USING AN OFFENSE HE DEVISED COACHING TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL, ART BRILES HAS ANOTHER QUARTERBACK—BRYCE PETTY—IN THE HEISMAN HUNT AND BAYLOR IN THE NATIONAL TITLE CONVERSATION
This is an article from the Nov. 11, 2013 issue
DARRIN RUOT crouches in his stance seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap. The Baylor offensive line fires off, and Ruot cradles the ball high and tight. As the play proceeds, he dodges linemen and crossing receivers until he reaches a spot about 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He stops, places the ball on the turf, collects another ball and sprints back to his starting spot.
Ruot doesn't appear on Baylor's roster. He isn't a tailback. He's a student manager, and he's wearing a striped referee's jersey. While one play is happening, he's racing to beat the Bears' offense to a predetermined yard line so he can spot the ball for the next play. At its highest tempo, Baylor's offense will run four plays a minute during practice. That pace slows for no one, because the Bears certainly won't stop to give the opposing defense a breath on Saturday. So in Waco even the student managers are skill players. Says Brett Bufton, assistant director of equipment services, "They've got one hell of a flag football team."
While Ruot sets the new line of scrimmage, another student manager stands behind the linebackers and collects the ball from players after each play. This trains Baylor's backs and receivers to get the ball to an official after they're tackled rather than leave it on the ground, which wastes precious seconds. "Our goal is to have the ball spotted so fast [in practice] that when the players get in a game, it's like slow motion," Bufton says.
The quest to set the ball at light speed is one small part of coach Art Briles's programwide mission to reach the end zone faster and more often than any other team in major-college football. Through seven games the Bears have succeeded. They lead the FBS in scoring offense (63.9 points per game), total offense (718.4 yards) and yards per play (9.06). Baylor's average time of possession on its 55 touchdown drives was 88.1 seconds. By comparison, Oregon needed an average of 106.4 seconds for its 59 touchdown drives through eight games. Along the way Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty has nudged his way into the Heisman conversation and tailback Lache Seastrunk has emerged as a star.
When did Briles create a fast-twitch offense that stretches the defense the entire width and length of the field? On Friday nights.
BECAUSE HE spent three years on Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech, Briles is often lumped in with other acolytes of the hyperpaced Air Raid scheme. But the offense Baylor runs is based on the one Briles developed in 16 years as a Texas high school head coach. Briles, who took over in Waco in 2008 after five seasons at Houston, has built that system into a spread offense that goes wider than Urban Meyer or Chip Kelly ever dared. It all began on a chilly December night in 1984, when one team took the ball from Briles and never gave it back.
Briles is the flesh-and-blood incarnation of coach Eric Taylor from the TV version of Friday Night Lights. West Texas twang that drips off every word? Check. Skin tanned and creased by years of running practices under the unforgiving Texas sun? Check. After stints as a high school assistant in the tiny West Texas burgs of Sundown and Sweetwater, Briles finally got his chance to lead a team in 1984, when he took over at Hamlin High, another map dot about 40 miles northwest of Abilene. Briles had the Pied Pipers humming with a ground-based veer offense he learned playing receiver for Bill Yeoman at Houston. Hamlin won its first 13 games, but in the Class 2A quarterfinals the Pied Pipers met the Panhandle High Panthers. At the time Texas rules did not allow for overtime in the playoffs: Ties went to the team that penetrated the opponent's 20-yard line more often. On the final play of the third quarter Hamlin and Panhandle were tied 7--7, and each team had been inside the other's 20 once. A Pied Pipers' punt pinned the Panthers on their own one. Then the fourth quarter from hell began.
Panhandle ran 26 plays, throwing only once. It slogged ahead and watched the clock tick. When the Panthers crossed Hamlin's 20, they celebrated as if they had rung up six points. "We had the ball for the whole quarter and never scored," says Chris Koetting, the former Panhandle wingback who scored the Panthers' lone touchdown that night. When the 12 minutes expired, Panhandle had the ball at the Hamlin 11. The Panthers advanced.
