I wasn’t expecting to revisit this whole mythbusting thing so quickly, but another opportunity presented itself just Wednesday, and as they say, timeliness is next to godliness. (Or is it friendliness? I can never remember*.)
That opportunity comes courtesy of Mr. Spencer Region**, who does seem to be finding his way into a lot of headlines of late:
“I haven’t closed the door on Auburn at all,” Region said. “But I had to take a step back and try to make a decision on what will be the best offensive fit for me. I’m a smash-mouth guy. I like to pound people. I’m not sure if Auburn’s offensive scheme would be the best fit for me.”
“I want to go somewhere that will develop me to play on the next level [NFL]. I want to play in a system that will fit my style, which is being physical.”
Oh heavens, Spencer. This could be two separate posts, but the idea that Auburn’s not “physical” is so easily dispelled it’s not worth that much effort. I’ll make this quick: Malzahn’s offense ran on better than 60 percent of its plays in 2009. In the SEC, maybe the most ground-centric league in the country, only Kentucky, Mississippi State, and, yes, Alabama ran more often. Several of its signature plays are built around guards–like Region–getting out on the edge and crushing people. If you want to define a “physical” team as simply a team that asks their linemen to always put their hands on the ground, Auburn is not “physical.” But since a team like Arkansas goes from a three-point stance and threw 44 more times than they ran, I think that’s pretty clearly a stupid definition.
It’s the other contention–that linemen from a spread aren’t prepared for the NFL–that I want to focus on.
What’s funny is that we’re talking about it now, when the NFL seems more friendly to the spread than ever. You’d think quarterback, for instance, would be the one position where teams would want to think twice given the washouts of spread legends like Graham Harrell and Chase Daniel and the struggles of former top pick Alex Smith. But this past April, the spread QB who’d learned under a former Randy Walker protege went No. 1 overall despite missing his entire senior season, the next quarterback taken was also a spread quarterback despite the fact that (ahem) no one is sure whether he can really even throw the ball at an NFL level, and it’s not until we get to the 48th overall pick that we find the prototypical pocket passer groomed in an pro-style offense by a former NFL coordinator. Seems strange, but maybe it makes sense when you also consider that the reigning Super Bowl MVP was the OG scrambly, undersized spread quarterback when he came out of Purdue.
But OK, howzabout offensive linemen? The first two off the board this year were both tackles out of Big 12 spreads … just as the first lineman off the board last year was a tackle out of a Big 12 spread. Interior linemen? The first two off the board in 2010 were a guard from noted NFL prospect-factory Idaho and a center from Florida. (The Gators run a spread, I don’t know if you’ve heard.)
But maybe all this is cherry-picking, and what the question here as it regards a guard recruit’s decision where to attend school really is: is there a bias against guards who played in the spread in the NFL Draft?
So I looked at every guard taken the last two drafts, and the centers too, just for the hell of it. Findings:
— There were 22 guards taken total in 2009 and 2010. Of those, by my estimation, exactly 8 were drafted out of spread offenses and 8 out of pro-style offenses. Another six hailed from offenses that either incorporated elements of both (i.e. Penn State) or that I frankly no idea what they ran (I-AA Eastern Illinois, for instance).
— The split was even both years–5 and 5 in ’09, 3 and 3 in ’10.
— 13 centers were taken. 5 of these were spread centers, 8 were pro-style, and 1 (again, Penn St.) I wasn’t sure how to classify.
So: the last two years, at least, guards in the spread were every bit as likely to be drafted as those in pro-style offenses. It’s not like all of these guards were coming out of high-profile spread outfits at Oklahoma or Oregon, either; the NFL took guards from places like Cincinnati, Illinois, San Diego State, Iowa State, etc. They took Tyronne Green out of Auburn after he spent a season in the Tony Franklin disaster; clearly, it’s possible to get the NFL’s attention no matter what kind of offense you play in.
Now for some caveats: this particular study is hardly scientific, obviously (though an error or two one direction or the other wouldn’t make too much of a difference); though it’s an incredibly small sample size, over the course of these two drafts, pro-style centers were mildly favored; and, most significantly, it’s certainly fair to say that the NFL doesn’t like the spread and the scouting difficulties it can create.
But it’s even fairer to say that for true NFL-grade prospects, they’ve proven themselves more than willing to overlook those difficulties and offer an opportunity to players who deserve them. If you can play, the NFL will find you, no matter what offense you’re in … even the Mike Leach Texas Tech circus that, option aside, is probably the furthest possible approach from the NFL’s. It didn’t stop the Chargers from taking Tech guard Louis Vasquez in the third round in 2009, and the transition didn’t stop Vasquez from starting 14 games as a rookie.
