Nebraska Running Back Tre Bryant running down the field away from defenders
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Fast Starts Start Before the Game Clock Does

April 17, 2018

It's good to play from ahead. Everybody senses this intuitively, but the numbers back it up. The team with the lead, even if it's after the first drive of the game, exerts a little pressure on the opponent. The later in the game that lead remains, the greater the pressure, the more risks the trailing team has to take. Consistently playing from ahead is like erosion; you may not immediately notice the effects of a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but if it remains it will slowly grind an opponent down.

Few teams were better at getting a lead in 2017 than Central Florida. The Knights trailed for just 9.8 percent of snaps, offense and defense combined. If you're digging into "how did this team go 13-0?" don't overlook this part of it. UCF started fast, maintained leads and consistently held higher ground. It's a big advantage.

How did those consistent leads happen? Here's a theory: The program is structured to engineer that edge. We've heard Scott Frost talk about the value of morning practices, getting up and getting going. We've heard assistants stress the importance of treating practice like a game, being ready to go from the first rep. Being "fast," literally and philosophically, is the trait most often attributed to this staff, but being ahead might be its hidden advantage.

And there's another key part to getting a lead––health. When I was digging up some numbers for Jacob Padilla's great "Shoot Your Shot" series projecting Nebraska's depth chart, I got sucked down the rabbit hole of UCF's start chart. It's kind of amazing, and another feather in the cap of strength coach Zach Duval.

This is a little more art than science as there are some judgment calls involved (and I'm not as well versed in UCF's ins and outs as I am Nebraska's, but I tried to track down answers when questions arose), but by my count UCF lost 18 starts in 2017. On offense, eight players started all 12 games during the regular season, and the regular starters made 120-of-132 possible regular season starts. That's including 10 "missed starts" at running back where Jawon Hamilton was the listed starter in the first two games then went down with a season-ending injury and was replaced by Adrian Killins. Given Killins' performance in 2017––and that he was listed as a starter at the flex position in Game 1––you could probably consider him good enough to be a co-starter. That's the most generous view and reduces the lost-starts count to two games on offense, but we'll leave it at 12.

That means on defense the Knights had just six missed starts in the regular season, all of which were the result of a suspension at cornerback. Ten Knights starters either started or were available to start all 12 games. Again, that required some judgment calls, but I think it's a pretty accurate view.

Nebraska? It had 30 missed starts on offense and 24 on offense.

Here's the side-by-side comparison. The "Flex" position is used to account for different starting formations. At UCF that was usually a wide receiver, tight end or running back, at Nebraska that was a wide receiver, tight end or fullback and given the difficulty assessing if anyone was missing, as well as the number of potential options, I gave both teams 12 starts at that spot. Starts missed at the position are listed as negative numbers.

UCF 12 12 -1 12 12 12 -1 12 12 12 -10
NEB -4 12 12 -6 -4 -3 -2 -1 12 12 -10
UCF 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 -6 12 12 12
NEB 12 12 12 -4 -1 12 -5 -6 -4 -4 12

All told UCF's starters made 93.2 percent of the available starts in the 2017 regular season. That includes just one lost start on the offensive line, and zero lost starts in the defensive front seven. (And remember, you could say UCF only missed six regular-season starts depending on how you view running back, a 97-percent rate.) Nebraska's starters made 79.5 percent of their available starts, losing 13 starts on the offensive line, 10 at linebacker and 14 in the secondary.

Without even comparing the skill level of those starters, which team would you expect to be better, the one that had all of its chess pieces on the board at the start of the game 93 percent of the time, or the one that had them 79 percent of the time? Some of that just comes down to luck. Find a team in the top 10 at the end of the year and you'll probably be looking at a team that remained relatively healthy.

But some of the credit, maybe a lot of it, needs to go to Duval, too. The lifts, the sleep, the nutrition, all of that seems to have made a difference in Orlando and it wasn't drastically different the season before, either. UCF's offense in 2016 is a little tougher to sort into starts/lost starts categories, but the defense is not. The Knights only had five missed starts on defense in 2016. There's a lot of gray area here without knowing the daily details of UCF football, but from an outsider's point of view defensive coordinator Erik Chinander had his 11 starters available for 264-of-275 games over two seasons in Orlando.

Whatever else is going on, the first hurdle to clear to playing with a full deck is health. UCF had it in 2017 almost across the board.

That definitely didn't hurt the Knights' ability to get a lead. You could probably say their fast starts started long before the game clock ever did.

The Grab Bag

  • Is Bob Stoops going to coach again? Yeah, probably not.
  • Former Florida coach Jim McElwain says he's excited to join Jim Harbaugh in Michigan and I have no reason to doubt him, but it reads like an enthusiasm common to mankind, which might be a problem.
  • Late getting to this story, but Ian Boyd looks at the "next wave of RPOs."
  • ICYMI: Erik Chinander offered some clues over the weekend about what to expect from Nebraska's defense on Saturday, and Greg Smith catches up with 3-star DE Isaac Townsend following his recent visit to Lincoln.

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