August 10, 2013 10:02:17 PM
STARKVILLE - Substitutions in the game of football might arguably be the most chaotic element a coach has to handle.
In every other team sport offered at Mississippi State University, the officials stop the clock and allow substitutions to occur before both teams are set to resume action. Not in football and not in the new-school, high-tempo offense football that more schools are adapting in this new era of the game.
Thanks to the high-tempo spread offenses being introduced to college football, defensive coaches have seconds to replace fatigued players and get their bodies lined up properly before the referee places the ball down for play.
Seemingly the options for a defensive coach at the highest level of college football, such as MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, are two-fold: Either get 11 starters physically conditioned to play nearly every snap or find a sophisticated way to substitute in each position group.
In the summer offseason and first two weeks of fall camp, substitution procedure has been the hot topic of conversation at MSU among Collins as his boss, Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen.
"It's the biggest discussion Coach Mullen has had with us all summer because we've got to figure out how we're going to do it," Collins said. "We have a substitution plan and we know what we're going to do."
Last season, Collins held the co-defensive coordinator title with Chris Wilson but it was Wilson who signaled in the defensive calls. Collins' main responsibility was his linebacker position group that went as deep as six players getting regular playing time and two others getting sporadic snaps.
When Collins was promoted days after the Bulldogs loss in the 2013 Gator Bowl to Northwestern University, he knew he'd have to streamline the process of getting players on and off the field. This season his specific linebacker group returns three players with starting experience (Benardrick McKinney, Deontae Skinner and Matthew Wells) and a host of players looking to break through in backup roles (Ferlando Bohanna, Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown and Zach Jackson).
"The thing we talk about is we're just above the line," Collins said Saturday. "If you're above the line you can contribute, you can play in the SEC, help us win, or go against a great team like Oklahoma State; or you can't. If you're above that line you're playing and you're contributing and you're helping us win ball games."
The NFL already has a plan in place to handle with the fifth gear offense that Chip Kelly brought from University of Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We have to make sure teams understand that they don't control the tempo, our officials do," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told The Wall Street Journal late last month. "We're going through our normal ball mechanics; We aren't going to rush (unless) it's in the two-minute drill."
The NFL's attempts to put on the breaks of speed offenses is not going to stop college football from going in that direction. Mullen, a former offensive coordinator at the University of Florida and University of Utah, even traveled to a practice at the University of Oregon in 2011 to learn and retain some concepts he could bring back to Starkville for his spread-option offense at MSU.
"I'm an information gatherer more than a releaser," Mullen said after the trip nearly two years ago. "So I probably have gathered more than I've given up. I'm a taker."
Last season Marshall University led Football Bowl Subdivision with 92.8 plays per game while MSU managed to just execute a average of 66.8 ranking them 111th in the nation. However, MSU plays Oklahoma State in the season opener on Aug. 31 in Houston and the Cowboys run one of the nation's fastest passing attacks at 78.9 plays per contest.
In those 20 days, Collins has tried to simulate in scrimmages and practices how his team will counter that speed and how he'll try to get fresh players on the field in each of the three levels of defense (lineman, linebackers and secondary).
"When they sub somebody we've got to have somebody ready to go in," Collins said. "There just can't be a debate and thought process. They sub, we sub. So there's got to be a plan."
Collins suggested Saturday MSU will have a "substitution coach" on the field during games for the sole purpose of running players in and out on both sides of the ball. Similarly to the quarterback dressed in different colors on the sideline so the offense can get the signals, the defensive substitution coach will be recognizable so players know to come in and out.
"We are prepared and conditioned to handle the running around and coverage we're going to have to handle when we see those type of offenses this season," said McKinney, who was second on the team with 102 tackles last year.
Collins has also forced all of his players to learning different positions of their 4-3 scheme. The hope in this concept was eliminating the possibility of certain players being classified as speciality athletes just for certain down and distances.
"When we put in the defense the whole defense is in the room, so they're all hearing the checks, they're all hearing the calls," Collins said. "It's one voice teaching the defense instead of the defense being taught from four different perspectives. I think that is good for learning, good for cross-over."