AUBURN, Ala. — Offenses like Auburn’s used to be the weird ones in college football. Spread-them-out, up-tempo attacks designed to get both playmakers and defenders in space weren’t normal, say, a decade ago.
But now they’re widespread. Teams all over the country run primarily shotgun-based schemes that use multiple wide receivers and throw out past offensive cornerstones such as the fullback and the under-center snap.
That cultural shift in college football strategy over the last several years has made Auburn’s upcoming SEC West matchup against LSU a different kind of challenge than the ones it received the first three weeks of the season.
“I never thought I’d stand before a group the third week of the season and say, ‘Well, we’ve got a little adjustment to make — We’ve got to go out there and make sure when can get lined up against I-pro,'” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said, referring to LSU’s base I-formation. “I never thought I would say that, but that’s where the game is.”
Auburn’s first three opponents — Clemson, Arkansas State and Texas A&M — all used some sort of spread offense. Now steps in LSU, which lists a fullback, a tight end and just two wide receivers on its offensive depth chart.
Under coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who spent more than a decade coaching in the NFL, the Bayou Bengals run a pro-style attack. As Ross Dellenger of the Advocate notes, almost two-thirds of LSU’s snaps against Mississippi State in Week 3 featured one or two receivers:
#LSU WR use on Saturday:
– 4 WR: 4 plays
– 3 WR: 19 plays
– 2 WR: 31 plays
– 1 WR: 11 plays
That's 35% with 3 or more WRs.
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) September 19, 2016
Steele got ahead of schedule when preparing for LSU’s offense, saying the Tigers started practicing against pro-style formations in preseason practices.
“We have worked on it in the spring. We worked on it in fall camp,” Steele said. “We’ve actually, periodically, stolen a snap or two early in the week because there are some teams, like the other night, they lined up in (pro-style) personnel.
“Have we had enough work at it? Not to suit me. But we’ve got to get it done this week.”
Steele, of course, is familiar with LSU’s offense. He served as the program’s defensive coordinator in 2015 and coached against the Bayou Bengals several times as an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama.
The first-year Auburn defensive coordinator called LSU star running back Leonard Fournette “a very talented young man” and also noted that he spent a lot of time watching new starting quarterback Danny Etling last year in Baton Rouge.
“He was the scout team quarterback last year, so I was around him every day,” Steele said. “I do know him. But I don’t think that has any bearing on how he’ll play or how we’ll defend him.”
Steele wants to stress to his defensive players that the key to slowing down LSU’s power-running, almost old-school offense is all in how Auburn prepares for it.
Senior defensive tackle Montravius Adams has crossed paths with LSU and other pro-style offenses several times in his career. He knows what it takes to handle a different-looking attack, and it’s got a lot to do with the mental aspect of the game.
“I think it’s just kind of a different mindset,” Adams said. “It’s time to really play ball. Everybody’s got to make those tackles and be in their gap and be in their spot. Going against a good back like (Fournette), we have to do what the coaches ask.”
And Adams’ coaches will ask a lot out of him and the rest of the defensive playmakers in preparation for the visit from LSU. After facing spread offense after spread offense, the adjustment to the pro-style system is getting to be as rare as making the adjustment to a triple-option team.
“It’s kind of strange, but it almost sounds like back when I was at Nebraska and we had to play Oklahoma with the wishbone. And then Georgia Tech now,” Steele said. “So it was like, OK, take everything you’ve done and put it over to the side. Now you’ve got to have this game plan. It’s almost that different.”