McNeill learns daily from facing Tech's spread offense

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill has been tangling with Mike Leach's spread offense in practice since his arrival in Lubbock with Leach's original staff before the 2000 season.

McNeill says the challenge of competing against the Red Raiders' potent offensive attack makes his defense more acclimated to the travails it faces in the Big 12, where spread offenses have become predominant.

Here are some of McNeill's thoughts on the challenges he faces on a daily basis from trying to stop Leach's offense.

Do you feel like your defense is better able to defend some of the Big 12's spreads because of what you face in your daily team practices against Texas Tech's offense?

Ruffin McNeill: There's still a different part of each team's offense you have to prepare for each week that you can do only by working specifically for them. Each team has its own identity and something you have to get ready for. So there's still some aspects and concepts that another team prefers that you try to make not sound. But as far as the scheme, we do get tested daily.

When you arrived in Lubbock in 2000, Leach was the only coach in the conference running the spread. Now, seven of the teams run the offense as a base set. Did you ever expect it to be this widespread?

RM: I've definitely seen things evolve. The yards per game and points all have increased. I think it's because we've seen a development in the training of quarterbacks and offensive players through seven-on-seven camps and the like -- particularly here in Texas. Now, everybody is trying to get their wide receivers and running backs into space. And we're trying to do what we can to stop them.

Because of the way scoring has mushroomed in the Big 12, are you changing the way you judge the success of your defense?

RM: You've seen things evolve. Obviously, yards per game and points have increased. It's not 3 yards and a cloud of dust like it was when I was playing. We all realize these quarterbacks are pretty good and these offenses can move the ball. What we have to do is be patient and innovative with how we try to counteract their schemes. Points will increase, but maybe now we need to look at stats like third-down conversions and turnovers to determine how effective a defense has really been.

How much of a philosophical change has it been after the mushrooming of these spread offenses since you started your coaching career?

RM: When I started back at East Carolina with Pat Dye, I grew up facing the wishbone all spring and all fall. That was the offense that everybody was using and that caused problems. You saw more of a power game. Then, you saw people start using the West Coast offense to try to throw the football.

I miss those days, but I know the spread defense is here to stay for a while because of the development of the athletes to fit those offenses. I know everybody in our state [high school players] is out throwing the football, so the passing quarterback is out there. The receivers are out there, too. The guys that used to play basketball are all becoming wide receivers. I think the spread will be here for a while, so both sides will have to keep developing.

How has the proliferation of spread offenses changed how you try to stock your defense with personnel?

RM: The biggest thing now you have to have is enough depth and be able to have the personnel to have different packages that you can fall back on to help you.

In the old days, you could play three or four defensive linemen at a position and maybe get by with it. But with the spread, those days are over with. You have a different system in place. You might have some players you like to play in run downs and others who are in for passing situations. You have got to have depth in your defensive backs and a different skills set among the players among that group. With the offenses evolving, depth in your personnel is especially important.

How much have you changed your recruiting philosophies to try to get specific players to fill those needs?

RM: Up front, all of your defensive linemen have to be able to pass rush more because of all of the reps they are facing. The linebackers now have to be more open-space types who can cover receivers. And the defensive backs, because of all of the seven-on-seven training they are getting, their man techniques and their understanding of combating a pass offense have got to improve. You've seen changes in all that as well.

You have to search for those kinds of players. You can practice and work on stopping the spread, but it still comes down to one-on-one effort on defense. Even with all of the spreads we see, there will be times when it comes down to one-on-one play that has to be made. And on defense, you just have to find those kids that can make those plays. It's basic and simple and part of whatever defense you have.