When steel doesn’t sharpen steel: unintended up-tempo, no-huddle consequences

ATLANTA – There’s been a lot of talk and much written, recently, about how Clemson is having the most physical bowl practice of the Dabo Swinney Era.

A key element of this is good-on-good reps, meaning the first-team offense and first-team defense face each other in practice.

The coaching cliché is steel sharpens steel.

I asked Les Miles today how he has gone about creating a culture of rugged physicality at LSU and he indicated it was through good-on-good work:

“It’s interesting. We practice a significant portion of every day against LSU,” Miles said. “And I think that kind of tunes us best as we can. And I don’t know that live tacking is the answer. I think it’s a small piece of that. (Most important) is a quality competitive practice that would require going against the best that you have and I don’t know that that’s anything special.”

Les Miles eats grass and sharpens steel. The approach works in the SEC.

This practice makes a lot of sense in vacuum. It makes a lot of sense if you have a conventional offense that plays in a conference of conventional offenses, or an unconventional offense in a conference of unconventional offense.

But I wonder if this good-on-good practice could backfire on Clemson vs. LSU.

I’ve had a defensive coordinator who was paired with an up-tempo privately grumble that it’s very difficult to get quality productive practice in when paired with an unconventional offense. And it makes sense: if you’re not going to see such an offense on the schedule you are gaining experience against something that will not be applicable to the teams you are facing.

Nick Saban asked Dan Radakovich to dump a non-conference opponent from the schedule that ran spread offense in the early 2000s at LSU because he didn’t want to have to waste preparation time against it… and have his defenders learn bad habits, or master technique they would never use.

In a broader sense, I wonder if it’s ever going to be possible for a defensive coordinator to lead a productive unit while the up-tempo, no-huddle philosophy is in place at Clemson.

Not only is the Clemson defense practicing against an unorthodox scheme, but when the offense isn’t working on gameday, quick three-and-outs can be damaging. We saw three-and-outs take their toll on the defense in both the South Carolina and Florida State losses. Moreover, this might not allow for a culture of toughness and rugged play to develop when the field is always spread and players are exhausted from tempo.

Earlier this year I looked at all the offenses that have run 1,000 plays in a season since 2008 and the defenses they were paired with. There were 31 such offenses.

*20 of the teams had defenses ranked 50th or worse in yards allowed

*9 of those teams had defenses that ranked 80th or lower

*6 ranked 100th or worse

*Only 4 ranked in the top 20 of total defense

*And when adjusting for yards per play, the defenses paired with up-tempo offenses also fared worse than the national average.

Now, Brent Venables did have success at Oklahoma when he was paired with an up-tempo offenses. But there are more such offenses populating the Big 12, and Oklahoma had better players than most of its conference opponents.

In the ACC and SEC there are fewer such offenses, and at the moment Clemson’s defensive personnel is not as talented as it has been in past years, and certainly not as talented as Oklahoma’s defense.

Now if Venables had Da’Quan Bowers, Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson along the line and Marcus Gilchrist and DeAndre McDaniel in the secondary, Clemson’s defense would be a much better unit.  Players still matter most. Elite players give any defense a chance.

But that’s not the reality Clemson – or most defenses – live with.

Can a thin Clemson defense practicing against Chad Morris’ offense have success against a pro-style, smash-mouth LSU offense?

It’s an experiment that will play out Monday.

I think the good-on-good approach is the right idea in a vacuum. Steel sharpens steel. But in the case of Clemson it’s not steel sharpening steel, there are two different elements working against each other. Like steel and copper, and instead of sharpening, there could be a dulling, severing consequence.

4 thoughts on “When steel doesn’t sharpen steel: unintended up-tempo, no-huddle consequences

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’ve heard there’s been more good on good paw drill and I think that’s where a lot of the benefit from tough, rugged preparation can be had. After all, it’s really the line of scrimmage we’re talking about. Furthermore, I’m sure the offense works at live tempo at times, but not all the time, and the line of scrimmage must be won in the same way no matter what the tempo is. I’m sure we’ve run a few more power running plays just for good measure. Thought-provoking article, though.

  2. Doug, good points. The line of scrimmage is the key area, and good-on-good work should have some positive benefits there.

    It’s my understanding that Morris is not often slowing tempo in practice, and I doubt Morris is simulating LSU’s scheme for the first-team defense.

    That’s the challenge of being a defensive coach in practice or in games, you are always reacting to what your opponent does.

  3. As much we all love Morris, the fact is, as long as he’s here, our defense will most likely be average at best. These numbers show what most fans already know, running the HUNH is detrimental to the defense. The three and outs are just devastating, to say the least. The defense gets exposed being on field so much. The more plays you run, the more plays the opponent runs, therefore giving them more chances to score and more chances u get, it’s likely you’ll score more

    • JP, I agree. I’m not trying to suggest that the Morris offense is bad for Clemson. I’m just saying expectations for defensive performance will have to change as long as the HUNH is at Clemson. And it sounds as if it will remain after the Morris Era.

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