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Gus Malzahn's Hurry-Up, No-Huddle

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Before you understand Auburn’s offense, you have to understand its underlying philosophy. The first of a series explaining the Tiger offense.

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Gus Malzahn's opening statement at his introductory press conference laid out a simple but specific offensive plan. "We will have a fast paced offense... We will run the football... We're a run, play action team." The first thing he mentioned wasn't the run/pass balance or how multiple the offense would be. Instead, Malzahn made it clear that his number one offensive priority is going fast.

So what exactly is this Hurry-Up, No-Huddle (HUNH)? Why would a team try it? How does it work? Gus Malzahn published a book in 2003 to answer these questions from a high school perspective, but it can be applied to collegiate competition as well.

What is the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle?

When considered individually, the No-Huddle is more established as an offensive philosophy than the Hurry-Up. When Malzahn initially wanted to use the HUNH in 1997, his offensive coordinator already had experience running the No-Huddle from his time as an assistant at Arkansas Tech. The famous K-Gun offense was a no-huddle variety of the Run 'n' Shoot used by the Buffalo Bills in the early '90s. Many NFL teams today forgo the huddle much of the game and call a play after lining up.

The Hurry-Up was perhaps first used by John Heisman while at Auburn in 1899, but only as a self-described "stunt" to get a free offsides penalty on the defense. In the decades between then and now, the Hurry-Up was only seen near the end of halves. Even casual fans of football understand the purpose of hurrying when the clock is under two minutes.

Gus Malzahn began to notice the benefit of combining the two with his offensive scripts. Most teams begin a game with an offensive script that ranges from five to 15 plays used to get a read on how the opponent plans to defend certain situations. Malzahn and his staff at Shiloh Christian experimented with opening games with three scripted plays run at a hurried pace without a huddle. Those three plays would energize the players and get the crowd excited, but the momentum would be gone soon after returning to a more standard pace. Between the '96 and '97 seasons, Malzahn and his staff found a way to combine the No-Huddle with the Hurry-Up for the entire game and he's been using that combination as an offensive philosophy ever since.

Ultimately, the HUNH is not an offensive system or playbook. It isn't Air Raid. It isn't Pro-Style. It isn't Wing-T, Flexbone or the Tony Franklin SystemTM. It can be used with whatever offense the coach wants to use as long as the team can go fast.

Why use the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle?

If the HUNH isn't "completely opposite of what [you] believe in," there are several reasons to use it. It gives the offense advantages, it takes away defensive advantages, and it can help excite fans and recruits. (Non-linked quotes are from Malzahn's book.)

Offensive Advantages

"You will set the tempo of the game." Speeding up the game allows Auburn to control the tempo and control is important in any competition. In soccer, ball control leads to more shots on goal. In baseball, pitch control helps the pitcher paint the edge of the plate for strikes. In football, controlling the line of scrimmage is so important it borders on cliché. Tempo is just one more aspect of the game that a team wants to control.

"Gives the coach the ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage after he sees the defensive alignment." Auburn was rudely introduced to this concept in 2008 when Tony Franklin was on the sideline.

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As silly as it looks, there is a purpose. Coaches would like to think that their team is good enough to execute any play against any defense, but that is just not always the case. When the defense clearly has a formational advantage, the hurry-up gives the offense enough time to call in another play to avoid a negative one.

"Score points quickly." Ideally, Auburn can jump to a huge lead in the first half. This puts enormous pressure on the other team because they are playing catch-up all game. Auburn didn't do a great job of that last year. In fact, Auburn really only jumped out to big leads against quality teams three times: Ole Miss, Georgia, and Florida State. Each time, the offense stalled and the defense let the other team back in the game. But Auburn did score quickly later in the games against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. In the SEC Championship Game, Missouri felt the pressure to keep up with Auburn's offense and went for it on fourth down deep in their own territory. When they failed, Auburn scored on the next play and never looked back. This year, with so few experienced quarterbacks leading opposing offenses, early big leads should be easier to hold on to.

Defensive Disadvantages

"Defenses cannot simulate it in practice. Defenses have to spend more time than usual preparing for us." These two aspects of the HUNH have diminished over the last five years. So many offenses are using the HUNH that defenses are getting better and better at facing it. For example, Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 is a way to stay flexible with the same personnel and Nick Saban's defense morphed a bit to contain Johnny Manziel. But that isn't to say the hurried pace has no effect on defenses anymore.

"Stops defenses from regrouping after big plays." Last year, after a negative play, Auburn would take their time finding the next play. The offense needed to regroup, find out what went wrong, and choose the next play with that in mind. Similarly, when a defense gives up a big play, they would like to regroup, find out what went wrong, and choose the next coverage, blitz, or personnel group with that in mind. The HUNH doesn't allow that to happen.

In the SEC Championship Game, Nick Marshall took the ball outside for a huge gain to the Missouri 2 yard line. This is the kind of play that makes a defense step back, change personnel, and get focused on a goal line stand. But when the replay is over, the broadcast shows one Gold and Black Tiger running off the field and most of the defenders running or shifting around to get in position. Corey Grant just takes the ball up the middle for a touchdown, the one play a goal line stand should be most prepared for.

"Makes it harder to pick up tendencies." One of the purposes of watching game film is to find opponents' tendencies. What plays do they run out of this formation? What usually happens when this player is lined up here? What do they like to do on 2nd and short? 3rd and long? Offenses can use "tendency busters" or plays that are specifically used when a defense is cheating toward the usual play, but another benefit of pace is that defenses can't start to think about tendencies when they are trying to line up correctly. Before the National Championship Game, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith looked forward to using his knowledge of Auburn's tendencies, and while he had a season-high 11 tackles, it didn't stop the Tigers from putting up 31 points, only the second time the Seminoles gave up more than 17 last year.

