Spread offenses infiltrating even the traditional SEC

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Kliff Kingsbury did more than just draw a line around the fertile high school football fields of Texas when he called out Arkansas coach Bret Bielema last month.

The Texas Tech coach also fired a shot heard across the country by noting that Arkansas had lost consecutive games to teams using a spread offense after Bielema allegedly favored pro offenses over the spread during a summer convention.

It was a flashpoint in what has become nothing short of philosophical battleground over the evolution of offense in college football.

It's difficult to watch high school football and not buy into Kingsbury's assertion that 90 percent of Texas high schools - and far beyond - use some form of spread offense every week. And while that number hasn't quite reached such heights in the land of Bear Bryant, even the Southeastern Conference has started to resemble its prep counterparts in recent years.

From Auburn to Kentucky to Mississippi, with a dash of Alabama and others in between, the spread has become more than just a way of life for some coaches.

It's the ultimate tool to counter the defensive talent so abundant in the SEC.

''In this league, it's so difficult to just line up and say, `We're going to block these guys and run the ball,''' Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. ''The spread gives you some smoke and mirrors and some ways to maybe neutralize some of the talent we face on the defensive side of the ball. I think there's some evidence out there now that other (coaches) are starting to feel the same way.''

Freeze knows as much as anyone in the SEC about the league's slow adaptation to the spread. Like Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, Freeze's start came in the high school coaching ranks. The two have helped changed the perception that the spread was an offense best left to other leagues long thought of as breeding grounds for high-scoring innovation, including Conference USA, the American Athletic Conference, Big 12 or Sun Belt - which makes use of the hashtag ''FunBelt'' on its Twitter account.

Both Freeze and Malzahn have had immediate success in the SEC, with Ole Miss leading the league with an average or 46.8 points per game this season and Auburn having reached two national championship games under Malzahn. But his Tigers also serve as a cautionary tale.

No position is more critical to a spread offense's success than quarterback, and lacking a playmaker at that position - whether because of youth, injury or lack of talent - can lead to the kind of turmoil Auburn is going through this season.

It's a point not lost on former Arkansas and Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines, who retired following the 2009 season after a career that saw him prepare to face everything from the wishbone to the spread. He said the spread ''took a while to cross the Mississippi'' before eventually making its way into the SEC.

''The fact that you line up in the spread doesn't mean anything, and the fact you try to go fast doesn't mean anything,'' Kines said. ''You can draw that stuff up on the blackboard until you're blue in the face, but if you can't throw it and catch it, it (doesn't) really make a lot of difference.''

The difficulty in finding skill-position depth, specifically at wide receiver, is one of the reasons Georgia coach Mark Richt has stayed with a pro-style offense in his 15 seasons with the Bulldogs. It's also why he was forced to target former NFL coaches following last season while searching for an offensive coordinator, simply because there are ''so many teams that are just spread.''

Georgia eventually hired Brian Schottenheimer, setting a school record by averaging 41.3 points per game last season.

''We'll get into the spread to some degree, but we still want to have a physical running game to complement a play-action passing game and complement our ability to spread and do those kinds of things,'' Richt said. ''It's kind of hard to find (enough wide receivers to play in four- and five-receiver sets in the college ranks.''

That link to the professional ranks is also a key point for pro-style teams such as Georgia, LSU and Arkansas as they recruit against spread teams selling wide-open offensive fun to skill-position talent across the country.

Bielema told The Associated Press his belief in a pro-style offense began while playing under former Iowa coach Hayden Fry. He said he has stayed with it because many teams struggle to prepare for a traditional look in today's age of the spread.

''What's really happening now is there's a groundswell from the NFL itself that's being very adamant about (how) over the course of time, how much they're seeing it set back players that come out of certain systems and their ability to jump into NFL positions right away,'' Bielema said.

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AP Sports Writers David Brandt, John Zenor, Charles Odum, Brett Martel and Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

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