Hankwitz discusses defending the spread

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Defending the spread offense isn't easy, and Mike Hankwitz should know. He's one of the nation's most experienced defensive coordinators, having held the job at six different schools, and he's witnessed every step of the spread's evolution. Now in his second year at Northwestern, Hankwitz coaches against the spread offense every day in practice.

Hankwitz recently weighed in on the difficulties of defending the spread.

How has the spread offense changed the way you put together your game plans?

Mike Hankwitz: It has changed things because in the past, you wanted to feel like you could be more proactive and try to dictate. You could stack up against the run and force teams to throw, or you could stack your coverage and dare 'em to run. The spread does literally what it says: It spreads the field, forces you to spread your defense out more and especially with the quarterbacks that can run and throw. There's all different types of blocking schemes in the spread, aside from just the zone read.

So how do you counteract all of that?

MH: We try to see what the strength of their attack is. Is it the running game? How good is the quarterback in the run game? Is he a better runner than passer? If he is, then we'll commit more to the run and try to make him beat us throwing the ball. Or if they're a better passing team, then we will play more coverages and try to make them beating us running the ball. The third element when they spread you out is the unscripted, the improvised plays with the quarterback scramble. You're spread out and you're trying to rush the passer and play coverage and all of a sudden, the quarterback that can take off and scramble, it's not easy to plan for that all the time.

How much more time do you devote to the quarterback run now versus 15 years ago?

MH: Teams ran the triple option, and you had to be sound in your schemes and then you had to have the players who had discipline to take their assignment and not let somebody run free. The passing attack off that was minimal, but now, with the spread, you have that option aspect where you have to defend the different components of the run game: the read zone with the running back, the quarterback keeping it off the read zone and then bringing a running back in the backfield and bringing him out on a pitch. The bubble is another variation of it. [The receiver] becomes the pitch man. And then you have the jailbreak screens, you have draws, running back draws, quarterback draws. It's more difficult to defend all that stuff.

You mention how dictating on defense was easier before. Has the spread allowed offenses to dictate more often?

MH: It makes it a lot harder on a defense to dictate or take away certain things, just because they've spread the field and they are doing more things. The offenses are trying to keep the defense from dictating to them. And then the other big part of the spread is the audible aspect of it, the coaches changing the plays. They're going no-huddle, they have more clock to work with and then they'll go up and show a formation and go through a cadence and try to get the defense to tip its hand. Then, they'll go back and change the play and try to get in a better play from what they've seen. You used to get some of that against passing teams. They would keep you from trying to substitute, but that was still relatively one-dimensional. You had some good one-back teams that could run and pass, but you didn't have to worry about the quarterback and the option.

How does the spread change how you recruit for defense?

MH: Speed's always been a component of the game. You always want it, but you have to have good athleticism and more speed out of your linebackers because they're the ones that get put out of position more than in the past. They can spread the field out and make any one of the three linebackers defend area. It has forced us to look for more athletic, speed-type guys.