Defending their offense, you could tell the head coach was a defensive coach that made their offense do everything that defensive coaches hate to defend,” Doeren said.
Much of what TCU did was isolate Wisconsin players in one-on-one situations all over the field, giving the Horned Frogs big play after big play. It’s a basic principle of the spread-offense concepts that have swept football, and it’s something Doeren plans to bring to N.C. State.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Doeren’s side of the ball, defenses are scrambling to adapt. And if the history of football teaches us anything, it’s that defenses always adapt. They adapted to the wishbone, they adapted to the Green Bay power sweep, they adapted to the run-and-shoot, they adapted to the West Coast offense, and they’ll adapt to the spread – in part by changing the players they recruit.
“A big deal for defenses now is you have to be able to tackle in space,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “You have to be able to make those one-on-one tackles, because when you don’t, that 5-yard pass turns into a 15- or 20-yard pass.”
Doeren and Fedora are far from alone in constructing their offense this way. Duke’s David Cutcliffe has tweaked his offense. Ruffin McNeill brought the Texas Tech spread attack with him to East Carolina.
They all have different schemes, but they preach similar principles, about spreading the field horizontally and attacking vertically on offense, about creating one-on-one match-ups with the potential for big plays.
To counter that, it takes a different kind of defensive player. Speed will always be the No. 1 priority. That’s just the way the game is now, just as size was once No. 1 when teams pounded the ball inside. What’s changed is where schools are looking beyond speed and size.
With offenses trying to create more one-on-one match-ups across the field, defensive coaches are now looking for players who are better equipped to win those battles. That may mean less straight-line speed and more agility, or less size and more explosiveness.
“It will evolve. Defenses will catch up. And then offenses will always try and stay one step ahead,” Fedora said. “One thing you’re seeing is more athletes on the field. You’re not playing in a phone booth any more, where it’s run between the tackles, 3 yards and a cloud of dust.”
It’s the Moneyball theory, applied to college football – find attributes that contribute to winning that are undervalued by the competition, and focus on those instead. For the Oakland A’s of the book, that meant things like on-base percentage and statistical scouting. College football coaches haven’t found that edge yet, but they’re looking.
Fedora wants guys who can tackle in space, while Cutcliffe has started looking for what he called “old-fashioned” agility.
“No one ever got his rear end chewed for running too fast, but you see some guys, they change direction like a bus driver, wheeling his arm around,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re not going to make many plays in the open field. We don’t want bus drivers.”