Steve Sarkisian didn’t just wake from a dream and – presto! – the Huskies became masters of an ultra-fast, no-huddle offense. It only looked like that Saturday night as they zoomed past exhausted Boise State.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – How deeply have the Huskies absorbed their new, hyper-speed, no-huddle offense? How extensive is the team-wide transformation that blew away Boise State in the opener?
Coach Steve Sarkisian has drilled into ball carriers that once they go down they are to immediately bounce up and hand the ball to the official. Not toss the ball. A throw could get deflected by other players or dropped by the official, costing precious seconds.
And don’t hand the ball to just any official, either. Go find the umpire in the center of the field and give the ball to him, because he is the official that spots the ball for each play. By doing that, the Huskies are eliminating the middle man of a line judge or any other official who would then have to relay the ball to the umpire. That takes more seconds.
Yes, the story of how these Dawgs became greyhounds is a study in optimal efficiency that would make UPS proud.
Third quarter last Saturday inside new Husky Stadium, in a 10-6 game. Washington had a third and 6 near midfield. Keith Price hit Kasen Williams with a back-shoulder throw down UW’s sideline. Williams cut inside multiple defenders for a 38-yard catch and run to the Boise State 19.
“He goes down and the first thing he does is he gives it to the official, and he sprints and gets lined up in his spot (wide left),” Sarkisian said this week.
“And sure enough – bang – in about 8 seconds he catches a touchdown pass.”
The mastermind of this acceleration in hyper speed sounded proud. Williams had done just as he’d been trained all spring and summer.
"[Kasen Williams] goes down and the first thing he does is he gives it to the official, and he sprints and gets lined up in his spot...and sure enough – bang – in about 8 seconds he catches a touchdown pass.”
Last year, when the Dawgs huddled their play calls were, as Williams described Wednesday, “whole sentences.” Price wore a thick wristband that looked like a mini phone book. It contained multiple, lamented flip sheets with phrases typed in small print for each play. While in the huddle, Price would get a signal from the sideline and then read off his wristband the corresponding play.
Now the Huskies use one- or two-word play calls.
For instance, the 2013 Huskies have a play simply called “Fonzie.” (Sarkisian apparently likes “Happy Days” re-runs). That one word out of Price’s mouth tells all 11 offensive players what to do.
“Last year, that play would be ‘X Go Z Dover Y Go blah, blah, blah.’ It would be all that,” Williams explained. “Now it’s just ‘Fonzie.’
“It helps, you know? It just makes us go faster. Last year, being in crowds that are loud and you can’t hear, this helps with that.”
The Huskies don’t jog, they run to the line of scrimmage following each play. As they do staffers on the sideline hold giant picture cards. Some cards have on them solid colors. Others have logos of NFL and teams from other professional sports – baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies, for example. Some cards represent formations, others personnel groupings. Some are live. Some are decoys to confuse nosy opponents.
It looks like a game of sideline Concentration.
“The signs are big enough that you can see them in your peripheral vision,” Williams says.
He and his fellow receivers don’t take the time to stare at the cards as they run into the formation they are simultaneously processing.
“If you don’t do that, if you go to your spot and then look, it’s just that much slower,” Williams says. “You are taking off like three or four seconds, just by doing that.”
The Huskies each play ideally within 8 seconds. They ran an astounding 52 plays in just 15:55 of possession time during the first half last weekend.
Then, as right tackle Ben Riva calls it: “controlled chaos.”
“As soon as the whistle blows to end the play you are looking to the ref with, ‘Hey, where’s the ball?’” Riva said. “You get to the ball, you identify the (defensive) front, you get the play call – and we’re going again.
“It’s bam, bam, bam.”
Asked if there was an order in which he processes all this information in about eight seconds, Riva laughed.
“It’s all at once,” he said. “You are taking in a lot of stuff, and trying to apply your calls and your techniques.
“Yeah, it’s definitely chaotic. But there’s a method to it.”
The Broncos’ offense also runs a no-huddle – but not like Washington does. Their defense didn’t know what hit them. They wilted in the second half, as UW out-scored them 28-3 to win 38-6. It was the most lopsided defeat in coach Chris Petersen’s tenure at Boise State, and was its fewest points scored since 1997.
The Huskies gained 592 yards in 85 plays, about the amount of plays Sarkisian wanted. Last season UW ran an average of 69 plays per game. That’s 16 more chances to score.
Washington would have had 100 plays had it not led by so much late, when Sarkisian decided to huddle and let up on the bamboozled Broncos.
