SEC Media Days debate: Is Kentucky's new hurry-up offense dangerous for players?

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJuly 18, 2013 

HOOVER, Ala. — Just call Mark Stoops the Switzerland of the South.

No, that's not a small town in Alabama or Louisiana.

It's just the place the new Kentucky coach finds himself: in the middle of a bubbling brouhaha at Southeastern Conference Media Days, trying to stay neutral.

The argument came up over and over again: Is the hurry-up, no-huddle offense dangerous for football? And should college football's rules be changed to protect defensive players?

The "normal American football" coaches like Arkansas' Bret Bielema (who coined the phrase this week) and Alabama's Nick Saban have been outspoken about the potential for injury to a defensive player who can't get a sub or catch his breath.

This is where the Stoops quandary comes in.

The UK head coach, a defensive coach by trade, understands the concerns, but he also now oversees Neal Brown's high-octane offense, nicknamed "NASCAR" for its pedal-to-the-floor pace during his three seasons at Texas Tech.

Luckily, Stoops told the media this week, he won't be on any national rules committees any time soon.

"Right now what I say is the rules are the way they are," he said. "I'm a first-year head coach with very little clout in this league. I'm going to go about the way the rules are right now."

And right now, he can see how the rules can benefit an offense.

At least he hopes they will at Kentucky this season. Last season, Texas Tech was one of the nation's leaders in plays per game.

That can be difficult to defend, Stoops said.

"I've had my problems with up-tempo offenses. We all have had our moments of failure against the up-tempo offenses because it gets you in disarray," Stoops said. "Obviously that's the advantage of it for the offenses, to not let us defenses zero in as specifically as we want to as far as formations and all those sort of things."

Brown's offense, which led the nation with an average of 80 snaps a game over the past three seasons, according to a study by Pete Roussel of coachingsearch.com, is the latest up-tempo entrant into the SEC in recent years.

"We really strive to be the fastest-playing offense in the country," Brown said in a story on Texas Tech's athletics website last season. "The more plays you run, the more opportunities you have to score. That's the premise behind it."

It's becoming a familiar premise in the SEC, with coaches such as Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn of Auburn and Hugh Freeze of Mississippi all installing similar offenses at their schools in the past two years.

At his first Media Days as the Tigers' head coach, Malzahn said he'd like to unseat Brown and run the fastest offense in the country.

He scoffed at the notion that it's unsafe for players.

"When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke," Malzahn said. "That's like saying the defense shouldn't blitz after a first down because they're a little fatigued and there's liable to be a big collision in the backfield."

When told of Malzahn's assertion that the critique was a joke, Arkansas' Bielema had a zinger of his own.

"I'm not a comedian," Bielema said. "Everything I say I truly believe in."

And he believes that players aren't the same physically after the fifth play as they are by the 15th play of a drive.

"If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault," Bielema said. "I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense."

Malzahn took the debate a step further, arguing that maybe rules need to be put in place to keep defenders from pretending to be injured to stall a hurry-up offense's rhythm.

"You know what, in addition to not being a comedian, I'm not an actor," Bielema shot back when he got to the podium. "I can't tell you how to tell a kid how to fake an injury."

Freeze, whose Ole Miss offense sped up many opponents last season, acknowledged that coaches usually fall on the side that most benefits them, so naturally he'd be opposed to any rule change.

"They're going to play the same number of snaps that the offensive linemen are," Freeze said of defensive linemen. "I don't think they're at any more risk than at the start of the game."

Kentucky's Stoops also said he hasn't seen an increase in injury for the defenders.

"I personally have not seen that," he said. "Of course, I'm not going out there trying to collect that data. So it hasn't affected us from an injury point of view yet."

Stoops believes that the up-tempo offense will give UK the best chance to compete in the SEC.

"I like the style of play," he said. "I like the roots of it, coming back to Kentucky, when Hal Mumme was there, had some success, with Neal having a background in Kentucky. I just thought it gave us the best opportunity to move the football."

Alabama's Saban said his defense — like all defenses in the league — is having to make adjustments to combat the full-throttle offenses infiltrating the conference.

The Crimson Tide has gotten better at playing against that style, mainly because nearly every team it faced attempted to go no-huddle against Alabama last season.

"You have to adjust your system so there's not a lot of terminology, that you have quick calls that can get in the game quickly, players can get lined up, get focused on what they need to do," he said.

But he left a room full of media with two key questions that will continue the debate into the next few seasons: Should we allow football to be a continuous game? Is that the way the game was designed to be played?

"A player is playing 25, 30 more plays a game," Saban said. "Is there any safety issues in that? I don't know the answers. I think these are the questions that need to be asked to know whether there needs to be any rules that affect the tempo of the game."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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