If Region or any recruit doesn’t want to come to Auburn, hey, fine, there’s plenty of reasons to attend plenty of other schools. But as those reasons go, “the spread offense can’t get me to the NFL” just isn’t a valid one.
*Don’t worry, I’m kidding. I know it’s “tastiness.”
**OK, so I’m tired of talking about Region, and I don’t want to say anything negative about the kid. He made a mistake back in February, he’s desperately trying to fix it (since we all know exactly who he’s trying to win over by publicly spouting what has to be a common negative recruiting refrain against Auburn), and I wish him the best of luck finding somewhere he can play football and feel comfortable.
But at this point, I think we pretty well know that place isn’t going to be Auburn. Somehow, the image of Jeff Grimes coaching a player who went on record as saying he wasn’t good enough to get him ready for the pros doesn’t compute.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
“…since we all know exactly who he’s trying to win over by publicly spouting what has to be a common negative recruiting refrain against Auburn”
I have less than zero insight into this young man or his thought process, but my honest gut feeling is that his bammer friends and family have been harping on this theme. Somehow I don’t think it’s the Alabama staff.
And having seen video of his “commitment” announcement and subsequent interview, no, I do not think he is mature enough to tune that stuff out and evaluate the situation.
Whether he’s hearing it from the Tide staff or Tide fans, I think the people whose good graces he’s trying to get into are the same. We’ll see. I worry he’s going to wind up like the bat in Aesop’s fable:
I’m going to assume that the coaches, Jeff Grimes included, are not so thin-skinned that they would let a comment such as what Spencer said get to them. I mean I would love to hear some of the comments that are made about Trooper Taylor. In any event, this seems to be a very easy serve to return. So easy that it makes me agree with Alex that this is likely friends and family and not coaches. In fact, it seems to fall in line with a similar criticism that Auburn got a lead on Alabama last year by running trick plays. You know the trick plays that Auburn ran in every game.
Spencer has the height and size to play tackle, but NFL coaches and scouts evaluate tackles almost exclusively on their feet and body positioning. If you watch an NFL game, very few plays involve tackles putting their hands on the ground and drive blocking. In fact, one could argue that not putting his hand on the ground is better preparation because he will learn how to position his body and use leverage properly.
But hey, if he’s concerned that an offense that runs 60% of the time isn’t physical enough for him, okay no problem. I think Enrique Davis made his decision to go to Ole Miss on the same basis.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
I’d also add to your analysis, that NFL offenses pass more often than run – more often than both Auburn and Alabama.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
Guess HTML won’t work in comments:
Look at the last chart.
Joe Blow says
Something seems calculated here.
Let me state my allegiances outright: Bama fan and grad here. But as an objective observer of SEC football, I’m bullish on Auburn for 2010. In fact, I’m more nervous about that game in late November than any other one on our schedule, except possibly LSU (who always gives us hell in the Saban-era). Malzahn is a great strategist. Chizik at least seems like a competent leader of some really first rate assistants and is possibly a darn fine head coach himself (jury’s still out a bit).
But I have noticed a pervasive idea among Auburn fans that I’d like to see addressed in this column. Seems like a given among you all that your defense will improve in 2010. I understand that “The Great Safety Catastrophe of 2009” is (thankfully, for the sake of the players) not likely to repeat itself again for some time. And depth and even top-end talent was down last year. And that Owens, Lemonier, Whittacker, Sanders, Bonomolo, and the like will pretty effectively upgrade talent across the board (as a great recruiting class should).
However, I still have a pretty strong lingering doubt about significant defensive improvement in the Malzahn era of Auburn football. Maybe this is best expressed from a Bama perspective: Glenn Coffee, Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch, and Trent Richardson have been a huge part of what we do on defense. Saban’s philosophy of game pace involves maximizing time of possession, which rests the defense and minimizes the offenses opportunities to probe for weaknesses (physical or schematic).
