TUCSON, Ariz. — Rich Rodriguez worked on the defensive side of the ball as a player and assistant, so when he became the head coach at Glenville State, his offensive goal was simple: Make it as difficult to defend as possible.
Rodriguez knew he wanted to run a spread offense, but with a small quarterback, he opted to make it a run-based system.
To make it even tougher to stop, he also decided to run his offense without huddling. Not as a change of pace. All the time. Every play.
"I thought: What’s harder to defend than the two-minute drill?" Rodriguez said. "So we decided to do the two-minute drill all the time."
That was 1990 and Rodriguez is still having success with his get-it-and-go offense at No. 24 Arizona.
So are a lot of other teams.
Taking the popular spread offense to another level, college football teams across the country have switched to no-huddle attacks to keep defenses off-balance.
Urban Meyer has done it in his first season at No. 12 Ohio State, so has Larry Fedora at North Carolina. The Big 12 is already full of no-huddlers and there are plenty of new ones out West, including No. 22 UCLA and both Arizona schools. Kentucky, No. 23 Tennessee, Colorado, Syracuse, Miami, Mississippi, New Hampshire — the list of no-huddle newbies seems to go on and on.
"It almost seems like an anomaly these days when someone gets in the huddle," said UCLA coach Jim Mora, who has the Bruins at 2-0 after switching to a no-huddle scheme. "You don’t see huddles. You see up-tempo, fast-paced offenses. You see a lot of formations and movements, plays that have multiple options. It’s fun to watch, tough to defend, I think it makes the game exciting."
The tough-to-defend part is why most teams switched.
Over the last decade or so, the spread had become a popular choice in college football, the four and five receiver sets out of the shotgun creating gaps in defenses. At its peak, the spread generated prolific numbers as defenses tried to find ways to catch up.
But, as is always the case, defenses started figuring it out.
One way to combat the spread stoppers was to pick up the pace, play frenetically all the time instead of just in the final two minutes of a half.
The nonstop no-huddle gave the defense no time to adjust, leaving coaches unable to make the substitutions they wanted and players to figure out what to do on the fly instead of having 40 seconds to get input from the sideline or think about upcoming assignments.
"The defenses figured out ways to play the spread and look at alignments and tendencies and personnel," said Tim Beck, orchestrator of the no-huddle offense Nebraska started using last season. "The faster you go, the less likely you can gather all that information and relay it to your players."
The faster they go, the more tired they get, too.
Unless their offense happens to run no-huddle, most defensive players don’t experience the full force of playing nearly nonstop until the game starts, when it’s too late.
And because the opposing team is playing so quickly, often snapping the ball as soon as the official places it on the field, there often isn’t time to get substitutions in, leaving the players on the field gasping for air.
Oregon has been the master of going faster, its revved-up offense leaving opposing players so tired they’ve faked injuries to get a breather.
"When you wear them down, they get tired and they start messing up checks, they start messing up what they’re doing — bigger plays you kind of fall into it," said Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, whose no-huddle offense ran 182 combined plays and had 1,051 total yards against Northwestern and Southern California to open the season. "That’s kind of where it evolved to."
The progression of the no-huddle within a program starts with getting players into better shape.
When Rodriguez first took over in the desert, he had a hard time implementing his attack because he had what he called "the worst-conditioned team in the country."
He kept pushing the pace in practice until the Wildcats got into shape and they’ve been full throttle since the season started, setting a school record with 182 total plays —when both teams’ snaps are combined — in each of their wins over Toledo and Oklahoma State to move into the rankings for the first time in nearly two years.
Arizona State coach Todd Graham faced a similar challenge trying to turn a program that had lacked discipline into a smooth-operating, fast-paced machine. He and the rest of the coaching staff spent the spring and fall practices screaming at the Sun Devils to sprint everywhere, and it’s paid off with two resounding victories to open the season.
All in, all the time is the only way to go for teams that run no-huddle offenses.
"The way we practice is how we get in shape," Nebraska tight end Kyler Reed said. "We practice fast. We practice like it’s a game. Jogging on and off the field, jogging up to the line, getting set. When you practice like that, you kind of get in shape for it."
It’s more than just the lungs and legs, though. It takes a shift in mindset, too.
Most players are used to being told what to do by coaches on every play, every scenario. When they’re running no-huddle, they have to think quicker, react to what’s happening in front of them instead of mapping out what they’re going to do while in the huddle.
Staying sharp all the time is often the only way to make thinking on the fly second nature.
"We are up-tempo with everything we do, from the way that we walk from meeting to meeting to drill to drill," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Everything we do around here is of that mindset and attitude. I think it starts there with that kind of advantage."
Not everyone’s buying into the go-go-go approach.
Alabama has won two of the past three national championships by manhandling opponents. Perennial title contender LSU is non-no-huddle, too. USC, with all its talent at the skill positions, runs a pro-style offense.
So if the top teams are steering clear of the no-huddle, does that mean there’s a limited ceiling for it?
Auburn won the 2010 BCS championship behind offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s frenetically paced offense — with a little help from Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Oregon has become an annual title contender with its swarm-of-bees approach, playing the Tigers in that title game two years ago.
Besides, if the no-huddle offense had limited returns, there wouldn’t be as many coaches turning to it.
"Football is very cyclical, very much a copycat sport," Mora said. "If someone is having success doing something, others study it and try to implement it in their own program. When you see a team like Oregon have tremendous success with an up-tempo offense, then everybody wants to move that way. It might just be a phase or it might be a strategical shift."
Either way, the no-huddle offense figures to be around for a while — at least until defenses figure out a way to stop it.