Football

Fast forward: Syracuse boasts high-scoring offense after adoption of no-huddle offense

Ziniu Chen | Staff Photographer

Ryan Nassib is in charge of leading Syracuse's ho-huddle offense. The up-tempo system has helped the Orange's offense become one of the best in the Big East.

Nathaniel Hackett had already done much of the work. With only two weeks to change Syracuse’s offensive game plan, the offensive coordinator had to work fast.

It foreshadowed the style he’d be coaching throughout the season as Syracuse switched to an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. The change came after Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone saw the Orange’s success running the system during the team’s week at Fort Drum toward the end of training camp. In the following days, they reworked the playbook and came up with terminology that would fit a no-huddle style. Then they went to work on the field, teaching the players a system that’s becoming increasingly popular in college football and the NFL.

“I wish we would’ve had a lot more time,” Hackett said. “It’s one of those things when we did decide to go to it, we really had to make some cut-and-dried decisions.”

The no-huddle offense is based on quickness. Rather than taking the time to huddle — which can lead to anywhere from 40 to 60 seconds elapsing between plays — a no-huddle system is predicated on the quarterback calling the plays at the line of scrimmage. Defenses have little time to make substitutions. When executed properly, it can be a lethal attack.

Several teams in the NFL have perfected it. Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning is among the best at running it, and the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady has also made it his trademark style. In college football, teams like Oregon and West Virginia have set the standard for no-huddle offenses.

This season, Syracuse decided to accept the challenge.

Luckily for Hackett, he already had an idea of how a no-huddle system worked. From 2008 to 2009, he worked for the Buffalo Bills as their offensive quality control coach.

During those seasons, he learned the ins and outs of the no-huddle from Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who ran the “K-gun” offense with the Bills from 1986 to 1996.  Hackett also picked the brain of Kelly’s former backup, Alex Van Pelt, who was the Bills’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Hackett was in Buffalo.

Hackett said Kelly and Van Pelt told him if a team is going to commit to the no-huddle offense, it has to be a full commitment. Everything needs to be done with speed in mind.

The Orange has run more plays than its opponent in eight of its nine games this season. Only Pittsburgh ran more in its game against SU, but the Panthers held the ball nine minutes longer.

Syracuse was fastest in its loss to Cincinnati, running one play about every 18 seconds. It was slowest against Connecticut, averaging one play every 25.6 seconds. Still, that was faster than the pace of a typical offense.

“You have to push the tempo,” SU running back Jerome Smith said. “You’ve got to know if you’re tired, you’ve got to let one of those other guys that can come in fresh come in the game.”

The Syracuse coaching staff came up with new calls for quarterback Ryan Nassib to make at the line of scrimmage. Marrone said the quarterback is the most important player in a no-huddle offense. He has to immediately see the coverage and adjust on the fly.

“The most important aspect was where the pressure was coming from if there was pressure,” Marrone said of his time coaching in the NFL. “Depending on the situation, where the matchup problems were and what we were going to do to take care of that.”

Sam Wyche is widely considered the innovator of the no-huddle offense. A former backup quarterback, Wyche became the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. He implemented the no-huddle as the Bengals’ primary offensive system.

The Bengals ran the no-huddle about 40 percent of every game in 1984. Then when Boomer Esaiason took over as the starting quarterback in 1985, Cincinnati ran it 80 percent of every game, Wyche said.

“We left every play as it was,” Wyche said. “We just said to ourselves, ‘We’ve got to find a way to call the plays and give up the privacy of the huddle.’”

Wyche’s first step was to revamp the calls. The terms had to be short and to the point.

Wyche had the players come up with the new terms. They decided any sweep plays would be nautical terms, including “sailor,” “Popeye” or “pirate.”  To give the direction of the play, the quarterback would call out an “R” or “L” word, which could be “rip” or “Liz,” “red” or “yellow,” or “river” or “lake.”

When the Bengals were deciding what call to use for plays when the lead back went to the side of the strong safety, Wyche said he asked the players for a name they associated with “boss,” which stood for “back on strong safety.” He expected them to say Sam, but instead the near-unanimous decision was Bruce, for singer Bruce Springsteen, who’s nicknamed the “Boss.”

So an example of a no-huddle call would’ve been “pirate, trigger, Bruce.” A sweep to the outside, going to the right, with the block on the strong safety.

“When we would go into meetings, we would never say 28 Boss, we’d say Pirate Trigger Bruce. So they kept hearing the word,” Wyche said. “It rolled off the tongue of the quarterback, and everybody knew the play.”

Communication was key.

In Syracuse’s case, Nassib said going to a no-huddle was a challenge at first. Recognizing the coverage of the defense and then making the right calls at the line quickly took time to learn.

“Being able to move quickly, think quickly, but play slow from my position,” Nassib said. “Everyone else has to play fast, but I’ve got to go slow. I’ve got to slow my decision-making process down.”

Doing anything slowly in an up-tempo attack can negate the purpose of the no-huddle, which is to get to the line of scrimmage while the defense is still recovering from the previous play. A no-huddle attack wears opposing defenses down as the game progresses.

Syracuse has scored 137 points in the second halves of its games this season, compared to just 94 in the first.

“You’ve got to constantly move, move, move,” left tackle Justin Pugh said. “We saw in camp that it really affected our defense. If you go out there and you’re able to get them going nonstop, just going at them, going at them, it’s going to wear them down.”

Wyche said during the Bengals’ practices, he had the offense practice at a pace that gave the unit 20 seconds of recovery time. Opposing teams, though, might be practicing at a pace of a 60-second recovery time.

Occasionally, defenses would resort to slowing down offenses by faking injuries. When the Bengals played against the Seattle Seahawks in the 1988 playoffs, Seahawks nose tackle Joe Nash fell to the turf acting like he was hurt after every second down to give Seattle time to get its nickel defense on the field.

Defenses can rarely keep up. That’s true even for coordinators. Hackett said during training camp, he was taking calls away from SU defensive coordinator Scott Shafer because there wasn’t enough time to alter the defense.

Now the Orange is giving opposing coordinators the same headache.

For Hackett and Syracuse, two weeks was enough time to learn the system. So far, the Orange has executed its new challenge.

“We had to commit to it and show them that we buy into you guys,” Hackett said. “I think it was more a mutual agreement for everybody.”

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