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Miami, FSU felt the need for speed, and changed the game in the process

If etymologists tackled the origins of modern college football, their research would lead to two coaches, one talent-rich state and the annual games that changed everything.

Before Vic Beasley and Shane Ray became first-round picks as sub-250-pound defensive ends, there was Danny Stubbs, a linebacker-turned-end who recorded 17 sacks in 1986 for Miami. Before Gus Malzahn and the HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) offense, there was Florida State's fast break with Charlie Ward at quarterback. Before Patrick Peterson lined up at cornerback as the best athlete on the field at LSU, Deion Sanders did the same at Florida State.

Before position descriptions became fuzzy and the term "hybrid" entered the football lexicon, Jimmy Johnson played 11-card monte with Miami's depth chart.

Picture a route map in the back of an airline magazine, all those parabolas mushrooming out from hub cities. Miami and Florida State were college football's hubs from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, spreading new ways of recruiting, evaluating and utilizing personnel to all corners of the country.

Johnson and Bobby Bowden were at the controls. The results were historic. Miami and FSU each had a national title and seven top-five finishes between 1986, Johnson's third year at the U, and 1993, when Bowden won his first national title with the Seminoles. No other program had more than four top-five finishes during that span.

"What those two schools did with speed, especially on defense, it changed the game," said Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, a Miami native who grew up watching games at the Orange Bowl before attending college at Florida State and starting his coaching career there. "They were the innovators."

The innovation started with Johnson and his evaluations. He wasn't opposed to the biggest/strongest/fastest rubric that most followed, but he wasn't married to it, either. If a smaller, faster player could be productive in a spot normally occupied by larger bodies, Johnson wouldn't hesitate to put him there.

After all, Johnson used to be one.

"I was on the all-decade team at Arkansas at 195 pounds, defensive nose tackle," Johnson told ESPN.com. "You say, 'How can a 195-pound defensive lineman play?' Not only did we go undefeated [in 1964], we shut out the last five opponents.

"So it goes back to my playing days."

In recruiting meetings, Johnson talked about what prospects could become, not what they were -- the mass they could add or shed, the different positions they could play.

Johnson's non-negotiables: speed and intelligence.

"Speed, speed, speed, No. 1 factor," said Ed Orgeron, who joined Johnson's Miami staff in 1988. "Good athletes with skinny ankles, round butts -- had that racehorse look to them."

Johnson initiated his system at Oklahoma State, but it truly blossomed in Miami, where he had a buffet of local high school recruits at his disposal. Art Kehoe, who coached Miami's offensive line for most of Johnson's tenure and still holds the job today, loved watching Johnson operate during recruiting weekends.

"He'd say, 'What do you think, Art? Can he play guard? Oh, his hands are big, his shoulders are big, let's bring him in. He'll end up being a D-end if he doesn't end up at safety,'" Kehoe said. "I saw so many of them go through, whatever you want to call it, the metamorphosis."

Florida recruits played football both in the spring and fall and also competed in other sports such as track and basketball. Everyone ran. Almost everyone ran fast. When Bowden dispatched Chuck Amato, his lead South Florida recruiter, in the springtime, he told Amato to visit every school he could.

"You have to work really hard in the state of Florida to screw up recruiting," Amato said.

Johnson recruited for specific traits more than specific positions. He stockpiled high school running backs and put the slower ones at linebacker. He focused Miami's offensive line recruiting on centers and left tackles -- "The most athletic positions on the line," Orgeron said -- and filled gaps with high school defensive linemen who were too slow to play on Miami's D-line.

"What those two schools did with speed, especially on defense, it changed the game. They were the innovators."
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz

When Johnson got each team on campus, the position tinkering began.

"He was constantly fooling around with his lineup," Kehoe said. "That's the thing with Jimmy. While everybody else was coaching a position, he was studying your guys and going, 'I understand you like this guy, but I want him here. Maybe instead of being good there, he'll be great here.'"

Johnson explains it this way: "I would move players to different positions if they were smart enough to learn it and if they were fast enough to make an impact."

Stubbs checked both boxes. He had been a standup outside linebacker in Howard Schnellenberger's 3-4 defense but was faster than some safeties and wide receivers on the team. When Miami lost to Boston College on the "Hail Flutie" play in 1984, Stubbs estimates he was about 20 yards downfield.

After the season, Johnson asked Stubbs if he had heard of Leslie O'Neal and Dexter Manley, undersized defensive ends whom Johnson coached to stardom at Oklahoma State. Johnson told the 220-pound Stubbs to gain weight. He would now be a pass-rushing end. Stubbs had no objections.

Stubbs went on to record 39.5 sacks, still a team record. Second on the list is Greg Mark (34.5), another converted linebacker who, at all of 250 pounds, played defensive tackle as Miami beat Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl to win its only national title under Johnson.

"That's when we started seeing it," Stubbs recalled. "We were saying, 'Speed kills.' You were not going to outrun us. You were not going to get by us."

About 400 miles away in Tallahassee, Florida State's coaches had been trying to upgrade their speed since dropping consecutive Orange Bowls to Oklahoma in 1980 and 1981. "They could fly," Bowden said of Oklahoma. "They were probably the fastest team in the country."

FSU began loading up on cornerbacks and put the slower ones at safety. Bigger safeties moved to outside linebacker. Bigger linebackers shifted into linemen. Although Bowden didn't shuffle positions quite as much as Johnson, moves such as Derrick Brooks going from safety to linebacker certainly paid off.

