BOULDER - Up-tempo, spread offenses are all the rage in college football and even at the next level, and the Colorado Buffaloes already have encountered a handful of them in September. And that's exactly what they've been for the Buffs - a real handful.
More are on the way, beginning with Arizona State's tricked-out version that will visit Folsom Field on Thursday night (7 p.m., ESPN). The Sun Devils can be a defensive coordinator's nightmare, which CU's Greg Brown has been living for the past week as he prepares for one of the Pac-12 Conference's most explosive teams.
Brown's boss - head coach Jon Embree - said the Sun Devils "pose a few different problems with the way they run their spread offense. They're a little different from what UCLA did, so we have to do a good job with our assignments."
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley ran the zone-read option a little too effectively to suit Brown two weekends ago. Hundley accounted for four touchdowns (two running, two passing) and 295 total yards (281 passing) in the Bruins' 42-14 win.
Brown expects his defense will get a strong dose of the same stuff - with a twist or three - from ASU's Taylor Kelly, who ranks fourth in total offense in the Pac-12. Kelly averages 287.0 yards a game, Hundley is a spot above him at 317.5.
CU linebacker Derrick Webb termed ASU's offense "pretty similar to UCLA's . . . they've got an athletic quarterback who can run the zone read. He's good at carrying out fakes, hiding who has the ball. We have to play disciplined, sound defense. Everyone has a job and we're facing an offense that has multiple options for each play. We faced maybe three zone read teams this season already. I feel pretty good about where we are and what we've seen. We should have a better idea of what to expect."
Brown was familiar with ASU's 2011 offense, which featured future Bronco Brock Osweiler but not as much zone-read option as it does now with Kelly. Brown knew former ASU offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who since has taken the same job at UCLA. The Sun Devils, said Brown, "are doing some of the same things, but it seems they're finding ways of taking it to a new level. This offense has an extreme amount of misdirection. They run more option than what UCLA and Mazzone did at Arizona State, even though UCLA ran more this year than what Noel did a year ago at ASU with Brock Osweiler."
Here's what Brown has outlined for his defense in terms of what to expect from ASU's options: the zone read, the split zone read and the power 'O' read - "That's the main play that Cam Newton ran at Auburn (during the Tigers' recent BCS title run)," Brown said. "And they have many branches off that tree as far as what the quarterback can do with the ball."
The Buffs can start with these: After he reads the defense, Kelly can handoff the ball to running back DJ Foster or he can keep it and run himself. Kelly can keep the ball, throw to a receiver in the flat - a bubble screen. Or he can throw to an outside receiver who fakes a block, then heads downfield.
"You've got a lot of options off of each player," Brown said, and ASU's offensive statistics suggest that most of them work. The Sun Devils are averaging 38.4 points (second in the conference) and 456.2 yards (fifth).
CU senior safety Ray Polk, who hopes to play Thursday night for the first time since the first quarter of the opener when he suffered a high ankle sprain, said spread offenses can be vastly different. ASU's strong suit, he said, is "misdirection . . . you have to adjust all this stuff that's embedded in their game plan. It's a great team we're playing. It is a spread offense, but you've got to understand the little trickeries that they want to do."
Much of the Bruins' productivity two weekends ago resulted from the Buffs' poor tackling - something Embree hopes was remedied during the bye week. Tackling was emphasized, along with an increase in "live" work during other periods. But how more practice contact translates to game night won't be known until Thursday, when the nation is watching.
CU's defense is laden with freshmen, but Embree said his younger players, for the most part, are adjusting to their zone-read assignments and the speed of up-tempo offenses. "I think when you look at our last game our issues weren't necessarily assignment issues, it was physical issues (tackling)," he said. "For our younger guys in the backend (secondary), you just have to simplify, which we've done with some of the coverages . . .
"I'm pleased with our young guys this year and how they've played on both sides of the football. They have represented themselves well . . . yeah, they've made mistakes, but I see a lot of them making plays."
The increasing number of up-tempo, varied spread offenses has forced head coaches and defensive coordinators to put a premium on speed. Embree said he and Brown are conscious of needing an overall upgrade there through recruiting. Also, a pair of former safeties - Kyle Washington and Paul Vigo - shifted to linebacker to add speed and versatility to that position.
"You have to have versatility in your players," Embree said. "You need those body types (Vigo, Washington) to help combat what these offenses do. You need guys that can cover, yet are big enough to do some stuff in the run game . . . when you look at other teams around the conference and the things that they do, it's more of that all-around athlete on defense now. It has to be speed first and size second. Hopefully you get the total package.
"You've got to keep recruiting speed and that's something that we've talked about from day one since we've been here. We aren't where we need to be from that standpoint. We need to continue to improve that. You have to have speed. With the tempo and them spreading you out, there are a couple of times that we had the opportunity to make a tackle for a no gain (against UCLA) and it ended up being about a 10-yard gain one time and about a 15-yard gain another time and it was a scheme where our guy just wasn't fast enough. You don't fix that in the weight room. You have to go out and recruit that. That's something we'll address on the recruiting standpoint on the defensive side."
BUFF BITS: Embree's Tuesday media luncheon was held for the first time this season at the UMC, attracting a crowd of about 300 . . . . Also featured Tuesday were men's basketball player Spencer Dinwiddie, a sophomore who is moving to point guard this season, and women's basketball coach Linda Lappe. Both touted Friday night's Buffs Madness, which will follow the volleyball match (7 p.m.) at the Coors Events Center . . . . Embree believes ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton, a 6-1, 267-pound junior, is the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12. "He's dominant . . . I love his spirit," Embree said. Sutton is the Sun Devils' second-leading tackler (34, 21 solo) and leads the team in tackles for loss (10) and QB sacks (6.5) . . . . The Buffs were an effective screen pass team last season, but haven't enjoyed much success with the play this season. Embree said former QB Tyler Hansen and tailback Rodney Stewart developed a chemistry for executing the play that hasn't yet developed between QB Jordan Webb and his tailbacks. "We're not getting what we need out of the screen game," Embree said. "We're working on it."