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August 22, 2008

Stopping the spread

The "spread" offense is in, and someone better come up with a way to stop it. Otherwise defenses will continue to be exposed in the wide-open spaces of the college football field.

The spread or spread option offenses of coaches such as Urban Meyer (Florida), Rich Rodriguez (Michigan via West Virginia) and Mike Leach (Texas Tech) have taken college football by storm.

"Making defensive players play in space," said Irish head coach Charlie Weis, summarizing the perplexing aspect of the spread attack. "People talk about basketball on grass. You're making them play in space.

"You used to go into the recruiting process and get those big, big defensive linemen or linebackers. Well guess what? They better be able to run because this game has turned into a much faster game. When you play in space, you have to cover the whole field."

It's to the point now where nickel and dime personnel comprise the base formations for many defenses. When you're playing a spread formation team, you have to put athletes on the field that can cover receivers who are using the entire width of the field. But you also have to be sure enough tacklers and maneuverable enough laterally to make open-field stops against running backs (and quarterbacks) that have bigger line splits to run through and much more room to maneuver.

"We've been working in this direction for the last three years: recruiting personnel to be able to match up against people playing in space," said Weis of Notre Dame's recruiting philosophy. "You're going to see it more and more until defenses show they're capable of stopping it."

As with any new offense that proves effective, it takes time for the defense to adjust. Eventually, defenses will come up with a system or, at the very least, the proper personnel to level the playing field. That's the nature of the game.

"The spread is in vogue right now," Weis said. "Over history, there are things that come in. The Bear (46) defense. The 34 defense versus the 4-3. The run-and-shoot. Now it's the spread.

"They're calling plays at the line of scrimmage-check with me-where they just stand there and they look over to the coach, and he says run the play or flip it to the other side.

"But what's going to end up happening-which it always does-is that defenses will eventually catch up with the offenses. And then the offenses will go to something else. It's a copy-cat game and whatever is working, people will try doing."

Weis believes the Irish are making strides toward combating whatever an offense has to throw at them. Freshmen with some size who can run-Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Steve Filer-are adding athleticism to the mix up front.

Players such as Harrison Smith, a safety turned outside linebacker, moved from the secondary up to the next level of the defense. A safety with some size, such as 6-foot-2, 205-pound Sergio Brown, plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Recruits like Zeke Motta-a 6-foot-2, 207-pounder from Florida-are considered part safety, part linebacker.

"They look like they're playing fast and it looks like the defensive staff is starting to develop some depth we can trust in," said Weis of the '08 defense in general. "That was one of my biggest questions because we've got so many guys here interjecting into this mix.

"Everyone knows about Ian (Williams) and (Pat) Kuntz, and Justin Brown has been here for a while. But other guys-Morrice Richardson and Paddy Mullen-and throw in some of the freshmen on top of it...We're starting to develop some depth.

"And the way the game is played with the spread, you better be able to play more than one group because as fast break as it is, you better be able to get a few guys in there."



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