Monday, December 6, 2010

Reinventing Football - Oregon Ducks

OK, so the University of Oregon Ducks football team has earned a spot in the national title game against Auburn on Jan. 10.

As an alum from the school and avid fan, I've seen each of their games this season, not to mention in previous years. For those of you not in the know, the Ducks this season aren't undefeated simply and only because they've fielded a traditional team that happens to be beating other teams.

No, you can clearly see in any of their games that coach Chip Kelly, his staff and the players at Oregon are literally "re-inventing" football before your eyes. And this is translating into not just wins, but impressive victories...often routes.

So, what are they doing that's so different or special?

Here is my assessment on the key elements that - taken together - have resulted in a new brand of football that we'll be seeing more of over the next few years:
  • Speed. Recruit with speed as a top criteria - not just for running back, receiver and corner, but at every position (including linemen) on offense and defense.
  • Depth. Have two-deep starting talent - particularly on defense - to ensure you can rotate multiple players in and out all game your side is fresher all four quarters than fatiguing opponents.
  • A fast tempo. Put your offensive players on hyper speed in-between plays to limit defensive substitutions that normally could put your next play at risk. Over the course of a game, this also means your opponent's defense fatigues faster. Don't give 'em time to substitute or think. Make them reactionary and tired and - hopefully - miss-matched and confused.
  • Spread them out. On offense, combine your advantages in speed and tempo to stretch the field side-to-side and vertically. Get your super speedy players out in the open and one-on-one where they can outrun would-be tacklers or make them miss.
  • Keep them guessing. On offense, deploy a scheme in which on every play the defense has to account for any number of options - inside run, outside run, screen pass, sweep, short pass, long pass, over the middle pass, etc. Every play. Have all of these options available to you from one set alignment so the defense cannot simply look at how you're lined up and determine what's coming. Teach your players deception with the ball to further fool the defense - fake hand offs, pump fake on passes. Go for it on fourth down occasionally - more often than most teams. On defense, generating guesswork is more traditional. But, it's effective. Mix up your look at the line. Blitz linebackers sometimes and fake blitz/drop back too. And on special teams...line up in odd formations and occasionally snap the ball from them for a fake kick, an onside kickoff or two point conversion.
  • Practice intensely, but not as long. Part of the reason the Ducks can wear teams out is that they run a manic pace on offense. However, that takes a toll on the Oregon players too. How do you minimize the negative impact while getting the most out of the pace? Well, practice at an even faster tempo than game speed so when in the actual game it's not as frantic. And also, trim down practice time so you don't wear out players on a week-to-week and season-long basis.
  • "Play to a vision" rather than game planning for one opponent vs. another. This may be the most ingenious thing about Oregon football right now. Coach Chip Kelly insists that he does not prepare his players to go against the strengths and weaknesses of the differing opponents each week. Rather, he and his staff coach the players to perform to a "vision" or standard of excellence that, regardless of the opponent, will deliver success. It also has the effect of evening out the highs and lows that come with wins and losses...and the attendant problems those highs and lows can bring to a team.
The combination of these practices have really changed what Oregon does. Will it be enough for them to win the big title game against Auburn? I don' know. But even if it does not, it has earned them a 12-0 regular season this year, a 22-3 record over two years and back-to-back Pac-10 titles in a league everyone assumed USC had an indefinite strangle hold on.

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