Fast, faster, fastest (Football)

Jim Martinho

To huddle, or not to huddle?

That is the question facing Northwestern football coach Randy Walker as he conducts spring practices before his fifth season with the Wildcats. Should he go the conventional route and let his offense convene on the field before each play, or should he try to catch opposing defenses off guard with a rapid-fire, no-huddle attack?

The no-huddle has been a staple of NU’s spread offense since Walker revamped the Cats’ attack before the 2000 season, when the team set school records for points and total yardage.

When it’s working, the no-huddle can leave opposing defenses unable to make substitions or keep up with the frantic pace. But when the no-huddle isn’t executed well — like last season, when injuries left the Cats with less-than-ideal personnel on offense — it can be equally problematic for NU’s defense, which might not get much recovery time.

Now Walker is adding more huddles to expand the playbook and rest the much-maligned defense. But with healthy, seasoned quarterbacks, fans can bank on NU playing most of its offensive series in 2003 like a prolonged two-minute drill.

Walker first became infatuated with the no-huddle offense as head coach at Miami (Ohio). When he took the reigns in 1990, Walker didn’t have to look far to find a new offensive strategy to bring to Oxford, Ohio. The Cincinnati Bengals were coming off a Super Bowl season remembered more for the “Ickey Shuffle” than the no-huddle philosophy quarterback Boomer Esiason executed under head coach Sam Wyche.

Personnel changes forced Walker to abandon the no-huddle after a few seasons with the Redhawks, but he brought it back before his second season at NU. Following a 3-8 record in 1999, Walker again borrowed from a successful no-huddle team to turn the offense around.

“At that time Clemson was running the no-huddle with Woody Dantzler at quarterback, so we went down and plagiarized its offense,” Walker said. “What we did was mix together some of the things the Bengals were doing with some things Clemson was doing and came up with a hybrid of our own.”

The following season may have been one of the shining moments in the history of the no-huddle. NU surpassed the 500-yard mark five times in an 8-4 season, and Walker was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for his efforts.

“The whole concept is to not allow the defense to substitute or to get set,” said Mike Dunbar, who replaced Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator, after Wilson left for Oklahoma in 2001. “The idea is to play with a fast tempo and limit the schemes and blitzes they can run.

“It creates mismatches in personnel — they might have a linebacker on a running back or wide receiver instead of a defensive back because they weren’t able to substitute the nickel package.

“We play at three different tempos: Fast, faster and fastest.”

NU’s version of the offense relies heavily on the quarterback run, and Zak Kustok was able to effectively scramble on quarterback draws and sweeps. Freshmen signal callers Brett Basanez and Alexander Webb brought similar scrambling abilities last season, but when both were injured, pure passer Tony Stauss struggled in an offense that didn’t suit his abilities.

“This offense came from Clemson and Woody Dantzler,” Stauss said after a 42-13 loss to Purdue last season. “I ain’t no Woody Dantzler.”

Basanez and Webb both returned this spring ready to run the offense, but the no-huddle requires extra running from the entire offense. There’s a reason it’s common to see the whole NU team running wind sprints at practice.

“Conditioning is huge,” Walker said. “If you’re trying to wear defenses down at a tempo they can’t play at, you have to be able to handle it. You don’t see a lot of big, sloppy, fat kids here.”

The 2002 season proved exactly what can happen when the no-huddle goes wrong. Walker and Dunbar stressed the importance of getting the initial first down in the no-huddle. A three-and-out series can put the defense back on the field after less than a minute of rest.

Walker said he’s mixing in more huddles before plays to keep defenses guessing and expand the playbook beyond the few plays that have code words for the hurry-up offense.

“You run out of code words in the no-huddle, even as smart as we all are at Northwestern,” Walker said. “You can’t say, ‘Slot right, 78 X Ace, Y Go’ in the no-huddle.”

With a quarterback like Basanez calling out the code words written on his wristband, the no-huddle will be part of NU’s offensive game plan. And as exciting as it is for fans to watch the Cats take snaps at their rapid-fire pace, the no-huddle can be just as rewarding for the players.

“It’s fun because it’s fast-moving and you get to keep the defense on their heels,” Basanez said. “We’re a well-conditioned team and we’re ready to run. Most teams can’t keep up with that.”