PAC-12 MEDIA DAY: Stay in Your Lane

With recent criticism of up-tempo offenses, California head coach Sonny Dykes was the first Pac-12 coach to speak about player safety concerns raised by other conferences.

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott took the stage at Sony Pictures Studios and, after urging Pac-12 fans to dump DirecTV – with whom the Pac-12 Networks are "at an impasse" – trumpeted the new, high-octane profile of the conference, with new head coaches Sonny Dykes, Mark Helfrich and Mike MacIntyre and with five programs in the conference running full spread offenses or variations on the spread – all with some element of high tempo.

At the recent SEC Media Days, two of the coaches of last season's slowest offenses in the nation – Alabama's Nick Saban and former Wisconsin skipper and current Arkansas head coach Brett Bielema -- decried the spread of … well … the spread, and the higher tempo at which those types of offenses are run.

"All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break," said Bielema, who's Badgers ran an average of 2.09 plays per possession minute last season. "You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15."

Saban couched his criticisms in the fluffy cushions of player safety: "I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety. The team gets in the same formation group, you can't substitute defensive players, you go on a 14-, 16-, 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up. That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play."

New Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes answered those criticisms head-on, on Friday, taking the stage after a fellow Air Raid and up-tempo disciple, Mike Leach of Washington State. In contrast to his SEC counterparts, Dykes's offense at Louisiana Tech, last season, averaged 3.15 plays per possession minute.

"I was wondering how long it would take to get to that question," Dykes smiled.

One of Scott's biggest talking points on Friday was the pilot program of installing RFID chips in shoulder pads of players to measure impact forces, as well as a reduction in full-contact practices both in the spring and in the fall. Safety was the topic of the day, and Dykes has numbers on his side.

Last season, the Bulldogs lost a total of two player-starts lost due to injury. Cal lost 28 player-starts due to injury. Alabama lost 8. Wisconsin lost 19. Grind-it-out Louisiana State lost 31.

"I don't think that makes a whole lot of sense," Dykes said. "I would like to see somebody do a study that says how much safer players are as a result of spread offenses. Player injuries occur when players play in confined spaces, most of the time, because you have offensive linemen falling on people and opportunities for guys to get hurt, playing in confined spaces. When you spread the field out a little bit more, there's more space, and less of an inclination for somebody to fall on somebody else. I think you could make the argument that traditional, old-style, smash-mouth football is much more of a health detriment to student-athletes. I think we all need to make sure we get our facts straight, before we go on assumptions."

Pro-style USC lost 14 player-starts last season. Spread-based UCLA lost 18. Up-tempo, spread-based Texas A&M only lost 10. Speedy Oregon lost 19 from their projected starting lineup at the beginning of the season, but pound-the-rock Stanford lost just 9. At a glance, it seems that there is little to no correlation, at least among the more notable offenses, between increased tempo, and increased chance for injury.

"I think that more than anything, we pride ourselves on being physical, being aggressive. Our offense helps to build that. We do what we do, and we want to emphasize our own strengths, whether your facing a spread or whether your facing an offense like we have at Stanford," said Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov.

Of course, the contention of coaches like Saban and Bielema is not that the spread offenses themselves hurt players in those offenses, so much as it is that playing against those offenses can hurt defensive players, who will be too tired to retain proper tackling form. Stanford lost three defensive player-starts following games against spread or up-tempo teams, playing in a conference where nearly half of the teams run some variant of the spread. The Trojans didn't lose a single player start on defense following games against spread or up-tempo opponents. Even Wisconsin only lost four player starts on defense following games against spread or up-tempo teams. How many defensive player-starts did the Crimson Tide lose after an exhausting race with the Aggies? Not a single one.

Judging by Dykes's tenor, and that of the rest of the conference's rubber-burning offenses, the sentiment on the west coast seems to be simply: If you can't keep up, stay out of the fast lane.

"I think what happens is, everybody's got a certain style of football that they're comfortable with," Dykes said. "If you're a defensive football coach, you want to dictate the style of play that occurs in football. If you're an offensive football coach, you want to dictate the style of football. There's contrasting views on how the game should be organized. I think that tying it to player safety, I don't know if that's a fair assessment." Top Stories