Briles immediately began searching for a way to ensure that his team would never be in that position again. Opponents wouldn't get to play keep-away; they'd have to score to keep pace. "As you get deeper in the playoffs, you're always going to come up against somebody that could be better than you, talentwise," Briles says. "So you need to have an advantage that gives you the opportunity to win that game."
Briles didn't scrap the Veer entirely. He made it the basis for a spread-based running attack, a one-back scheme with the quarterback in the shotgun. Inside the tackle box Briles would be old school. Outside, he'd be space age. Through moves to Georgetown High and Stephenville High, he kept tweaking. Early in his tenure at Stephenville, where he would win four Class 4A state titles, Briles positioned his receivers all the way outside the yard numbers, mere feet from the sideline—a move that spit in the face of conventional football wisdom. A receiver lined up that wide has no room to run an out pattern and no time to come back inside to crack down on a linebacker on a run play. That suited Briles, who wanted to create a glamour position that would encourage the best athletes at the school to come out for football. How do you persuade the star basketball player to strap on pads? Tell him all he has to do is run routes and catch the ball.
The formation forced the defense to declare its intentions before the snap, giving the offense a huge advantage. Cornerbacks had to be sent out wide to cover those receivers, or the D would get burned long. But with the corners marooned near the sideline, coverages and blitzes couldn't be disguised and the corners were too far afield to help on run plays.
This season the Bears split speedy Tevin Reese and Antwan Goodley, a 5'10" 225-pounder who is as thick as a linebacker but can outrun most cornerbacks, to the far sides of the field. Unless an opponent has an All-America safety who can rotate quickly and pick up Reese or Goodley, a defense has limited options. "You give up a lot of conventional football," Briles says of the ultra-wide receivers. "You give up a lot of...." He searches for the correct word before settling on "idology." Much like his offense, the word is an original. But in combining ideology and idolatry, Briles finds the perfect term.
BRILES MAY be a month away from his 58th birthday, but he's young in college coaching. Because he didn't go the starve-as-a-GA, move-to-eight-states-in-10-years-as-an-assistant route, he sees the game differently than many of his peers. "I still feel very fresh in the profession," he says. "I'm not biased by something that happened in 1993."
Briles hit upon innovations at the high school level that were also taking hold in college, but he did it his own way. For example, in 1997 Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Leach brought the no-huddle Air Raid to Kentucky, and the rest of college football quickly mimicked them. Briles added the no-huddle at Stephenville before the 1998 season—not because he'd seen Kentucky do it but because he was trying to close the talent gap when his Yellow Jackets faced Dallas-area powers such as Southlake Carroll. The plan worked. That year Stephenville won the third of its state titles and set a national record for total offense (8,664 yards) that still stands.
As he did in high school, Briles still works without a playbook—just, he says, a "Big Chief yellow pad." He estimates he has filled 700 legal pads with ideas for plays. Those ideas get fleshed out on the practice field. The Bears do not hand offensive players a three-ring binder when they arrive on campus. They may have a few formations and diagrams loaded on an iPad, but there is no real offensive installation period during spring practice or fall camp. The Bears learn by repeating each play at practice, and no one gets in a game until he knows them perfectly. Why did Seastrunk, a junior who has averaged 9.1 yards a carry this season, have to wait until the eighth game of last season to become a key cog in the offense? Because in Briles's scheme the back must set the protection in the seconds before the snap: If that back makes a mistake, the play will fail. This is why few true freshmen start on Baylor's offense. Briles won't put a player on the field until he is sure the player understands the offense completely.
At the same time, Briles has stuck to the game's smashmouth roots on the interior. Offensive line coach Randy Clements, who worked with Briles at Stephenville and joined him at Houston, tutors a group happy to blow defensive lines off the ball even on passing plays. At a meeting before Baylor's 59--14 win at Kansas last month, Clements advised his players to identify the "turd backer"—so named because he "always floats around." Later Clements issued a run-play directive for his linemen tailored to the FieldTurf surface at the Jayhawks' stadium: "Get the black pellets all over his face." When Baylor arrived in Lawrence that Saturday, those instructions proved easy to follow for a line led by guard Cyril Richardson, a 346-pounder who can pancake a three-technique or whip around the outside like a fast-breaking power forward when asked to pull.
