Defenses Respond to the HUNH and Spread

We are living in a college football world of the hurry-up, no huddle (HUNH) spread offense.

Take a look at the 2014 Alabama schedule and you’ll see at least six or seven offenses leaning that way.  And while Bama hasn’t been totally throttled by the HUNH over the last couple of seasons, goodness knows, it has caused us some problems.

So college football’s faithful fans wait to see how Nick Saban and defensive coordinators everywhere respond.  In the process, there is surely a lot of mud flung against the wall before something is found to stick.  Consider New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan one to be flinging:

But one team is fighting back. Those inside the league say the New Orleans Saints are quietly crafting an unorthodox defense that could change the game and become the shape of defenses to come.

“I’m always ready to get weird,” said Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The key to this change sounds simple but is a dramatic shift from NFL norms. Basically, the Saints want to play the best 11 players they can find. Size and position are of lesser importance. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an analyst at the NFL Network, calls the Saints’ plan “the most fascinating” scheme of the 2014 season.

This isn’t the normal lip service about playing the best players. This is a team betting big on the idea of football positions changing, and soon.

(When I read “best 11 players,” I immediately wondered, “what if the best 11 are defensive linemen?” but I digress.)

In particular Ryan is planning for more than two of those 11 to be safeties:

The idea was hatched by accident last year, when injuries to linebackers gave Ryan a dilemma: play bad linebackers or get creative with positions. Ryan went the latter route and stressed the safety position, playing as many as four safeties at once and playing three at a time in his default defensive package. In the NFL, some teams play as few as one safety and almost no team ever employs more than two.

Safeties are bigger than cornerbacks, who typically cover wide receivers, but faster than linebackers, who are built to stop a running back and take on offensive linemen. They can be 60 pounds lighter than some linebackers but 20 pounds heavier than some corners. They can cover the insanely athletic crop of tight ends now in the NFL and take on the league’s rising group of tall receivers all while giving up only a little bit of speed from a cornerback.

As the article notes, the Saints are putting their money where their playbook is:

The Saints shocked the football world in signing Jairus Byrd, one of the top free agents in the market, to a six-year, $56 million deal, despite having plenty of safety depth and less than plenty of salary-cap space. A month later, the team brought back safety Rafael Bush by unexpectedly matching an offer from the Atlanta Falcons. A month after that, they took Alabama’s starting safety, Vinnie Sunseri, in the draft. New Orleans spent last year’s top pick on a safety, too—Kenny Vaccaro.

Will this work?  I dunno, but it sounds like a start.

Is this where Bama’s defense is headed?  I dunno that either, but if you look at how the Tide’s roster has changed over Saban’s seven years, I think you could easily make that argument.

The current freshmen class includes safeties Ronnie Clark and Hootie Jones, both weighing around 220 pounds as first-year players.  Scan the linebackers section of the roster and you’ll see new guys like Rashaan Evans, Christian Miller and Keith Holcombe who are in the 215-225 range (as first-year players), but are loaded with enough athleticism to play in space.

I think it’s safe to say rosters are being modified to account for the HUNH/spread concept.  Now we’ll have to see how it works.