Ellis Johnson: SEC defenses 'trying to keep up' with up-tempo attacks

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 30, 2013 

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, left, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, center, and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, left, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, center, and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray were three of the SEC's best quarterbacks last season. All three are now in the NFL.


AUBURN, Ala. — Each week of the college football season seems to bring more and more proof that the Southeastern Conference is shedding its “defense-first” mentality.

The only two SEC matchups featuring a pair of top-10 teams thus far — Alabama at Texas A&M and LSU at Georgia — are prominent examples, as each game saw the combatants finish with more than 40 points in regulation.

Game-by-game statistics provide additional confirmation.

Twelve of the conference’s 14 teams are averaging at least 28.5 points per game. Further, seven SEC squads — or half of the league, if one prefers that verbiage — are tallying 439-plus yards of total offense each contest.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had an idea why offenses have held such a distinct advantage this season.

Actually, he felt a trio of factors have played a part in the offensive takeover.

First was the bevy of experienced quarterbacks in the conference. It’s a group that includes reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, two-time national champion quarterback AJ McCarron at Alabama as well as Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger at Georgia and LSU, respectively.

The second reason was one the longtime coach admitted he couldn’t prove without taking a harder look at the numbers.

“It seemed to me that the larger number of NFL players that were taken out of the conference last year were defensive players,” he said. “I think the draft really drained off a lot of the great defensive players that would have been returning.”

The third and final component, Johnson said, was the ever-increasing popularity of fast-paced offensive philosophies, which he believed took longer to arrive in the SEC than other leagues.

“It’s taken this conference a little while, but going to more of a tempo-type offense sometimes affects both sides of the ball,” he said. “So you’re seeing scores go up and yardage go up and turnovers go up and a lot of things go up. It is what it is. I think you have to be prepared to play against so many different styles of offense in this conference, with the greatest athletes in the country, (that) it’s tough to keep people off the board.”

That’s why Johnson said coming up with a game plan to defend Ole Miss this week isn’t keeping him awake at night. Absurd as it would have sounded just a few years ago, the Rebels’ up-tempo attack is now closer to the norm in the SEC than an oddity.

“It used to be you saw one or two of them,” he said, “but that was hard, too, because most of the time your own offense didn’t have much of it in their offense.”

Not that it will be a problem this week.

Johnson acknowledged that practicing against an offense that shares some similarities with the opponent is a luxury.

“Our offensive system has some power run in it, has a lot of tempo, has some deceptive formations (and) a lot of read options and play-actions off of it,” he said. “So it really does help us not to have to just feel like we’re jumping in a tub of cold water when we see one of those type of offenses. “

The same couldn’t be said a decade ago. The explosion of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses since the turn of the millenium forced “tremendous changes” in Johnson’s base defensive formations.

While Johnson said he has been able to settle on things he’s comfortable with in the last four or five years, each season a new offensive wrinkle seems to emerge to induce further alterations.

“Somebody has a little different way of lining up in a formation that puts you in stress in coverage and play-action passes or unbalanced formations,” he said. “They come up with something (that) once you get used to it and get it schemed up, they come up with something to get you out of place. It’s a never ending process. We’re always adjusting, always trying to keep up.”

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