Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

July 30, 2013

Guest column: Big 12 defenses have long way to go

— One after another, the Big 12 Conference’s football coaches all talked about the depth of the league last week at Big 12 Football Media Days.

Parity has spread to a level where over the half the league feels it has a legitimate shot to win the conference title.

But the league has another issue it continues to grapple with, when scores like 70-63 (the score in West Virginia’s victory over Baylor last season), 56-50 (the score in Texas’ win over Baylor) or 50-49 (the finally tally in OU’s win at West Virginia) become commonplace.

Six of the teams scored at least 45 points in a game they lost. It’s hard to argue that the league’s defenses are at the very least trailing in terms of innovation and have a talent gap that needs to be closed.

“When you’re happy to win a game 56-50, things have changed. I mean, it’s just a different deal,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “You walk out mad at your defense or happy with your offense. You walk out happy you won, and that’s it, or you lose a game 48-45.”  

There’s no doubt the Big 12 Conference has been ground zero for the up-tempo spread offense. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy believes the proliferation of them has helped level the league.

“I think it’s tremendous for college football,” he said. “I think that’s why college football has gone through the roof, and there’s so much interest. There’s been so many different people that are involved in college football now because of tempo and spread offenses.”

But every offensive innovation has eventually been met by a defensive counterpunch. The end of the wishbone era in college football came when defensive coordinators figured out they had to match speed with speed and began recruiting athletic defenders.

Every school in the Big 12 is trying to do this right now. They’re putting, bigger, stronger and faster athletes on the field than they ever have.

However, one issue those defenders have to combat that some in the SEC, Big Ten and ACC don’t typically face, is the endurance test they face every Saturday.

“In this league you have to have speed above all else,” Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney said. “You have to be able to run with these offenses.”

That desire for speed has kept some defensive players from becoming as big as they’d like to be.

The NFL, which is looking for players who can play immediately, is seeing less of the defensive intangibles it seeks from Big 12 defenders.

Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro was the only Big 12 defensive player selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft and one of only seven Big 12 players picked in the entire seven rounds.

Hard to make the argument that it’s a perception problem when the NFL is looking elsewhere for defensive talent.

The season-long stamina it takes to compete with the up-tempo offenses are a negative when it comes to recruiting top defensive linemen.

Few teams have quarterbacks taking snaps under center. Offenses are designed to get rid of the ball quickly. Opportunities for sacks, which is the statistic NFL defensive linemen most covet, are limited.

“You’re not going to get many chances to get your sacks and you’re not going to get many chances to really rush the quarterback,” OSU defensive tackle Calvin Barnett said.  “The schemes are set up that way because everything is happening so fast.”

The emphasis on speed and having the endurance to stay on the field for 80-plus plays a game is something that hurts Big 12 defenders. Perhaps they could put on another 10 pounds of muscle. But if it’s going to hurt their endurance, what’s the point?

These are questions Big 12 defensive coaches have had the entire offseason to ponder. The trend of offenses dominating the league didn’t happen overnight and it won’t end quickly either.

If you’re playing defense in the Big 12, it comes with the understanding that you’re going to face an offensive barrage every Saturday.

*****

Shinn writes for the Norman (Okla.) Transcript. Distributed by CNHI.

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