Meanwhile, Baylor's quarterbacks play a different role from their pro-style peers'. "It's misconstrued that you don't have to do much as a QB at the line," says Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor in 2011. Instead of watching the defense before the snap and making every decision, Baylor quarterbacks serve as processing centers for information coming from the back, the tight end, the offensive linemen and coaches, who signal in plays using a system that looks like dueling orchestra conductors. The quarterback must take all this information and boil it down to the two or three most important elements. Many times he has to decide whether to select the run or pass variation of the same play. When he's doing it correctly, he integrates all the data and gets the ball snapped 12 to 15 seconds after the previous play ends. That speed allows Baylor, as Briles tells his players, to "take a defense's soul."
"There's just that feeling in a game where you kind of have them on the ropes," says Petty, who's on pace to become Baylor's third different 4,000-yard passer in three years. "Either they're going to give up, or they're going to keep fighting. It's that point where you don't even let them think they can keep fighting."
BRILES HAS been at Baylor since the 2008 season, so why has it taken this long for the Bears to enter the race for the Big 12 title? Because the defense needed to catch up. When Briles was setting offensive records with quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum at Houston, he befriended SMU coach Phil Bennett, who couldn't believe an offense could be that effective. "You sumbitch," Bennett remembers joking with Briles. "You must be practicing 30 hours a week."
After the 2010 season Briles hired Bennett, who was by then the interim coach at Pitt, to fix Baylor's porous defense. Bennett's reclamation project took a season and a half: The Bears struck bottom on Sept. 29, 2012, when they scored 63 at West Virginia and allowed 70. "I still think about it," cornerback K.J. Morton says. "That's something we'll never have again. We tell each other that we'll never go back again." A few weeks after that low, some key players returned to health, and the Bears' defense improved dramatically, kicking off Baylor's current 11-game winning streak with a 52--24 victory over Kansas State. Bennett, meanwhile, has figured out the formula for coaching a defense to support a lightning-strike offense. Entering its bye week, Baylor ranked third in the nation by allowing 4.2 yards a play. "Here's the thing that's changed," Bennett says. "I could give a rat's ass about total yards. It's scoring defense. It's takeaways. It's third-down defense to get off the field and give the ball to our offense. It's red zone defense."
The defensive improvement also reflects an attitude instilled by Briles: The Bears are no longer doormats. Since his high school days Briles has frowned on fire and brimstone and asked his coaches to use positive reinforcement. Back at Stephenville in 1998, Briles routinely told senior Kelan Luker he was the best quarterback in America. "I don't know if he believed it or not," says Luker, who played at SMU, "but I felt like he believed it because I believed it." As he walked past his quarterbacks during a practice last month, Briles said, "Best in America," as he passed Petty. When Seastrunk transferred from Oregon in 2011, the former five-star recruit considered himself a failure. Briles told Seastrunk he was "damn good" so many times that Seastrunk climbed out of his mental hole. "He's not going to change anything about you," Seastrunk says. "He's going to let you be you. That's why it's BU."
It's an approach Briles has probably taken hundreds of times. Only now he's doing it from an office that overlooks a BCS-level practice facility. His school is spending millions to build a stadium a few hundred yards away. On television, pundits debate whether Baylor, should it survive a late-season gantlet that begins on Nov. 7 with a visit from Oklahoma, deserves a chance to play for the national title. When those Panhandle Panthers kept that ball for the entire fourth quarter, they had no idea what they had unleashed on the sport.
Koetting, the tiny sophomore wingback who scored Panhandle's lone touchdown that night, has grown into a brilliant high school coach in his own right. In his four seasons as head coach at Canadian High, a school in the Texas Panhandle 100 miles from anywhere, Koetting has a 39--9 record. And what offense does he run? "We run the spread," he says. Just like Briles.
Through the end of the football seasons and the 2014 Olympics, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED will feature on-the-climb athletes across all its platforms. Look for a video profile of Baylor's Lache Seastrunk on your computer or mobile device starting on Nov. 6 at SI.com/risingstars