“The pace was great. I was really impressed early on with the players’ pace and how efficient they were,” the coach said.
Get this: Sarkisian thinks there’s more coming, perhaps Sept. 14 against Illinois in Chicago’s Soldier Field following this bye week.
“I think there are times that we can be faster,” he says.
THE PROCESS OF BECOMING GREYHOUNDS
UW’s 85 plays against Boise State was third-most among Pac-12 teams that played last week. California ran a whopping 99 in its loss to Northwestern. Washington State had 88 plays while losing narrowly at Auburn.
It’s the way of the west these days. Oregon glamorized the no-huddle trend. Now about half the Pac-12 is using a variation of it.
Illinois does some no-huddle, but not the way Boise State did the entire game. The Illini, which beat lower-division Southern Illinois 42-34 in their opener, also run some “muddle huddle,” quick, quasi huddles close to the line of scrimmage.
“More teams are going to go up tempo,” Sarkisian said. “The custom of playing a game where on defense you face 65 plays just doesn’t exist anymore. We have to be ready to play 80 or 90 or potentially 100 plays a game.”
Still, the Huskies’ adaptation to it didn’t just happen one day when Sarkisian woke up and exclaimed, “Faster!”
Sarkisian is a devotee to the traditional pro-style offense with huddling, complicated play calls, pre-snap shifts and receivers constantly in motion. It’s the scheme with which he called plays for USC into Rose Bowls and national-title contention.
Then Sarkisian saw last season when UW used the no-huddle as a changeup during games how Price was at his improvisational best with it. But the 2012 Huskies had only a small part of their playbook devoted to the no-huddle, so Sarkisian the play caller felt handcuffed in it.
Sarkisian also noted how when the game slows down it’s more in the meaty paws of the guys in the trenches. The fast, skill-position guys have been UW’s best players since Sarkisian and his staff arrived in 2009.
“That’s part of the reason why we did what we did in going to this offense, to emphasize our skill players and maybe de-emphasize up front,” Sarkisian said. “When you huddle up and you slow things down, you start putting the emphasis on your big guys up front. They have to be dominant. This format really emphasizes your skill players and getting them the ball in space.”
He also saw how his defense stayed with hyper-speed Oregon and Arizona early in those games then wore down. He realized practicing against a high-speed, no-huddle offense daily throughout practices would benefit Washington’s defense inside the Pac-12.
Perhaps most important of all, after recent recruiting successes he finally felt the roster was well-enough stocked to use many more players at an accelerated pace of play.
|The Huskies don’t jog, they run to the line of scrimmage following each play.
“This is our best depth we’ve ever had in five years of being here,” he said. “It lends itself to allowing us to play up tempo. To defend the up-tempo teams and playing more second- , even third-team guys, putting them on the field early in games when we reluctant to in years past.
“In years past I felt, ‘Man, if we could just shorten the game. Keep the game shortened. Keep it close. Have a chance to win in the fourth quarter,’ that we could win that game. And I thought it was effective for us. Now, we have the depth. We have the personnel. We have that athletes on our team that, man, the more chances they get they are going to make plays.”
Yet as spring practice began in March he still wasn’t convinced the no-huddle would be the Huskies’ primary offense in 2013.
“I wasn’t sure at the time if it was going to be a full-time thing or a part-time thing or just a changeup,” the coach said Wednesday.
Then running the no-huddle in spring practices, Price looked like the record-setter he was two seasons ago.
That was only the beginning, though. Sarkisian then had to get the players in shape to run at the break-neck pace. So from April into summer until camp began in the first week of August, Sarkisian and strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis remade how the Huskies trained.
The offensive linemen -- the big guys who would have to keep up with this new pace – became true Huskies.
“It was more applied conditioning, prowler sleds, that kind of stuff,” Riva said of the new training.
The prowler sleds were split sized, not full-sized, traditional blocking sleds. All spring and summer, instead of merely running sprints that are so 2010, the linemen pushed and pulled across the East Field turf as if it was an Iditarod course.
The Huskies ran with weighted jackets. They even wrestled each other. Anything to push and pull weight with speed, for explosiveness and stamina.
“More stuff that applies to offensive linemen, pushing things and pulling things. That’s how I think you really get in shape better than with just sprints,” Riva said. “Some guys can sprint all day. But push a sled 20 yards and you are gassed.”
The Huskies did that five or six days per week, two hours or more per day during voluntary morning workouts. It became a team-wide devotion.
Sarkisian even changed the team’s summer vacation schedule to make this no-huddle faster. He used to send players home for the last eight days before preseason camp. This summer he released them two weeks prior to practice starting, then scheduled more voluntary conditioning back on campus in the final week before camp started.