Like Miami, Florida State also made personnel decisions that had a lasting effect in the sport. One involved Sanders, a three-sport, all-state high school player from Fort Myers, Florida.

"That was a big discussion: What do we do with this guy?" said Mark Richt, an FSU graduate assistant at the time who later spent 11 seasons as the Seminoles' quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before becoming Georgia's head coach. "He could be an All-American on either side. It was Coach Bowden in the end who said, 'If we're going to be great and win championships, we've got to be great on defense.' So we put him there.

"That certainly changed the philosophy as far as what do you do with your best personnel."

Sanders' unique skills at cornerback allowed Florida State to play a more aggressive, riskier scheme. Longtime FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews moved LeRoy Butler from safety to corner so he could harass opposing wide receivers at the line.

"We were playing Deion all over the field without any help," Andrews said. "We were doing something that technically wasn't sound, but how many people are going to throw the ball at Deion Sanders?"

The most groundbreaking changes Miami and Florida State made took place on defense, and specifically up front. Johnson implemented an attacking, four-man line that sacrificed size for superlative speed. Miami played a soft Cover 2 with taller corners who would reroute receivers and enough speed at linebacker and safety to cover the width of the field.

Stubbs remembers assistant Butch Davis telling the defensive linemen: Let them be afraid of your speed.

"That attacking, four-man front, that was us," Stubbs said. "You go back and watch some old games, you don't see that. You might see one or two players [attacking], but that was always us, that aggressiveness."

Andrews noticed. He saw Miami's sacks spike and wanted to create more pass-rushing production from his linemen, who previously were chipping offensive linemen to clear paths for linebackers to bring down ball carriers. FSU began building its defense around speed, as Andrews wanted to rush four and play man coverage, which required both corners and one safety to mark receivers alone.

The Seminoles' sacks "went up drastically," Andrews said. Florida State's top two single-season sack performances and three of the top five came from mid-1990s linemen: Peter Boulware, Wadsworth and Reinard Wilson.

"[Opponents] weren't seeing people with that much speed coming from the defensive end," Andrews said. "That's a whole different thing when you've got a guy who can run as fast as the defensive back or a running back that a big ol' tackle's got to block. We split them out, and a lot of people would say, 'You can't play your defensive ends that way.'

"Well, we're going to see."

It was a new way of operating, unlike anything anyone had seen before. Some thought it was a fad. Others saw it as the future.

"People that were outside of the so-called 'Miami family' always wanted to pick your brain about it," said Davis, who spent 15 years coaching with Johnson. "'How you guys get away with having undersized, small, fast kids?'

"There was a lot of infatuation."

Miami's system proved especially effective against the option, which was popular at the time.

"We dominated the Big Eight Conference with the speed we had on defense," Johnson said. "We embarrassed Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and, of course, beat Oklahoma three straight times because they couldn't run the option."

Oklahoma's only three losses between 1985 and 1987 came against Miami.

"That was the moment," Diaz said, "where Miami took the throne."

The game was changing and teams either had to adapt or die. After back-to-back Orange Bowl losses to Florida State after the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne adapted.

"That next weekend, he came up and visited with me," Bowden said. "He started recruiting more speed. Instead of those 240-pound linebackers, he got those 210-pounders that can fly."

While FSU might have followed Miami's lead on defense, it pioneered changes on offense that are seen throughout today's game.

FSU had a more traditional scheme in the 1980s: a sprint draw, toss sweep, power-oriented scheme with play-action sprinkled in. But things changed when Charlie Ward, a high school football and basketball star from Georgia, arrived in 1990.

Once again, speed changed everything, and with Ward at the helm, the fast-break offense was born.

"We started using more, what everybody refers to now as the spread offense," said Brad Scott, the Seminoles' offensive coordinator from 1990 to 1993. "We pulled the tight end in a lot of our packages and went with three or four wideouts, all skill.

"That's when we were trying to go really fast."

Richt remembers reaching a point where "we could run every play we had in the system without a huddle." FSU set team records for most points, most yards and most plays in 1993.

Miami and Florida State both pioneered change in college football, but there's little debate about which team set things in motion.

"It was us first," Stubbs said of Miami. "And then all of a sudden, Florida State has all this speed. Everybody's like, 'Florida State's doing it.'

"I was like, 'Uh, they got it from us.'"

The teams carved a place in history and still mold the game today. Davis, now an ESPN analyst, sees the effect in players such as Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche.

Before the speed revolution, Nkemdiche likely would have been a 7-technique end, where he could showcase his power. But Ole Miss uses him inside as a 3-technique, creating "a freaky mismatch with centers and guards" because of his explosiveness.

"You see guys and however they arrived at that position, it's like, 'Hey, that's what we would have done,'" Davis said.

Florida State's fast-break offense also was a precursor.

"Gus Malzahn, who runs about as fast an offense as anybody in the country, he told me at a banquet one night that the way he got his ideas was from Charlie Ward," Bowden said. "The only difference is we didn't change formations. We tried to go fast and call plays without a huddle.

"Nowadays, people go to five or six or seven different formations and do the same thing."

The Johnson-Bowden influence carries on through their former assistants, many of whom now hold major positions. Orgeron sees more size with LSU's defense than Miami used, but the speed nucleus remains. Amato, now the defensive coordinator at Akron, thinks Miami and FSU ushered in an era in which more of the game is played in space.

"Everybody copies them," Diaz said of Miami and FSU.

"A lot of it's carried over," Bowden said, "but it's like anything: They tweak 'em, get better at it and put in more versions and it becomes more sophisticated."