Brian Murphy: Hockey-type shifts keep Boise State defensive linemen fresh

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comNovember 16, 2013 

In his second season as Boise State’s defensive line coach — after the Broncos won the 2007 Fiesta Bowl in part because of a stout defensive line — Pete Kwiatkowski decided to radically alter the way he substituted players.

Why mess with success?

Because of what he saw at the end of games in 2006.

“Those guys were tough kids, but you could tell they wore down,” said Kwiatkowski, now in his fourth season as defensive coordinator.

So Kwiatkowski, aided by more depth, began playing two sets of linemen in every game. The change worked, as Boise State developed into one of the nation’s top defenses.

This season, even as the defense has struggled, Kwiatkowski’s decision to do away with every-down linemen and substitute liberally looks even more prescient.

College football has morphed into a fastbreak sport placing a big strain on defensive linemen, often the heaviest players on the field.

“You have to do it. I don’t know how a D-line could play as many as 80 snaps and play every snap,’’ Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “Defense, in general, is different than offense in terms of energy expended. And that position is one of the hardest.’’

Line changes are a fact of life in hockey, the high-speed shifts from one set of players to another carefully choreographed for maximum efficiency. The Broncos’ line changes are often much less aesthetically pleasing — guys sprinting to the sideline to avoid a penalty.

But they serve largely the same purpose, keeping players fresh enough so they can give everything they have for a short period of time.

Defensive linemen are asked to rush the passer, chase ball carriers, move from sideline to sideline and track the ball down the field. At their size, it’s hard to ask them to do that play after play.

So the rotation, which adjusts from game to game, is designed to have each player go for three or four plays before a substitute enters the game. No-huddle offenses can sometimes keep D-linemen on the field for eight or nine straight plays.

“If we are in there for five plays and go all out, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Boise State junior Tyler Horn said. “It’s about trying to keep us fresh and making us all play 100 percent and run to the ball.”

All this at a time when the Broncos are facing more plays than ever before. Opponents BYU (second), Fresno State (fourth), Washington (10th), Nevada (11th) and Utah State (19th) rank near the top of the NCAA in offensive plays per game. All four average more than 80. Boise State is averaging 81.5, 16th in the nation.

Against Colorado State, the Broncos’ defense faced 109 plays. Even with regular substitutions, some defensive linemen are playing the equivalent of an entire game a few years ago, Petersen said.

“It’s one of the more physically demanding positions on the field,” Horn said. “We rotate because it’s so tough.”

The rotation has another bonus, something that’s been evident in the Boise State program. Younger players develop quickly along the front, motivated by the early playing time and important snaps.

“For them to get better, they’ve got to play and you’ve got to live with some of their mistakes as long as they’re playing hard and trying to do what you want them to do,” Kwiatkowski said. “They get those opportunities, they’re going to be that much more engaged during the week of practice.”

There is a downside, often very visible to fans. It’s watching NFL talent like Billy Winn, Tyrone Crawford and Demarcus Lawrence running off the field in a close game and backups running onto the field.

“It’s a long game,” Kwiatkowski said. “There are 60 minutes. There’s different situations where you’re not going to roll them just to roll them. If they’re down in the red zone, that’s taken into account.”

Keeping players fresh, however, outweighs the negatives. You need your stars to be playing like it in the fourth quarter — and they have no chance if they are out there each and every snap.

“Every rotation helps,” sophomore defensive tackle Armand Nance said.

“Playing in the fourth quarter, it’s not how I’m going to be playing in the first quarter, but it’s going to be pretty equal to how I’m playing in the second.”

Brian Murphy: 377-6444,Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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