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How Scott Frost uses tempo to control (and win) a lot of games

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Tre’Quan Smith hauls in a short pass from McKenzie Milton, turns up the field and ducks out of bounds after a first-down gain of 12 yards on the Central Florida’s first play from scrimmage on Sept. 30 against Memphis.

He flips the ball to the official and immediately looks to the home sideline.

There, four posters are held up next to each other, all with information about the next play. There are hand signals, too. There’s Scott Frost, headset on as he relays information. There’s backup quarterback Noah Vedral wearing a red ball cap. Nearby, running backs coach Ryan Held. High above, offensive coordinator Troy Walters watches from the Spectrum Stadium coaches’ box.

The Knights are off and running again. Pedal to the metal.

Milton, the sophomore quarterback, has UCF lined up by the time the 40-second play clock gets to 30. Ball snapped at 28. Nine-yard gain on a pass to tight end Jordan Akins.

The Knights don’t keep this kind of frenetic pace the entire game, but it gives an example of the extreme ways they could dial it up, seemingly whenever they wanted, and it put the Tigers defense on its heels immediately. 

One week before, UCF crushed Maryland to close its nonconference season and was beginning to make some noise nationally, but its position as one of the biggest storylines in college football is not yet established.

The Knights open American Athletic Conference play with a home tilt against Memphis, another up-and-coming offensive juggernaut and the AAC West favorite.

Those opening plays jump-started a mammoth 17-play, 92-yard scoring drive that took 6 minutes, 49 seconds on the game clock and more than 11 minutes in real time. Memphis responded quickly, but Frost’s Knights rolled to a 40-13 win, possessed the ball for 37:24 and outgained the Tigers 603-396.

When Nebraska opens its season Sept. 1 at Memorial Stadium against Akron, this is what the Huskers will be shooting for. Game control secured by masterful manipulation of tempo. Efficiency. And, of course, points. Lots of ’em.

Transforming the tempo

The phrase "tempo" gets bandied about often in college football.

But having good tempo on offense is not just about reeling off plays as fast as you can.

Here are just a few areas where the quest to control a game’s tempo are won and lost:

Fast, except when it's not

The ability to reel off plays isn’t the only factor in tempo, but it does play a role.

Last year at UCF, the Knights showed the capability of running plays 12 seconds apart, essentially at warp speed. Just as effective, though, is being lined up in 12 seconds and then hitting the pause button.

Run a play, get reset, see how the defense adjusts to a new formation and then let Frost decide if he’s sticking with the original play call, or finding something else to exploit how the defense is aligned. This approach is called "glance," "check-with-me" or any other number of names.

It’s basically a different way of using the play clock. Force the defense to show its alignment, then choose your play. Of course, the cat-and-mouse game continues from there, but it typically gives Frost more information.

"People always ask me where I want it snapped on the play clock, and I don’t know if I’ve ever really dug into that," he said after the spring game. "I just want it to be fast and you can make tempo fast, but you really start to notice when it’s fast enough putting the defense on their heels, when they can’t get lined up."

Frost has a reputation as one of the best play callers in the country. He’s said to memorize his sheet each week, with a little help from Held and others.

There is sometimes room for discretion, of course. Anecdotally, UCF in 2017 pushed the hardest to get a play off quickly after a first down or after a big play and slowed down more on third- or fourth-down calls.

"It’s kind of like a baseball pitcher," Walters said this spring. "If he’s throwing 99 every time, eventually they’ll catch on. But if he’s throwing 99 and he has a change-up and a curve, it keeps the batter off-balance. That’s what we do as an offense."

However, culture becomes ingrained.

On that 17-play drive, Taj McGowan was stopped a yard short of the goal line on third down. Nearly every player on the field, including a defensive lineman subbed in as part of a jumbo package, used the ubiquitous rolling hand signal, imploring the sideline to get a fourth-down call in faster.

The Knights scored on the next snap.

Quick blinkers

Everything in Nebraska football happens fast these days.

Meetings are fast. Meals are fast. Practice is fast.

The quarterbacks have to be the fastest out of everybody.

Consider everything that happens between plays. The ball is set, the quarterback gets the next play visually — there’s no verbal transmission from the sideline — and must know all of the parts in order to properly orchestrate. Then there are pre-snap reads, motions, checks, post-snap reads and, eventually, a decision.

Especially with young quarterbacks, Frost said during preseason camp, the more quick definitive decisions he can provide, the better.

But of course that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

A reporter unwittingly poked his head behind the proverbial Authorized Personnel Only sign in an interview with quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco recently by asking if his pupils must interpret all of those big white signs on the sideline or just specific parts.

"I could tell you that," the 41-year coaching veteran said with a smile, "but then I would have to kill you."

OK, let’s not do that.

But rest assured, Verduzco said, "He’s taking in a boatload of information. That’s the best I can tell you."

Positional flexibility creates options 

If an offense doesn’t substitute players between plays, then its not required to allow the defense time to sub.

That’s part of the reason so much emphasis falls on conditioning from assistants like Held. If a running back is tired and has to come out after three plays, now the defense can reset, catch its breath and better match up with the offense.

In a November game against South Florida, with a trip to the AAC title game in the balance, UCF mounted a six-play scoring drive late in the first quarter to take a commanding 21-7 lead.

The Knights started the drive with 21 personnel — two running backs and one tight end — and kept the same grouping on the field the entire way. But all five of the skill position players lined up in at least two different spots on the drive.

Adrian Killins found himself next to Milton in the backfield and wide to the right. Otis Anderson lined up slot left, slot right and in the backfield. On and on it goes. In five plays, UCF showed two backs, one back and empty.

The scoring play? A modified triple-option play that, had it been run from under center instead of the gun, would have looked straight out of Tom Osborne’s playbook.

Six plays, six formations, six points after covering 70 yards in 2:07.

A way of life

The bottom line is that playing fast, efficient offensive football doesn’t just happen by running up to the line of scrimmage and ripping off plays over and over.

The Husker coaching staff is betting that their guys are more comfortable at warp speed than the defense is. That’s why the meetings are swift. Why questions come rapid-fire. Why Frost might knock out a Sporcle quiz before an interview. Why there’s no down time in even the stretching periods of practice. Why they weight train the way they do.

It might not all come together flawlessly right from the first snap on Sept. 1, but you’d better believe this group is out to get the Huskers up to speed.

Fast.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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