Malzahn’s offense, on the other hand, seeks to increase the pace of the game and maximize the number of plays run. When this works, it puts tremendous pressure on the opponent’s defense. But when it doesn’t (even for the possessions it doesn’t work on), it puts tremendous pressure on your own. Either way, it limits the amount of time you are able to rest your defense and exposes them to the attacking offense more often. As a result of Malzahn’s approach to clock management, Auburn only carried the time of possession metric in four games this year: Tennessee, MSU, Furman, and Georgia. And the last two were practically even. And this outcome is philosophical (i.e. related to Malzahn’s approach) not formational (i.e. related to the spread); Florida, for contrast, won the TOP battle in all but two of their SEC games (South Carolina and Bama in the SECCG). My suspicion is that, while Malzahn’s offense is almost certainly more of an advantage than a disadvantage, that Auburn is fairly unlikely to have a statistically excellent defense while he his calling the shots on game pace because his pace gives the opposing offense so many chances to churn out yards against your defense. I’m not suggesting that you “bust the myth” of a better defense in 2010, but I would love to hear an intelligent Auburn fan’s (and one who is clearly excited for 2010) thoughts on this matter.
streetweirdo is possibly the smartest bama fan I have ever met. You are right, our defense is gonna be under pressure….not much more can be said…hopefully we will win anyway.
We need to start hot without any 3 and outs in the first quarter…if Cam can score first then and get first downs early then our defense can stay fresh…if not then things get tougher.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
I don’t think you’ll find many Auburn fans who think the Auburn defense will put up the lock-down type statistics we saw in the Tuberville era — for the same reasons you just documented. The Malzahn offense simply won’t allow it. Opponents’ possessions will too many and too short in between – regardless of how many points our offense scores.
But if they can perform well on a yard’s per possession basis (which with more depth and expereince in the scheme should happen), then we’ll be pleased.
I guess I’m just over the hand wringing concerning the spread. After all, we had a good recruiting class this year and on the offensive side it was because of the spread, not in spite of it. Plus just scanning the recruiting rankings, there are a lot of spread teams in the top 25 (UF, Texas, OU, Oregon, Mizz, and just outside at 27 WVA).
To streetweirdo’s point, I’m curious about OU. They run a fast-paced offense as well. IDK about their defensive stats, but their W/L ratio indicates they were scoring more points than their opponents in general, and I’ll take that.
weirdo, first of all, thanks for stopping by. Rational Tide fans are always more than welcome here, since they tend to ask good questions like the one you’ve asked.
In response, I’ll first echo Gabe’s and Alex’s assertions about expectations–I don’t think we’re under any illusions that this team can win a 14-13, 13-10-type slugfest. As long as Malzahn’s around, Auburn is going to have some issues defensively.
But last year’s unit wasn’t quite as bad as commonly believed–account for the drastic increase in the number of possessions and plays by looking at per-play and per-possession numbers, and it was more “below average” than the total disaster portrayed by the total yardage and total points metrics. It also didn’t help that their red zone performance was so poor I have to chalk some of that up to bad luck (see the “regression to the mean” post from last week) and that special teams–the kickoff unit in particular–rarely did them any favors.
All that said, there’s still a ton of room for improvement, and I think it’s reasonable to expect _some_, if maybe not a huge leap forward. There’s the increased depth and talent you mention, plus two of the better LBs in the league, a hopefully much more productive DT tandem, a defensive end in Carter that I think is poised to have a big big year, and with any luck we’ll have much better health at safety. Probably the biggest area for improvement for Auburn (in addition to the red zone troubles, which should be helped by having guys to actually rotate in when the starters tire) is against big plays; Auburn gave up a ton of 30/40/50+ yard TDs last year, and a lot of those were directly attributable to the safeties and the (ahem) erratic play at weakside linebacker. Shoring up those three positions alone should yield some big dividends this year.
Also: the players on both sides are in the second year of the current regime, so some of the kinks should be worked out, leading to both fewer damaging three-and-outs from the O and better overall play from the D.
Again, Auburn’s not going to become the ’86 Bears anytime soon. But I’ll be surprised if they don’t take some kind of step forward.
Wow, thanks for all of the responses. As for Marcus, I think you might be underestimating just how unique Malzahn’s approach to clock management is. OU, Texas, and Florida all run similar(ish) sets to Malzahn, but they’re not actively trying to maximize the number of plays run in the game (and minimize the time between plays) to the same extent. Malzahn’s effect on the defense is mostly about the hurry-up no huddle, not the spread or even the high-scoring offense.
I’m a little surprised to hear that most Auburners are not expecting Tubberville-era stats and style of play. That’s probably a very good thing in terms of fan expectations, because I think Chizik, Malzahn, and co. will put a quality product on the field for you, but I don’t think it will look like a quality Tubberville product (and, no, that’s not a contradiction in terms, no matter how ugly the breakup was). Seems like Roof caught a lot of grief for not having a Muschamp-quality defense this year. What we might call “good Auburn football” in this decade will probably look very different than it did last decade. It’d be a shame if stylistic conservatism in the fanbase made it hard for them to make that work.
