Clemson looks to solve Auburn's hurry-up offense
CLEMSON -- The Clemson defense has five seconds Saturday.
Five one, one-thousands. That's how quickly Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn wants the play off once the ball is spotted.
When Auburn is in hurry-up mode Saturday, five seconds is all the time Clemson's defense will have to catch its collective breath and make adjustments.
The second-year Auburn offensive coordinator increased the team's total plays by 100 last year, ranking 20th in the FBS in total plays. He wants another 100 increase this season. The goal is to average 80 plays a game. Though he eased off the pedal last week at Mississippi State, Malzahn said Tuesday he will push the tempo against Clemson.
The hurry-up is like a tactic out of a West Point text book: use speed to disrupt an opponent's communication and ability to change formation.
"It's a hard thing to simulate," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "One of the key things is when they have a big play, they are right at the line, hand on your throat,here we go again. You can't hardly get lined up. That's going to be a little different for us. Hopefully our depth on the defensive line will be a factor. I think the one thing that hurts a lot of teams is a lot of times you don't really have the depth you want on the defensive line."
While no-huddle offenses have proliferated through the college game, including at Clemson, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said Malzahn's offense operates at a different speed.
"They are faster than normal," Steele said. "They are very, very fast."
Clemson middle linebacker Corico Hawkins said he thinks he will be able to organize the defense, but says the Auburn offense makes it difficult to substitute. Malzahn, 44, perfected the hurry-up at Shiloh Christian High (Ark.), breaking national offensive records while winning state titles in 1998 and 99.
Malzahn's prolific offenses got him a gig as an assistant under Houston Nutt at Arkansas in 2006 -- where he brought his "Wildcat" from the prep ranks to Arkansas. After two seasons of leading Tulsa's offense, he was hired by Auburn coach Gene Chizik last year. Chizik himself became familiar with hurry-up offense in the no-huddle happy Big 12 while at Texas and Iowa State.
A key to the hurry-up offense is conditioning.
"You have a chance to mentally and physically wear down your opponent if you run fast," Malzahn told Sports Illustrated last year. "It's a different kind of 'in-shape.' There's a football shape and basketball shape, and we're someone with a little bit of both."
By playing faster, an offense can extend the game by producing more plays, essentially adding a fifth quarter. The extra time can handicap a defense not accustomed to that number of snaps.
Malzahn's counterpart, Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier, is installing some similar hurry-up elements to Clemson's offense. Napier received schooling in the hurry-up offense prior to last season from the man who brought it to the NFL, former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Sam Wyche.
"Sam Wyche asked me 'define conditioning' and I had a bad answer," Napier said. "He said 'here's the test: run this far in this amount of time and this amount of rest. Do that over and over and you are conditioned for that test. If you shorten that rest and make them run the same test, your performance is going to decline.'
"(Defensive) players will tell you over the course of the game that can become a factor. ... Wyche and those guys were on-the-ball, up-tempo. He was an innovator. We are not that fast. But we are trying to snap it a little sooner than most teams and that's one of the reasons we are a no-huddle team. That can change throughout a game. But if I feel like the other team is a disadvantage we'll speed things up."
Malzahn knows the offense so well he could author a book -- and he has: The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.
Conditioning is one of two core principles in Malzahn's philosophy. The other is creating confusion through a variety of formations and shifts.
The variety of alignments kept Steele up to 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning watching film, returning to the West Zone offices at 6:15 a.m.
"(Michigan coach) Rich Rodriguez is a lot like that," Steele said. "He had a lot of different stuff and tempo. It reminds me of Canada, where they've got 12 men."
To help Steele on Saturday, Napier said Clemson will try to slow down the tempo at Auburn, like Auburn did at Mississippi State, to keep Auburn's offense off the field, and Clemson's defense fresh.
Said Swinney: "A lot of the things they do, we do. They just have a unique way to getting to those things. They'll line up a tackle like a wideout. They do some head-scratchers. He's got a unique set of formations, and also alignments -- as far as where the back is coming from. Is he pistol? Is he in the slot?"
Former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin quoted his father, Monte, when talking to Smart Football's Chris Brown last fall, saying defending Malzahn's offense was "like trying to read a book with someone waving their hand in front of the book ... you can't really focus because there's so much misdirection and so much shifting motion."
And in the Auburn book, there's a lead character named Cam Newton and a supporting actor in true freshman running back Michael Dyer, said to be in the same class as South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore.
There will be many problems and little time for solutions Saturday at Auburn.
Surgery for Davis?
Swinney said freshman offensive lineman Kalon Davis is suffering from a bulging disc and could be headed for surgery, which would likely end plans to play the true freshman. Swinney said before the surgery option, Davis will undergo an epidural.