Exactly what is speed and what does it mean?
PULLMAN – “I want you to do a story on how speed has changed college football the past 10, 15 years or so,” says the boss who in his younger days once ran a 40 in, oh, less than eight seconds.
“Yeah, I think I can do that,” answers the sportswriter, thinking back to the time in college he was almost thrown out at first base from center field.
Thus an assignment was born.
Not having experienced speed myself, the first step was research. How about the dictionary?
Speed: “1. Rate of movement or happening; 2. Rapidity; 3. Rate of movement irrespective of direction.”
That doesn’t help.
So we Google.
And about 2,230,000,000 links come up. That’s a lot of links. A U.S. deficit-type number. Incomprehensible.
There’s always an interview or two.
So we talk with a college defensive coordinator who has coached in the SEC, the Usain Bolt of college conferences. We listen to players. We chat with a special teams coordinator for a newly dominant program built with really fast guys. Then we digest all the information.
In college football, there is more to speed than speed.
“You’ll hear guys say, ‘Oh, he plays fast,’ ” says Chris Ball, Washington State’s defensive coordinator and not all that long ago a secondary coach at Alabama.
“What does that mean? Does that mean he’s the fastest guy on his team? No, not necessarily. He understands the defense, he knows where he needs to be, reads his keys and has a good feel for the game.”
At its essence, football speed is the ability to play fast. As Ball says, that doesn’t always come from the fastest guy.
Jeff Choate coaches the special teams and linebackers for Boise State, a perennial top 10 program built around guys who play fast. But they’re not all speedsters.
“We have some slow guys, like Bryon Hout (a Lake City High graduate), that are doggone good football players,” Choate says. “When you say speed, most people are going to talk about that Carl Lewis image. But in football, speed can mean a lot of different things. That’s something the average fan isn’t going to think about.
“It’s playing fast versus running fast.”
The track analogy comes up often when talking with football coaches. Everyone wants fast guys, sure, but there are only a few spots where straight-ahead speed is highly valued.
“The linear speed of the wide receiver position, it’s probably the one place where it does matter, because you have to respect that speed,” Choate says. “If you can’t open up and turn and go with him, you’re going to give up an explosive play. That’s one of the things that will kill you in the sport of football.”
Choate, who grew up in St. Maries and was the Post Falls High football coach at the turn of the century, explains that linear speed – or just the threat of it – allows a wide receiver to gain space, not only running down the field but also when he plants and comes back to the ball.
Which is why being able to change direction quickly is a crucial element of football speed.
“Foot speed is what I like to call it,” Ball says. “Being able to move from side-to-side, agility. Being able to change direction at full speed. A lot of guys aren’t able to do that.
“You want a football player to be able to move and go make a play. To be able to put his foot in the ground, change direction, be able to accelerate and go make a play. That’s really more explosiveness than it is true speed.”
The Northwest has produced fast football players and maybe more than its share of football players who play fast. But when it comes time to look for speed, most college coaches head where it’s warm – and not just for the tan.
“You have to look south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Choate says. “That’s where you see a lot of people go in and harvest a lot of these athletes out of the state of Texas, Southern California, Florida.”
Ball, who has coached north and south of the Mason-Dixon, sees it as a matter of weather.
“It plays a big part,” he says. “The kids in Southern California, they’re outside all year, they are out running a lot more than kids here. That has a lot to do with it. Kids grow up playing outside.
“(And it’s also) just the amount of people. There are just 6 million people in the whole state of Washington. You can go down to Southern California, there’s what, 24 million people? And then in Florida, there’s another 12 million.”
But there are ways to develop football speed, and Choate feels that’s the biggest change he’s seen in the 20 years since he left high school.
“When I was coming out of high school in the late ’80s, it was all about how big you are, how much do you bench press, how much do you squat, how much do you weigh,” he says. “There was not a big emphasis in strength and conditioning on functional speed or functional strength. That’s where I see the big swing.
“Year-round programs kids are involved in from high school – sometimes even on lower levels – all the way through, and the big emphasis on body-weight movement, agility, speed training, over-speed training. There’s a lot more science that’s been put into then there ever was 20 years ago. That’s the real change.”
Colleges look for flexibility and athletic ability, Ball says, and recruit it. Then develop it.
“A lot of the agility work, a lot of the work kids do in the weight room now, a lot of the stuff we emphasize in practice, is about the change of directions,” Choate says. “Getting your hips low, getting a good body position, having good flexibility, all of these things you just didn’t hear a lot about 20 years ago.”
Which has changed how football players look – and play.
“You had linebackers 20 years ago that weighed 235 that ran 5-flat, 4.9 (40-yard dashes) and could play from guard to guard,” Choate says. “Now you’re looking at kids that maybe aren’t as big physically, they’re maybe 220, 225 but they can play sideline to sideline. And they’re running 4.4, 4.6.”
Another form of speed is tempo, fast players playing the game quickly. The drum for that beat is Oregon and its sprint-to-the-next-snap offense.
“Not only do they possess the physical speed but they also play at a very fast pace,” says Choate, whose Boise State teams have defeated the Ducks twice since 2008.
“You look at their offensive linemen, they don’t have a lot of those big old chubby guys. They’ve got flat bellies out there because they’ve got to be conditioned to run a play every 16 to 18 seconds.
“That wears you out.”
“Oregon is not the greatest looking football team, but they play the fastest,” says Ball, who has to try to get his charges ready to defend the Ducks offense each year. “They’ve done a good job of building their team around speed. That’s what they are.”
That style of play gets defenders gasping for wind. But that’s OK. They’ve been trying to suck the air out of offenses for years.
“Speed takes the air out of everything,” Ball says. “It creates space. It sucks up space.
“It creates big plays.”
On both sides of the ball.
“You hear speed kills all the time and it’s the truth,” says WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel, who has fast receivers to throw to but also has to deal with explosive players on the other side. “You can throw a little flat route, throw something simple, easy and if that guy’s got speed and he takes off with it, then he can go the distance.
“There is no substitution for speed. It’s just deadly.”
So where is speed taking football?
There’s no doubt the proliferation of faster players playing quicker has made the game more exciting to watch. But basic physics will also tell you it’s added more danger to the game.
In reality, momentum isn’t scoring a late first-half touchdown. It’s mass times speed. When bigger players are moving faster, the momentum is greater. And so collisions are more explosive.
“Football is an evolutionary sport,” Choate says. “Some of the rules that are coming into the game are a response to the speed of the game.”
One example, Choate says, is this year’s kickoff rule change in the NFL. The league moved the kickoff up 5 yards in an attempt to limit the run backs. It is billed as a safety issue.
“The real thing that’s going to be interesting to watch,” Choate says, “is how this emphasis on speed and the emphasis on player safety are going to marry with one another and how that’s going to ultimately change the way the game is played.”