Finally, I do think that the overall upgrade in talent and schematic consistency that comes with a coaching regime’s second year will lead to fewer 3 and outs, better depth, and smarter play on both sides of the ball. That’s why at the moment, I’m thinking that the Arkansas bandwagon is a little misdirected (as the Ole Miss one was 12 months ago). The real sleeper in the West is probably wears blue and orange.
SW, certainly there’s an element of Auburn fandom–one of the writers we had for this very site last year among them–who went ballistic over the defense last year, and will probably continue to complain that “defense wins championships” regardless of what the record looks like. But I think the majority of Auburn fans will be perfectly happy with the defense as long as we’re winning. No one seemed to care all _that_ much that we’d given up a ton of yards and points to West Virginia last year, I’d say. Even the older, more traditional Auburn fans I know are more thrilled by the offense’s capabilities than worried over the D. YMMV.
Re: tempo, in 2008 Texas and Florida played at a more conservative pace, but Kevin Wilson’s Oklahoma team was right up there with Malzahn–OU and Tulsa finished 1-2 in total plays. But thanks to the Sooners’ success, other teams sped up too, Texas among them–the Longhorns went from No. 19 in total plays to No. 2. Florida went from No. 47 to No. 19. Oklahoma still finished No. 5. I would say that while no one is AS obsessed with tempo as Malzahn and no one else has his particular combination of speed and misdirection, he’s not the only one who’s realized that it can really help an offense.
Probably not in the majority here, I think that “we” Auburn fans are so used to a grind and churn style of offense, that we are actually giddy about this Malzhanian style of attack.
Yes it makes life harder on the defenses,which one depending on when it does work and when it doesn’t.
This years AU defense will be much improved. Having both Chizik and Roof almost guarantee this. The true key will be injuries, the depth is still not an unsolved issue.
3 and out is 3 and out. Sure, when our O is not clicking the D is attacked more times and thus has more opportunities to give up yards, but if they get after it for just 3 plays they CAN get off the field. They should also be better prepared stamina wise if the scout team runs at the same pace as the regular O. Finally, with more depth and talent perhaps Roof can do more of what I understood him to be which was an aggressive blitzing D coordinator. When you only have 2 good linebackers and no safeties you can’t afford to gas them running blitzes every down. Also, how well did everyone understand Roof’s schemes last year. Another year in the system will help hammer that out so that the blitzes etc are more effective and maybe the percentage of 3 and out increases. In the end all I really care about is winning games. I haven’t seen any trophies for best defense on any award shows but I did see a crystal football at walmart and I want to see AU win one. If we can just outscore our opponent it really doesn’t matter what the D does. WDE!
From my time on the Plains, it seemed to me I heard a lot more complaining about the lack of a threatening offense in ’07 and ’08 than the lack of a suffocating defense in ’09, so I think the average Auburn fan has been waiting for an offense like Malzahn’s for a long time, and they’re willing to trade a slight drop in defense to have it.
Seems to me that an integral part of the success of Tuberville’s defenses was a steady rotation of fresh players onto the field, and Roof is trying to deal with a seriously depleted depth chart. Darren Bates might not have seen the field in his true freshman year–and definitely would not have seen nearly every single snap of every single game–if he had been old enough to play under Tuberville during Tubbs’ peak years on the Plains. There’s no doubt that Roof’s defenses will be better when he has a steady rotation of bodies, no matter how fast or slow the offense’s tempo.
The question this brings up to me, though, and the question that seems to be taken for granted in threads like these is this: why are all the team’s struggles being blamed on the defense? More than half of the games Auburn lost could be just as easily attributed to offensive inconsistency as defensive. Yes the Arkansas and LSU games got out of hand because of the defense’s shortcomings, but the games with Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama could all have been won with the defense that Auburn fielded combined with a more consistent offense.
Point is: I agree the defense will be better with more talent and an extra year under Roof, but Malzahn has to carry his end of the deal, too. The defense kept the offense in a position to win in 11 of the 13 games, so they do have room for improvement, but keeping the team in a position to win is all one can ask of them. Auburn can’t keep asking its defense to carry the team to 3-2 victories in game after game, year after year. The offense has to step up, even from the bar they set last year.
I would also note that when Florida won the national championship in ’08, they would ramp the tempo up quite often. In 2009, they lost a lot of playmakers on offense and returned the entire defense, so it was in their best interests to play at a much slower pace.
Like I said on April 30th (before anything got started with him) in this blog and kind of got put down…
“Be prepared to give it up on Spencer Region. The chances of this lifelong bammer honoring his “commitment” are slim and none.”
You were right, astr.