There seems to be a lot of controversy at BYU right now around four simple words.
No, not “please sell caffeinated soda.”
Rather, it's a catchy mantra that offensive coordinator Robert Anae dropped on Cougar Town when he rode in guns-a-blazing this spring: “Go fast, go hard.”
This motto is the mission statement that the BYU offense lives by. It’s a semantic reminder that Anae wants his offense to run plays at a blistering pace.
You’ve surely seen it: The Cougar offense runs a play. All players sprint to the new line of scrimmage — even the typically lumbering linemen — and quarterback Taysom Hill is ready for the snap seconds after the previous play has ended.
Fans have to adjust. Those of us used to offenses of coordinators-past (including Anae himself during his first term in Provo) have been conditioned to breathe, eat, and second-guess the play call while the play-clock winds down.
But now we can’t turn away from the TV screen or complain to the fan next to us in the stands without risk of missing a play. And if you’re a DVR watcher who fast-forwards through the play-clock, you’re really out of luck.
On the plus side, there aren’t any delay of game penalties.
On the negative, it’s still not working well.
What’s the read?
Through three games, the linemen and backfield weren’t having to run nearly enough between plays. Especially pass-plays. Until an extremely efficient 14-for-19 passing game against Middle Tennessee State Friday night, the chains were moving less than 40 percent of the time Hill attempted a forward pass.
You can question the play-calling, Hill’s accuracy and all the usual suspects. But there’s a critical aspect of the passing game that hasn’t yet developed that will take longer to do so because of the blistering pace with which the offense moves: Pre-snap reads.
This is an issue in the run game as well. On more than one occasion against Utah, Taysom Hill missed noticing an unblocked blitzer because he didn’t take time to read the defense’s setup. This is a critical part of the game.
Interestingly enough, it’s what made Robert Anae so good in his first stint as offensive coordinator. Back then, the offense used a lot of motion to get a tip as to what the defense was going to do.
Time after time, Fui Vakapuna was sent into motion to see if a man followed him. Every play, Max Hall stood out of a crouch to see if the DBs were a step in, leaning or looking to one side.
The position of every defensive player has the potential to tip the quarterback to what the defense is going to do. This allows him to know which of his route options are most likely to be open. Or, even better, he can audible at the line to exploit what he knows the defense will do.
Ty Detmer is a legend in BYU football lore, beloved by all who follow the Cougars. But in case you didn’t know, Detmer didn’t have tremendous physical skills. He was good, certainly. But what made him a great quarterback was his ability to make excellent reads. Time after time he exploited a defense that gave too much away.
In the NFL, Peyton Manning has made reading defenses his trademark. He’s truly a genius when it comes to knowing how to identify tells, even subtle ones, then adjusting his passes to take advantage. Once he sees a defensive play in action, he knows exactly how to attack it the next time.
But in the go-fast-go-hard football school, speed is counted above all other virtues. This leaves little time for a quarterback to step away from the center, survey the field, and think through the reads.
As a result, Hill hasn’t been good at identifying coming blitzes or knowing where there will be seams in a zone.
Utah did a great job exploiting this by bringing in blind-side blitzes. Hill, in a hurry to get the play off, rarely noticed the loaded side, and it blew up many run and pass plays.
None of this is to say that it’s impossible to make pre-snap reads in the go-fast-go-hard system. It’s just harder and will take more time. Hill must reach a level of comfort in the playbook and tempo of the game that he can spare a couple seconds to survey the defense before he signals for the ball.
Go fast with the pass
Because the quarterback doesn’t have 40 seconds to evaluate the defense, he must compensate by making good reads after the snap.
When a play is called, the quarterback knows his receiver’s routes. But what he doesn’t know is when and where they’ll be open. A double team on an outside receiver will stop an out route. Safety help in the flat may thwart a tight-end release.
So the QB must remember his film study and move through his progressions, meaning if his first option in the pass play is covered, look for his second and third routes for an opening. Ideally, the QB recognizes what the defense is doing based on that film preparation or a prior play.
Right now, Hill isn’t proficient in those reads. It’s something that improves with repetition and experience. It may come over time, but right now it’s a hole in the Cougar offense.
This deficiency also requires the offensive line to give the quarterback time to make those reads and get through progressions. BYU struggled with this too until it faced a sub-par defense Friday night.
Additionally, Hill has been required to make many of his throws on the run without his feet set. Some of that is due to the line’s inexperience, but it also may be a side-effect of the read-option.
When a quarterback runs the ball 10-20 times per game, he has rushing on his mind.
Hill instinctively knows he can beat people with his feet. As a result, he may feel more comfortable shuffling around or moving away from pressure right now than standing in the pocket, setting his feet and hitting a target in stride.
If passing success doesn’t come fast, his confidence to stand and deliver will wane, not wax. This puts responsibility on the play-caller to put the quarterback in a position to have success. Timing routes, difficult passes or plays that need time to develop will be very difficult for Hill and the offense to execute.
Anae and Co. must call more quick slants, screens and swing passes to give Hill confidence and momentum. It won’t necessarily help read the defense, but will get him those crucial reps. The defensive reads will then come.
Outlook still uncertain
Friday’s game showed improvement. But many big gains were on broken pass plays that just never developed. Hill’s legs masked more trouble executing in the pass game.
Utah State will be much better able to slow those broken plays and will load the box and force Hill to throw the ball. It’s vital the play calls help him get rid of the football quickly and let playmakers get the ball in space.
Hopefully, along the way, Hill can take a breath and learn to read the defense. Otherwise go fast, go hard may be gone before December.
Ryan Teeples, twitter.com/SportsGuyUtah, is a marketing and technology expert, full-time sports fan, owner of Ryan Teeples Consulting Inc. (RyanTeeples.com) and regular contributor to LoyalCougars.com.