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The Spread: A Formation? An Offense? Is It The Way To Go?

Defenses used to be far better than they are today at the college level. The NCAA has continued to limit the amount of practices, time of practices and contact coaches can have with players. The amount of time players have with coaches is far less than it used to be and it shows on the defensive side of the ball. For the same reasons the WCO is ineffective at the college level (not enough time to practice it), the spread is effective (not enough time to develop solid defensive fundamentals).

It is far easier to be successful offensively than it is defensively with limited practice time. The offense is in control and the defense has to react. On offense a player’s natural athletic ability can carry him very far. If you’re a dynamite athlete you will be successful in open space. If you can get athletes the ball in open space, you don’t need to coach them from that point on. Their athletic ability will handle the rest. On the other hand, if you get a defender in open space, he’s going to lose every time.

Think about the progression of a play. A receiver, running back or tight end just has to run his route. The defender has to read the play, find his way through bodies and get in position to tackle. If the quarterback can get the ball in a playmaker’s hands then he just has to use his athletic ability. A defender has to break down the offensive player, square him up, make a tackle and do all of this while he’s guessing what the offensive player will do. The offensive player is in control because he can do whatever he wants. He’s not bound by what the defensive player is doing. It’s far easier to be the chasee than the chaser. Now that’s just why is harder to be a defensive player than offensive player in one on one matchups.

There’s also the fact that defenders don’t practice the fundamentals often. With decreased practice time, there isn’t time to do intensive tackling, footwork and all the other individual drills. There’s barely enough time to work on scheming to get the players in position in the first place. Let’s see how the spread exploits this.

The spread, in any form, is one of the simpler offenses out there. It essentially works to get one on one matchups all over the field. If you’re going to pass out of the spread then the goal is to spread the field to either force a soft zone, which the offense can nibble at all the way down the field, or to force the defense to play man to man without any safety help or a personnel mismatch in coverage. If players are in one on one matchups the offense is going to win every time because #1, the offense if the chasee to the defense’s chaser and #2, the tackling and footwork of defenders has gone downhill with the amount of practice time.

Now when you’re talking about running out of the spread, the offense does the same thing as they do against the pass. To defend a 3 or 4 wide spread you must be in nickel or dime. If you’re not then you’re forced to play a soft zone that the offense can nibble at all the way down field. Now with a nickel or dime personnel spread wide because of the offensive formation the offense can run the ball against 5 or 6 in the box. That’s a win for the offense every time if they have a decent line because each lineman is allowed to get into a man on man matchup without the responsibility of getting onto a linebacker. At most, there will be one free linebacker and if one linebacker has to defend the entire box against the running back, he will lose to a decent running back nearly every time. The first time the running back will face a challenge is once he gets to the safeties and by then he’s picked up 8 yards.

As you can see, the entire point of the spread is to create one on one matchups. One on one matchups, combined with the inherent advantage of the offense and the diminishing fundamentals of the defense caused by practice time, allows the offense to win nearly every battle. If a defense is far more talented then the offense, the spread can be stopped, but if the talent level is marginally close or the offense has better talent, the defense has close to no shot.

As a coach you just want to put your players in a position to succeed and one on one matchups does that if you’re calling the offensive plays. That is why the spread works. Take the spread to the NFL and it wouldn’t move the ball because #1, NFL defense are faster and #2, NFL defenses are far better fundamentally and schematically because it is their job. They work on it 24/7. College players don’t have that luxury.

The spread is here to stay, at least in the college game and that is why. One on one matchups.

That was my comment on the spread, which I posted as part of the discussion spurred by Rhapsode's great fanpost. Rhapsode was commenting on the term "spread offense" and his belief that the spread i not an offense, but a formation.

The spread is a formation out of which a coach can run different offenses based on the talent available.  Watch Florida, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and last year's West Virginia team and see what the offenses have in common.  Here's a hint: nothing.  Texas Tech almost never runs the ball while West Virginia tried not to throw the ball.  Sam Bradford is a drop pack passer while Tim Tebow leads his team in carries .  The only similarity between all of these teams is that they will often put  just 5 men up at the line and always have multiple split out receivers.

As you would expect, some disagreed with Rhapsode, including bucknellbruin.

the “spread” can actually be referred to as an offense. The “Pro-Set Offense”, which USC runs, is actually just an offense based off of pro sets, or pro-set formations. Our offense, which is common in college football, is the multiple offense, because it is run out of multiple formations. Hence, since Leach, Meyer, etc use primarily spread formations, the offense is referred to as the “spread”.

Then SuperBruinMan chimed in with his thoughts.

The problem is that Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez run the spread option, which is different. Too often they get lumped together, even though the spread option is more just a variation on the triple option.

The object of Rhapsode's post was to differentiate between the spread formation and the spread offense, however I believe he made a more poignant statement with this comment.

What I am trying to say is that scheme and play calling, whether out of the spread formation or a more conventional formation, need to fit the personnel available.  One offense or another does not guarantee more points, better recruits, or more wins.  Besides, like in basketball, the true goal is efficiency.  If you score on every possession, it doesn't matter if your drives take 1 minute or 10.

So in Rhapsode's opinion, Norm Chow's offense will be fine so long as athletic players who fit the system are recruited. While Norm Chow's offense could in fact be successful, is it really the way UCLA should go? It's very easy to argue that the Bruins should definitely be going the way of the spread when you consider that 7 of the nation's top 10 teams and the nation's 11 highest scoring offenses are running the spread. When you see those numbers, it's very easy to side with those who believe the spread is the way to go. That type of offense, whether the spread option or any other form of it has been very successful as of late. Of course, the team would need talent to be effective regardless of the scheme, but what about the future of the offense?

There's another side to that as well though. Defenses are starting build around the ability to stop the spread. Rhapsode also made this observation.

If you haven’t watched Oklahoma’s defense, it is something to behold. I don’t think I have ever seen a faster defense. This defense was built to stop spread offenses, whether they run or pass. There is speed at every position and the defense can clearly (after TTU) keep up with 5 receivers streaking across the field. However, this defense is very vulnerable to a good power running game.

I really think that Oklahoma is running the future of college defenses. This will combat the up and coming programs that can now sling the ball around the field and run toward open space. Eventually, this kind of defense will probably become so prevalent that coaches who run dinosaur offenses (see Big 10) will become innovators. Suddenly, their slow, unoriginal, running offenses will be able to plow right through the middle of new quick defenses.

Which side do you fall on? Is the spread an offense or a formation? Do you believe in the spread and believe it is here to stay? Should UCLA and other developing programs go with the spread? The possibilities of this discussion are endless so go at it.