WVU football: Defense wants to slow down
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - College football is obsessed with speed. If it's not about putting stopwatches to prospects or finding ways to get the fastest players in open space, then it's a matter of ramping up the tempo and winning games by overwhelming opponents with rapid-fire plays.
The latter has competitors concerned. Prominent coaches are now speaking out against the increasing offensive pace, asking people to consider how it might raise the risk of injuries and insisting that defenses be given more time to substitute and avoid mismatches with bigger, heavier and thus more susceptible defenders.
That has drawn reactions, not surprisingly from the Big 12.
"You want me to play slower, well, OK, you need to get smaller, less strong defensive linemen. To me, it's asking to do that," Texas Tech Coach Kliff Kingsbury told the Associated Press. "Stop recruiting these beasts up front and we won't run as many plays."
West Virginia's defense, manipulated and maligned for much of the 2012 season, is preparing for its second Big 12 season with an approach that wouldn't seem to make much sense. Not in a league that saw four of the nation's top 25 teams in offensive snaps in 2012.
Yet new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is asking his players to slow down just a little.
"Coach emphasizes being patient," said linebacker Isaiah Bruce, whose speed had a lot to do with his 90 tackles last season. "A lot of times we tend to try to react too fast and that puts us out of position. He tries to emphasize getting more depth from the line of scrimmage so we can see everything before we react."
Consider that using the sort of patience Patterson requests. Space is a valuable commodity with the amount of playmakers in the Big 12. Speed and immediacy are keys to shutting down a lot of plays before they can get started and find that space. The Mountaineers, it would seem, are conceding both, but with a purpose.
"It's not like we're trying to play slow, but coach says he wants us to be patient and right instead of fast and wrong," Bruce said. "I can get anywhere really fast, but if I'm not in the proper position to make a play, it's just a waste of a person. If you key correctly and you're in the right spot and everyone does the same as far as their position goes, we should be able to stop any play the offense throws at us."
Patterson endorses depth so his middle linebackers have a more expansive view of the offensive formation and the line and backfield, in particular. The offense knows what it's doing before every snap. It's rehearsed that specific play countless times. Everything that happens after the ball is put in play is automatic.
The defense is less attuned to the plan. It can make educated guesses based off film and tendencies for certain downs and distances, game situations and positions on the field. Some defensive linemen and linebackers can accurately guess run or pass based on the pressure an offensive lineman has on his fingers. If there's a lot, the lineman is coming forward for a run play. If there isn't much, he's dropping back to pull for a run play or pass block. When one guard is clearly closer to the center than the other guard, it signifies a run play heading the direction of the closer guard's inside shoulder.
"That helps," linebacker Jared Barber said, "but nobody's right 100 percent of the time."
It behooves defenders to see something and then attack it, as opposed to finding something on the run.
"It used to be pretty hard for me to try to react slower because once I see something, I'm gone," Bruce said. "But sometimes that makes me take a false step and something like that, even for a split second, puts me out of position. We're definitely getting better at it. We have some people, like Doug Rigg, who when the ball is snapped, he isn't going to move until he sees what he needs."
Patterson's preferred patience is just a matter of practicality. WVU's linebackers work off the defensive linemen and can read whether offensive linemen are pulling for power plays or stretching and climbing for zone plays. On a zone play, when the linemen fan out and block within an area to create a running lane, the middle linebackers will follow the nose guard in the middle of the defensive line.
"He's going to fight across the center's face, but the ball will never cross the center - it'll always be cut back," Barber said. "What most offenses want the linebackers to do is see the zone, shuffle and get over the top of the play, but that's when they cut the ball back. We want to shuffle, shuffle and watch the ball. The nose is going to fight across so (the running back) has to cut back, but into where we are."
The trouble for the defenders is there are a variety of zone plays teams run throughout the Big 12. There are opponents who have plays when a running back runs right and is supposed to cut all the way back underneath the left tackle. A split zone features a fullback who starts on one side as the play heads his way. That fullback then reverses and blocks the linebacker or the defensive end on the back side, which creates room for the running back.
"What they want you to do is overpusue and get out of position for a big play," Barber said. "They want you to overthink, but it's really simple not to if you get in the film room and study. If not, they can truck you."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.