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Tempo versus polish in the Miami offense

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The pros and cons of playing fast on offense

Central Michigan v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

New Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee likes tempo. He wants the offense to operate at warp speed and that was evident at both UConn and SMU where he was the clear play-caller in 2017 and 2018-2019, respectively. Almost every article about the offense Coach Lashlee intends to run with the Miami Hurricanes includes the word “tempo” in it, most even in the title.

I, myself, have discussed Lashlee and tempo here on SOTU. In Bill Connelly’s spread offense piece for ESPN titled, “How the spread offense conquered college football, from Hal Mumme to Joe Burrow,” Bill discussed the shift in tempo over the past two decades. For instance, Bill cites that the time between plays for an NCAA offense has slowed back down to around 26.6 seconds between snaps, the same time between snaps from back in 2009.

Penalties

In 2019, Southern Methodist was 3rd in the most plays ran in FBS football with 80.9 snaps. SMU also sat in the top 50 in FBS football in the amount of penalties they committed per game. Penalties can often be a direct reflection of a lack of discipline and polish. The philosophy can turn from fundamentals and precision (see: Air Force, Army and Navy who all placed in the top 11 in lowest number of penalties) versus a sloppy Miami team that was in the bottom 25 in penalties, committing almost a penalty more per game than the Mustangs.

Situational offense

Arizona v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

In Connelly’s piece he discusses how many teams slow down on 3rd down, an all important down on both sides of the ball in college football. Like Rich Rodriguez says in the article, I don’t like the trend that shows coaches slowing down on 3rd down. That allows the defense to settle, possibly substitute, and to come up with their best pressures on a key down. I would prefer to have the 3rd down call ready and to call your best play there and not give the defense time to breathe.

Playbook size

Another issue that arises due to tempo is how small the playbook must be. If you’re going to go up tempo you’re going to have to simplify what you do. Now, I’m not of the West Coast Offense ilk. I don’t need a ton of plays or formations, and I don’t need massive amounts of window dressing or long play calls. I personally don’t even like using numbering in my play call system unless it’s “6.” But I do like to have adjustments and situational plays and not be forced into only one option for each.

Against Memphis in 2019, you could see the polish give way to the tempo on the opening snap for SMU’s offense. On the first play from scrimmage for the Mustangs, there’s a botched mesh between the quarterback and running back. Thumbing through four Lashlee called SMU games over the past two months I’ve seen my fair share of bad reads, poor throws and blown concepts.

One key conversation point about the Gus Malzahn offense is that he always favored tempo over polish. Hell, Malzahn was known for running power always to the right and counter always to the left. Gus Malzahn is also known for overcoming bad fundamentals with tempo and relying on athleticism. Malzahn relies on a simplistic scheme built around inside zone, buck sweep, power to the right and counter to the left. Malzahn believes in simplicity (if you don’t believe me, read this piece from Football Scoop)

It’s worked out for him with uber talented players like Cam Newton and Nick Marshall but not so much with more pro style QB’s like Jarrett Stidham. Stidham, who might start in the NFL in 2020, had an up and down career at Auburn.

Personnel Groupings

In order to stay up tempo at Lashlee’s rate of speed, teams have to keep one personnel grouping on the field but show a ton of different pictures to the defense with that group. At Auburn, UConn, and SMU- Lashlee has played in a lot of 11 (one running back, one tight end) and 12 (one running back, two tight end) sets.

In 2019, Lashlee used tight end Kylen Granson as a flex player. Granson, a converted wide receiver, is six-foot-three, 235 pounds and averaged 16.8 yards per catch with nine touchdowns. To put that into perspective, the six-foot-three, 235 pound Brevin Jordan averaged 14.1 yards per catch with only two scores for Miami. Lashlee knows how to use a versatile kid like Jordan who is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body.

In the screenshots above, you can see how Lashlee puts two tight ends on the field at the same time. Imagine Will Mallory and Brevin Jordan in these spots for Miami. Without speedster Reggie Roberson Jr in the lineup against Memphis (he was out injured) 12 personnel became even more common than usual for the Mustangs.

Tipping plays

With the hurry up no huddle teams the predictability and the “tells” are very obvious. The OC’s hope that they’re moving so fast their obvious nature is given away too late for the defensive coordinators and their players to react. Think back to Chip Kelly’s time at Oregon. Kelly was aligning his back differently for inside zone versus outside zone. On “OZ,” Kelly’s back would line up further from the QB and even with him for an easier mesh path. On “IZ,” Kelly’s back would line up closer and behind the QB.

In Lashlee’s offense, when he’s going really fast it’s easy to tell when the QB has a 1st level read like inside zone read, or a 2nd level read like power tagged with a bubble RPO. It’s also easy to point out if it’s a post-snap or pre-snap only RPO read. However, with the Mustangs going to quickly, DC’s don’t have a lot of time to adjust calls and typically the SMU call went off with success and without a hitch.

The wrap

I recently watched the All-22 film (coaching film where all 22 players are on the screen at once, not the TV copy) of the Memphis-SMU game with another football coach (safely on Google Meet, of course). We both noticed the erratic play of Shane Buechele and agreed that we could see how he wound up transferring to the Group of 5 level, but also how tempo taking precedent over polish hurt the SMU offense at times.

I think there’s a time and place for tempo, such as: 3rd down, your two minute offense, or when you’ve converted a big 3rd down and you want to get to the line and snap the ball again while the defense is reeling. Think of it as like stealing second base on a shortstop after he’s just made an error in the field. If the defense has just given up a 3rd down, the best thing to do is crank up the pressure and make them run another play while tired and thinking about how they just blew it on a money down.

But I do not believe in tempo for tempo’s sake, nor tempo over polish. As an offensive line coach I prefer fundamentals over anything else and as an athletic performance coach I always prefer “steak” ie simplicity and technique, over “sizzle,” ie balancing on a bosu ball while juggling live grenades. In the end, you want to eliminate turnovers and steak is often the best recipe for success in that department.