Matt Canada’s voice rings in Will Clapp’s ears, and the words are always the same: “Quick! Quick! Quick!”
Canada, LSU’s new offensive coordinator, is not the quiet type, not soft-spoken like his defensive counterpart, Dave Aranda. Canada is loud, a screamer and yeller.
And his offense is fast.
“He’s been on me lately,” said Clapp, LSU’s starting center.
“Just make your calls quick!” Clapp said Canada recently barked at him.
“Everything is quick, quick, quick,” Clapp said. “He wants us to get to the line, wants us to shift quick, motion quick. Everything is happening real quick in a short window.”
Thing is, it’s not always quick.
That’s an overlooked aspect of Canada’s spread offense: a fluctuating pace of play. The tempo facet of his scheme gets buried beneath a pile of other snazzy new features — like those pre-snap shifts, jet sweeps and wacky formations.
The tempo portion of Canada's system is important, so essential that the coach attributes Pittsburgh’s win last season over eventual College Football Playoff champion Clemson to his offense’s oscillating pace of play: slow to fast, huddle to no-huddle, fast to slow, no-huddle to huddle.
It’s like a pitcher changing speeds — from a 79-mph changeup to a 94-mph fastball and mixing in an 83-mph curveball. It keeps the hitter guessing.
Canada changes speeds mid-drive, almost every drive.
“If you always go fast, they get used to that," Canada said at a coaches clinic in the spring. "If you always go slow, they get used to that. So we change the tempo.”
How much? It depends on the opponent, Canada said. Against Clemson, the Panthers ran 71 plays. About a fifth of those (15) came on a hurry-up, no-huddle snap. His offense operated out of the no-huddle on at least one play on nine of the 14 drives.
But even Canada’s normal huddles aren’t normal huddles. They are “sugar huddles,” said former NFL quarterback Brian Griese, the color analyst for the Pitt-Clemson game last season.
A "sugar huddle" differs only slightly from a traditional huddle. The "sugar huddle" originates much closer to the spot of the ball, just 2 to 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. A "sugar huddle" is broken with players darting to their positions in a full-out sprint. At times, receivers will break the huddle before everyone else, racing to their positions out wide.
These things are designed to, despite huddling, get the ball snapped quickly, preventing the defense from recognizing the formation. It is all, yes, quick. And it’s an adjustment for players who operated for years at LSU in one of the nation’s slowest-paced units.
Clapp shrugs it off.
“You get used to it. If everybody buys into it, it’s easy,” he said. “In 29 (preseason) practices, you can get comfortable with anything.”
The fast-paced, no-huddle approach isn’t completely new to LSU's players. Some of them played in hurry-up spread offenses in high school. Many of them played in LSU’s previous offense, a system that included a “small” no-huddle, hurry-up portion, tight end Foster Moreau said.
“This just expands on it," he said.
It may be a bigger adjustment for LSU’s defense, a unit that, over the past decade-plus, defended a slow, methodical offense in practice. That’s not the case any longer, linebacker Devin White said.
“I think it puts a lot of pressure on us. We have to match their intensity,” White said. “They come out hyped and running fast.”
The pace of the offense and its pre-snap shifting isn’t so different from Aranda’s approach. His fast-moving defense is an unpredictable unit with its own pre-snap movement. Aranda likes to “dictate the terms” to the offense, as he often puts it, attacking the offense instead of reacting to it.
Canada holds the same ideal for his unit: “Be offensive! It’s offense,” he has said.
All of that has thrust LSU's coordinators — believed to be the highest-paid duo in the nation — into a practice chess match of sorts.
“I think it’s hard to adjust to it, but coach Aranda … they’re kind of going at it right now,” White said, “trying to scheme each other.”
Predicting when Canada will shift into his no-huddle portion is not easy. At Pitt, he often went hurry-up after a long first-down gain. That’s the case in LSU’s camp scrimmages, too, left tackle K.J. Malone said. Malone calls the hurry-up facet of the offense “fastballs,” when the Tigers pick up a chunk of first-down yardage and then race down the field for a quick snap.
In that game against Clemson, Canada’s offense snapped into no-huddle mode on first down seven times, on second down seven times and on third down once.
“We’re just getting the ball off faster now,” Malone said. “Hopefully putting a lot more points up and getting the defense back on their heels. We’ve been doing it during scrimmages, and it’s been helping. Hopefully we can transition to a game.”
Nose tackle Tyler Shelvin will enroll at LSU next week, but he won’t be eligible to play in …
Canada learned the quick-paced portion of his system during a visit in 2009 with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, an innovator of the speedy spread systems now sweeping the nation. He incorporated Kelly’s no-huddle, hurry-up scheme into his Indiana offenses in 2010 and 2011.
"The biggest thing was the tempo," said Ben Chappell, the starting quarterback under Canada at Indiana during those seasons. "We really were high-tempo."
He has sprinkled that hurry-up system into his most recent units at Pitt last year and N.C. State the year before, hoping to keep the defense off balance with quick dashes of no-huddle.
LSU will still huddle, even if it's that "sugar huddle" and not the traditional grouping. Why? Huddling is an advantage, Canada said at a recent camp meeting, players said.
“We see the huddle as an advantage, because we’re one of the few teams that do huddle,” quarterback Danny Etling said. “We also see up-tempo as an advantage, because we can move fast and make the defense uncomfortable. We’re always trying to make the defense uncomfortable, so any way we can do that, whether it’s up-tempo or slowing the tempo down, that’s what we’re going to do.”
“We are a huddle team,” Canada said at his introductory news conference in December. “We believe in huddling. We will change the tempo at times. … There's merit to going fast."
ANALYZING THE OFFENSE
The Advocate has dived into Matt Canada's offense, writing a host of pieces on LSU's new scheme:
- The Canada profile and the Fly Sweep: Tale of LSU's Matt Canada: How a Midwestern, farm town boy got his explosive offense
- Canada vs. Aranda: How LSU's new offensive coordinator is so similar to the ideals held by its defensive coordinator
- The QB coach:A look at Matt Canada's aggressive, unpredictable system for LSU, through eyes of his ex-QBs
- The pre-snap shifting and motions: Why'd D.J. Chark give up root beer? Because Matt Canada's offense is crazy exhausting