COLUMBIA — There were times this spring that Evan Boehm found himself breathing heavily on the football field, trying to catch his breath before the next play.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Boehm is 6 feet 3 and 315 pounds. But size wasn’t the reason he was waging a nonstop battle to keep up with Missouri’s renewed emphasis on pushing the offensive tempo.
“During spring ball, we got a real good taste of it,” Boehm said. “We were out there, firing off and firing off and then the fifth play comes around and we’re just like, ‘Whoa, all right.’”
It wasn’t just Boehm, either. Just ask junior running back Henry Josey, a sculpted 5-foot-10, 190-pound ball of speed and muscle, how fast Missouri’s new offense might go under new offensive coordinator Josh Henson.
“At times I could barely breathe,” Josey said. “That’s how fast it’s going.”
After a disappointing 5-7 season in 2012 marked by injuries and inconsistent play from the quarterback position, it looks like Missouri will be one of several Southeastern Conference teams that will, at least at times, push the tempo by running as many plays as fast as possible this season.
“It’s been one of our focuses,” Henson said this spring. “I think it definitely helps.”
Henson hasn’t said much beyond that, other than to say there will be a renewed emphasis on the tight end. But in the scrimmages open to reporters during spring practice, the Tigers seemed to rely on fewer empty sets than they did last season, and players have consistently praised Henson for speeding things up and simplifying play calls.
“A lot of two-minute stuff,” sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham said. “We want to go out there and wear teams out.”
Senior receiver L’Damian Washington said Henson has also added additional tempos to the offense, which only had three last season.
“We have about five tempos we can go, it just depends on whatever tempo Coach Henson wants to call,” Washington said. “We’re up for it, whether we snap the ball in five seconds or 15.”
The Tigers and Henson better hope so. Last season, when Missouri finished 11th in the 14-team SEC in total offense and scoring offense and a miserable 13th in pass efficiency, the Tigers only ran 867 plays, their lowest total since they ran 834 in 2004. Perhaps not coincidentally, Missouri finished with a losing record (5-7) that year, too.
In retrospect, Henson said the Tigers’ average of 72 plays per game simply isn’t going to cut it.
“There were some games last year we were in the 60s,” Henson said. “Ideally, you’re looking for numbers in the 80s in this offense. At least 75 and above.”
Several SEC teams feel the same way, and have first-year coaches with extensive experience running the no-huddle spread. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has stated he wants to have the fastest offense in the country, while Kentucky is also moving closer to its Hal Mumme-esque, Air-Raid roots under Mark Stoops. In Knoxville, Tennessee’s Butch Jones will implement the same no-huddle attack he used during successful stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
Those programs will join Ole Miss and Texas A&M as SEC teams fully committed to the no-huddle spread, while Missouri will, at the very least, dabble in different speeds, depending on the situation.
“I think they might slow it down sometimes just because of the way the SEC is played,” said senior cornerback E.J. Gaines. “I’m sure it will differ from game-to-game. It just depends on what our coaches feel we need to do that week.”
With the no-huddle spread becoming more en vogue in the largely-conservative SEC, there is an ongoing debate about the impact these offenses have on player safety. Both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema have questioned whether the increased number of plays — and the rapid pace at which they are run — puts players at an increased risk for injury.
“There are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days last week. “You cannot tell me that a player, after play five, is the same player that he is after play 15.”
Saban also posed a number of questions about the subject at the event.
“Should we allow football to be a continuous game? Is that the way the game was designed to play?” Saban asked. “They play like 64 plays a game in the NFL. We play over 80 in college. The uptempo teams play even more than that. The cumulative effect of that is a player is playing 25, 30 more plays a game. Are there any safety issues in that?
“I don't know the answers.”
But Malzahn — a longtime proponent of the spread — called the argument ludicrous.
“When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke,” Malzahn said. “As far as health or safety issues, that’s like saying the defense shouldn’t blitz after a first down because they’re a little fatigued and there’s liable to be a big collision in the backfield.”
Of course, it’s also worth noting that this is an argument in which each is looking out for his own best interests. In the past, both Saban and Bielema have prefered conservative offenses with a tight end, fullback, and two wide receivers — “normal American football,” Bielema joked — that emphasize recruiting advantages other schools don’t have. While Saban is a recruiting juggernaut that routinely plucks the best of the best players from all over the nation, Bielema took advantage of one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for offensive linemen during his time at Wisconsin.
In that same vein, expect Missouri to do what’s best for Missouri when the fall rolls around, and that might mean speeding things up. Coach Gary Pinkel has already said this might be the Tigers’ best collection of skill players in years, and Henson has repeatedly said that he plans on tailoring the offense to the strengths of his players. That means his job, quite literally, is to get the ball in their hands as much as possible.
To that end, Henson may decide a full time warp-speed, no-huddle attack is the best way to do that, and he might not. But this spring was all about emphasizing it as a legitimate option, and Boehm is confident the Tigers will be ready to execute if called upon.
“As spring ball went on, we got the tempo down and we got the pace down,” Boehm said. “It’s exciting to see how fast the ball can move if you really want it to move.”