It has become cliché over the past several years in college football to say the hiring of an offensive or defensive coordinator is the biggest “signing” of the off-season for a major college program but that certainly seems to be the case with Kendal Briles and Florida State.
If there is any one thing that has Seminoles fans fired up about the 2019 season, its Briles and his high-octane, fast-tempo and very hyped offense. It’s an offense he learned and built with his father, Art Briles, the former Houston and Baylor head coach.
The Briles offenses were the talk of the Big 12 and college football and were a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators during his tenure at Baylor (2008-2015).
Since then Kendal has only added to the mystique of his father’s offensive system and has overseen its evolution since taking over play-calling duties at Baylor in his father’s last season there in 2015.
He also ran the offense at Baylor in 2016 under Jim Grobe. In 2017 he was offensive coordinator at FAU for Lane Kiffin and last season ran Houston’s offense for Major Applewhite.
And based off the numbers his offenses have put up in his four seasons as an offensive coordinator Kendal is proving that there is as much substance as hype in his system.
His offenses at Baylor (2015-2016), FAU (2017) and Houston (2018) have been prolific statistically, finishing ranked first nationally in total offense in 2015, sixth in 2016, ninth in 2017 and seventh last season.
His offenses, and it’s well documented, also score early and often. In 2015 Briles’ offense finished first in scoring offense, 34th in 2016, eighth in 2017 and fifth last season.
To help our readers and our staff understand the Briles offense better heading into the 2019 season, the Osceola sat down with former FSU linebackers coach Wally Burnham, who faced off against both Briles and the Baylor offense four times as defensive coordinator at Iowa State from 2009-2015. We also spoke with former Houston running backs coach Kenny Pope, who worked with Briles last year in his only season at Houston and who saw the Briles offense up close as an assistant coach at Iowa State during the same years Burnham was in Ames.
There were four common themes taken from our conversations with each coach. And while they may have prioritized the importance of each theme differently, all four were brought up by Burnham and Pope.
According to the two now-retired veteran college coaches, tempo, alignment, running the ball and getting the ball into the offense’s most skilled and athletic players are all keys to making the Briles offense successful.
For the purposes of this article we will focus on the tempo of the Briles offense. And slow and low is definitely not the tempo. Both Burnham and Pope told the Osceola that one of the goals of the Briles offense is to sustain drives while running as many plays as possible, as quickly as possible, thus limiting the defense’s chances to substitute personnel during a series.
Last year Houston averaged over 77 offensive snaps per game (one of the highest averages in the country last year, although there is not an official NCAA stat for this category) despite averaging just 25 minutes per game in time of possession, which ranked 128th out of 129 teams in that category.
“The first things you look at when you look at Kendal’s offense, and it’s really big and key to making the system work, is tempo,” said Pope. “The reason why is he wants to neutralize the defense. And no matter what personnel grouping he has in the game he can still play with tempo.”
The main reason behind tempo is not allow the defense to substitute in any given series, keeping the same 11 players on the field for the entirety of a drive.
“Why tempo?” Pope continued. “It’s about substitution and it limits defenses from getting fresh people on the field. The opposing defensive line may be better than your offensive line but if you can play with tempo, meaning you are sustaining drives, three-and-outs don’t count, you have to make first downs in order to play with tempo, he gives his offensive line and the entire offense an advantage because the defense has to play with same personnel for an entire series.”
There really isn’t a goal for the number of plays Briles would like to run, but according to Pope the more the merrier.
“Kendal goes really fast, he is going to try to run as many plays as he can, but you can only play fast if you make first downs,” continued Pope. “If he throws a long pass or if it’s a first down, look for it right now, they are going tempo the very next play. Again, tempo is about neutralizing the defense. How do you neutralize the defense? If you can have enough plays, eight or nine plays or more, then those defensive linemen are going to be tired, so that is where you gain an advantage. You aren’t going to be able to substitute defensively, if you think you can you are going to end up getting penalized.”
“Whatever personnel grouping Kendal puts in the game for a particular series, those guys will stay in for the entire drive,” said Pope. “He might have a wide receiver in the game that is ready to pass out but he is staying in the ballgame so the defense can’t substitute. The way Kendal sees it, a tired offense still has an advantage over a tired defense.”
Pope believes tempo and limiting substitutions makes the Briles offensive system one of a kind.
“That’s what makes it so unique, so he gains an advantage that way, but you have to be able to move the football,” said Pope. “If you are a defense that likes to utilize speed rushers and an extra defensive back on third-and-long, those guys better be on the field when the series starts otherwise Kendal isn’t going to let them in the game because of how fast the offense is moving. He knows what he wants to do on third down and he knows what the defenses want to do on third down so he isn’t going to allow you to get those people in the game but he already has the personnel he wants in the game, so that’s an advantage.”
Burnham agrees with Pope’s assessment.
“One of the things they do that makes their offense difficult to defend is that they are going to go at warp speed,” Burnham said. “It wasn’t fast – it was warp speed. I’ve have talked to Art about it and to Jeff Lebby (UCF’s offensive coordinator, former assistant coach at Baylor and Kendal’s brother-in-law). It’s amazing, their system of calling plays and getting people in the right place in a hurry. They spread the field, get the ball in the playmakers’ hands and go at warp speed.”
Briles’ use of tempo can tire and frustrate a defense, according to Burnham.
“I always felt like we had to have an automatic call on defense when they use tempo. It limits what you can do on defense,” said Burnham. “You can’t change personnel. You can’t get fresh defensive linemen in the game. You can’t change coverages very well because you may have a defensive back on the wrong side of the field for a particular call but the offense is already getting ready to run another play, so it does limit what you can do on defense from front to back. If they don’t substitute you can’t substitute and that hurts a defense. It gets them tired and frustrated. There is a difference in going fast and going fast-fast or warp speed.”
Preparing for the Briles offense is a lot like preparing for an option football team – it is hard to duplicate in practice.
“It’s very hard,” said Burnham. “We would run two scout teams at our defense when we were playing Baylor or a similar offense. The first scout team would run a play and then we would have the second scout team run a play seven or eight seconds after the previous play and we would repeat this for about eight reps before we would put the second team on the field. We would make them stay out there and go through that progression. It’s kind of like the old days of trying to get the scout team to run the option correctly so you could get a look. That’s the problem with preparing for them when they are going really fast, getting the kids enough reps, getting them some confidence and as a coaching staff making sure that you script the things during the week that you know will be problematic during the game. Tempo is a problem for a defense, a big problem.”
Slowing the tempo of Briles’ offense is difficult and sometimes impossible.
“You can slow them down if they substitute, you can hold a guy on the sideline for as long as possible when the official gives you the substitution sign,” continued Burnham. “You can hold the substitute on the sideline as long as the officials will allow it, that is what we would do and that give you time to get in another call. If they aren’t subbing people in and out, you can’t slow them down. It’s a problem there is no way around it.”
Please check back with the Osceola over the coming days and weeks for more from Coach Burnham and Coach Pope as the Osceola continues its series of articles on the Briles offense throughout the month of July. We encourage you to leave your comments and/or questions as we will be monitoring the comments section daily and would like to hear your thoughts.