That's the same thing that any athlete goes through when learning plays, calls and schemes in a new or modified system, but it's also something that has to be disposed of as quickly as possible. The phrase, "He who hesitates is lost", applies to many situations, but none more so than on fields of play, where a split-second pause can mean the difference between a touchdown and a two-yard loss. Thus, when new things are thrown into the mix, the challenge is to learn them as quickly as possible, so as to eliminate the thinking process as it relates to the play. If an athlete has to review his assignment and mentally go through all the options, then he's likely to be a step behind when the play actually starts.
This isn't a new idea, of course. In his book detailing his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, author Jim Bouton relates a story in which the comment, "Don't think, you're hurting the ball club" is heard. Although that happened almost 40 years ago, it's still a truism of just about any sport. If you have to think about things that should be second nature, you are in trouble.
With those axioms in mind, it wasn't a surprise to hear free safety Boogie Allen explain the reasons for the defensive dominance that was apparent for much of the spring.
"Everyone is starting to catch on to the defense, and once you do that, you're able to go 110% where you aren't guessing much," the junior said. "And even if you do guess on occasion, you are still able to go at full speed. That was a problem earlier in the spring. [The coaches] threw in some new defenses, and everyone was kind of hesitant. It was like we were afraid of trying to make a play. We were afraid of making the wrong read."
In the defensive secondary, a wrong read can often lead to a big gain for the offense. When the corners and safeties aren't playing with the confidence that comes from full knowledge of the defense, they are likely to play more tentatively. And while that might keep them from giving up a big pass play down the field, it also means that the call isn't being executed the way the coaches want it. That can make the defense break down as well.
When a new defense goes in, Allen notes that it's easy to see the difference in the way the defense plays it. Once it's learned, things improve. But during that time, it can be a sinking feeling for him when the ball is snapped.
"It's scary to not know what you are doing, especially when you are going against Pat, Noel, Jock and the rest of the offense," Allen said with a rueful laugh. "With their speed, it can get ugly. You are hesitant and worried about getting beat."
Learning the changes and gaining the confidence that leads to all-out play is a three-part process, according to Allen.
"It's a combination of everything. In the film room you can really see your mistakes and identify what you need to fix. In individual and unit drills, you can rep it a lot and get used to making reads and adjusting coverages. Then in scrimmages, you get the actual speed of the game. It's a process of putting it all together, and you can see where you really are."
Coming out of the spring, Allen is happy with the progress that he and his teammates have made, although he still notes he has things to work on. The offense's new package of shifts and motion gave the blue shirts some problems, but in the long run going against those in practice should help against teams like Louisville and Syracuse, which both employ versions of both in their offensive game plan. And while it might sound a bit like heresy, Allen doesn't mind if the offense has some success in intra-unit work.
"I do want both sides to be successful, because we want the offense to put up a whole lot of points during the season. But when it comes down to the end of practice, somebody has to lose. Either way, someone is going to take a loss and I'd rather it not be us."
In the end, the goal is to play at top speed. Reacting, not thinking, is the big key to doing so, and Allen believes that funnels into one of the precepts of Jeff Casteel's unit.
"It's everybody playing together and flying to the ball," he said of the chief benefit of playing fast. "That's always good. That can cover up for mistakes. Say a mike linebacker didn't get into the hole. If you have everyone flying to the ball, you can survive that. The linebacker might get yelled at in the film room, but on the field the result might not be so bad."
As the quarterback of the defense from his free safety spot, Allen just completed his second spring running with the top defense. This year, he plans on holding on to the position throughout the season.
"I was running with the ones all last spring, so it doesn't feel different for me," he said after moving over from corner. "It's just learning the new position and adding on the new coverages. I have pretty much gotten them now, so I'm trying to help the youngsters get them too."