“I thought that was a big factor,” he says now.
Once training camp began Aug. 5, Sarkisian had the Huskies hitting less than they normally do at the start of the preseason. He held his starters out. He had second- and third-team players getting first-team reps, for them to gain both an understanding of the new scheme’s speed and to create better level of conditioning from across the entire roster, not just among first teamers.
“It’s a credit to our staff for their commitment to it,” Sarkisian says. “And, ultimately, to our players for their commitment in buying into it, as well.
“All of it has worked pretty well. Our injuries are down. We are in pretty good condition. I think we have a pretty good understanding, as a whole, not just our front-line guys but as a whole, of our systems on offense and defense.”
SO YOU THINK YOU CAN HANG WITH THESE DAWGS?
The Huskies practice as they play. With music blaring and coaches yelling, they sprint all over the field. Between plays. Between drills. Everywhere, for two-plus hours each day.
“We’re used to chaos,” Sarkisian said. “We are used to music in practices. We’re used to stuff flying, and people running on and off the field. We spot the ball even faster in practice than they do in the games. So for us, I think for us it was a little bit calm on game day. That made it easier to go a little bit faster.”
The most obvious benefit to this high-speed offense is the debilitating effect it has over time on opposing defenses – especially the big, nasty dudes whose job it is to squash Price.
“On long drives there we were moving down the field and you could see (Boise State’s) guys were getting tired. That’s a great feeling for an offensive lineman,” Riva said. “You could see over a drive their guys were putting their hands over their heads, kind of looking up or looking down like, ‘Oh, man, I’m tired.’
“When you see that, that’s when you step on the gas.”
Here’s the thing: UW’s defense wasn’t tired. It had been facing this pace each practice day since March, so now it, too, is supersonic.
“One of the most impressive things to me was outscoring them 28-3 in the second half. We were in good physical condition on both sides of the ball,” Sarkisian said.
“As a defense, as a whole, you come out of that game and say, ‘Hey, we held Boise on 88 plays to six points and … two ‘explosive’ plays’ – and we came out saying, ‘We’ve got to tackle better,’ which is really cool.
“Our defense is in a comfort zone. It’s not unique to them. It’s a place that’s normal.”
Then again, as Sarkisian said: “It’s one game. It worked for one game. You have to do it more than once. As I told the team, ‘You have to do it again against Illinois.’”
Sarkisian sees benefits galore to the new go, go, go.
There’s a personal one.
“You don’t have time to second-guess yourself,” he says. “You don’t have time to over-analyze things. You go with what you thought, what you prepared for. And you call the plays.”
He also sees a positive effect on the team’s psyche during a drive.
“You don’t notice the down and distance as much,” he says. “You don’t notice that, oh, we just had a holding penalty. We have to go on to the next play. And I thought we really overcame some of our shortcomings that affected us a year ago.
“I mean, if we had a holding penalty a year ago, it was like we might as well have punted after second down. We were so handcuffed after that. Saturday night, we got holding penalties and we just kept playing and converted on third downs and got first downs and kept drives alive. That was really impressive.”
The Huskies converted 11 of 15 third downs into first downs. That's the most conversions since they went 11 of 14 on September 12, 2009 against Idaho, Sarkisian's second game at UW.
Sarkisian even noted how his new scheme seemed to be more engaging for you, Husky fans. But he did take a moment to note that not taking a 25-second lull between plays comes at the expense of “talking to your buddy and kissing your girlfriend, or whatever they do up there” in the stands.
“It kept the towels waving and people were fired up,” he said of the opener. “I think it’s great.”
Sarkisian said the “beauty” of his UW offense is that one week it can go four wide, and the next it can go two tight ends and run smash-mouth plays out of the no-huddle against teams over which the Huskies feel like they have a physicality advantage.
“I would love to play in this offense,” the former record-setting quarterback at Brigham Young said. “Shoot, you get more chances to throw the ball, to run the ball, to go have fun. There’s less time for the coach to yell at you between plays for the mistakes you made, and all that stuff.
“I’m having a blast calling this. Ten years ago I probably should have been running this (at USC). That would have gotten Reggie (Bush) and LenDale (White) and Matt (Leinart) more chances to score more points.”
In short, he sounds like the happiest 1-0 coach in the country.
He’s certainly one of the fastest-playing ones.
“It feels right. I think we can be more physical; you don’t want to lose the physicality that we have, and I think we can be more,” he said.
“But it’s a lot of fun.
“And that’s what it should be.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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