"Creates problems for defensive coaches." Each defensive coordinator has a process for play calling. First, perhaps the DC prefers to make calls based on down and distance, field position, score, and offensive personnel. Then the communication may travel from the DC to an assistant to one player and then to the rest of the players. If this system isn't streamlined, the DC may have to start leaving parts of his pre-play call routine out and make overly simplistic calls. Worse, the communication itself could take too long and the players don't know what to do when the next play begins. Even Nick Saban knows the problems this can cause.

That's the point, Nick.

For even more insight on how the HUNH affects defenses, read this piece by James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser. It's full of quotes from players that faced Auburn last year recounting the stresses of trying to defend at such a fast pace.

Off-Field Advantages

"It is fun for players and fans." Clearly the HUNH affects the way the game is played on the field, but it can also change a program. Think back to the beginning of the 2009 season. The 93-yard touchdown pass from Chris Todd to Terrell Zachery. The 49-24 beat down of Mississippi State after the 3-2 debacle a year before. The comeback in "The Rain Game" against West Virginia. The offense wasn't very fast yet, but it was different and it was fun. Winning helps, of course, but scoring 33.3 points a game that season helped Auburn fans forget the disastrous 2008 season and look forward to 2010.

"You'll get more kids out to play." Malzahn wrote his book from the perspective of a high school coach. In this case, he meant that football would get more participation if the style of play was more fun. This is important to small high schools that need every healthy body they can get. It is also important to big high schools that could always use that basketball player or track star on the gridiron. In college, I think it applies to recruiting. I'm no "recruitnik," but I would bet high school junior and senior football players want to play where they can have success and have fun doing it. Having a HUNH offense is one way to draw those players in.

Any other ways the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle changes the game?

"Speed up the game. Lengthen the game." If a typical team runs 60-70 plays a game, a HUNH team can run 80-90 and effectively lengthen the game. And if a team has advantages over the opponent (size, strength, conditioning), they can be maximized by making the game last longer. The advantages come into play more often and any bad luck that would undo those advantages becomes a smaller part of the game. If a team is good enough to score on 50% of its possessions, it's better to get 12 possessions than eight. A team might fumble twice in the red zone, but it matters just a bit less if the team gets to the red zone six times instead of three.

Also, a longer game allows more aggressive play both on offense or defense. If the big pass or big blitz works, that's great. If not, it's not as big a deal. It's only one play out of 90 instead of one play out of 60. And finally, a longer game lets you come back from behind if needed. It didn't work out against LSU last year, but Auburn ran 85 plays in an attempt to come back from 21-0. If the "failed" onside kick had worked and if the Tigers had scored on 4th and Goal near the end, they would have been right back in it. This was only possible because the HUNH lengthened the game.

"Mentally and physically wear down your opponent." No, this isn't proof that Malzahn intends to harm players and the 10 second rule proposed by Bret Bielema and Nick Saban is necessary to save college football. Instead, Malzahn intends to change the game by weakening the competition over time using speed rather than, or alongside, brute strength. Against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, Auburn went into halftime leading by 11, 14, and one, respectively. By the end of each game, Auburn won handily by 18, 32, and 17. Eventually, those defenses could no longer slow Auburn down and the offenses could no longer keep up.

When should a team adopt the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle?

Now, the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle isn't for everyone. Malzahn laid out some considerations to make before using the HUNH.

"You need an average or better offensive football team." As I said earlier, the HUNH isn't an offensive system. And though it provides lots of advantages, it also magnifies the offense's overall play. If the team can move the ball well, the HUNH let's them move it well and often. If the team is struggling to get past the 50, the HUNH will only increase the punter's playing time.

"Your players must be in great physical condition." The HUNH should only be attempted if the players can maintain their level of execution at high speeds. A poorly conditioned team will either struggle to block, run, pass, and catch after tiring, or fail to play at a hurried pace at all.

"You cannot worry about your total time of possession." TOP used to mean something. When football was more of a field-position game, teams wanted to hold the ball as much as they could. After all, the other team couldn't score if they didn't have the ball. But modern offenses don't need seven minutes of game clock to grind out 70 yards for a score. Big plays often determine who wins and who loses, not who holds the ball the longest.

"You cannot worry about your defensive statistics." If a team can get four more possessions and 30 more plays in a game, the opponent is also going to get more possessions and plays. Consequently, a total numbers of a defense on a HUNH team will suffer. No longer can that defense expect to hold teams under 10 points a game, but that doesn't mean it can't be successful at stopping the other team. The fundamentals still matter, but the perspective has to change.

"You have to be committed to the philosophy." Do you want to see what an offense looks like when it is built to use the HUNH but uses a standard pace instead? See Auburn, 2011. Sure, they scored 42 on Mississippi State and 38 on Clemson early in the season. But everyone points to the 16-13 win over South Carolina as the game when the HUNH died on the Plains. Through the rest of the season, Auburn would only beat Florida in an ugly punt-fest, Ole Miss, who would finish the season 2-10, and FCS Samford. Auburn didn't score more than 14 points against any decent team left on the schedule. Until the bowl game against Virginia, that is. With an inspired Tre Mason taking over for a suspended Michael Dyer and Gus Malzahn going out on a high note on his way to Arkansas State, the Tigers put up 43 points. The lesson? If a team starts using the HUNH, it must stay committed.

***

Early in the 2013 season, Gus Malzahn was not satisfied with his football team's pace. After all, he had only been on campus for eight months and the quarterback only arrived in time for fall camp. But as the season continued, the Tigers showed more and more of the HUNH. With the coaching staff intact and eight of 11 starters back on offense, I would expect to see even more speed this season from beginning to end.