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SEC coaches adapt to league's speed, talent

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SEC coaches adapt to league's speed, talent

College football is college football, right?

Not in the Southeastern Conference, home to six straight national championships and the inside track to a seventh this season. The players seem faster, the talent level is higher, the scrutiny hotter than anywhere else.

Take it from the coaches and coordinators - especially the new arrivals who have to adjust quickly if they want to stick around for any length of time.

``It's like every week is murderer's row,'' Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. ``You've got to prepare for the real guys, the guys who look like they should be playing on Sundays.''

Smith has seen college football from just about every angle in his 40 years of coaching. His career began at his alma mater, Weber State, and his 19 years as a head coach has included stops at Louisville and Michigan State.

The 63-year-old Smith received his first full-time taste of the SEC in 2009 when he was hired at Arkansas by Bobby Petrino as an assistant. Smith coached against SEC teams at his previous stops, including an annual matchup with Kentucky while with the Cardinals, but nothing prepared him for the athleticism he saw in the SEC on a weekly basis - leading to fewer running lanes and even fewer open receivers.

``I'm not downgrading any of the other leagues, but you take a look at some of the other leagues and you say, `My goodness, that's slow football,''' Smith said. ``From the sideline sometimes, you're saying `OK, we've got a hole and we're going to get 7-10 (yards).' And you look back and you've got 2-3, just because it's a faster game.''

Coaches enter the league with reputations as an offensive whiz, only to find they must quickly change plans to counter the oncoming rush of the SEC's defensive linemen.

First-year Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who spent two seasons in the same position at Kentucky in 2001-02, said keeping the quarterback in one place in the pocket simply isn't an option. The undefeated Gators are last in the SEC in passing offense this season, averaging just 137.7 yards per game through the air, but their spread-option attack has kept defenses off balance and led to 212.7 yards rushing per game.

Florida coach Will Muschamp cut his coaching teeth as a graduate assistant at Auburn before later coaching at LSU and then back to Auburn. Muschamp left the SEC in 2008 for a three-year stint in the pass-happy Big 12 as Texas' defensive coordinator.

The second-year Florida coach said he believes in doing whatever it takes to win games, even in that means throwing the ball ``60 times a game.'' That said, he echoed Pease's thoughts about the difficulty of trying to do exactly that in the SEC - where four teams (Alabama, LSU, Florida and South Carolina) are in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

``The defensive lines, that's the difference in playing in this league and these other leagues you watch on TV,'' Muschamp said. ``I know y'all like all these points being scored, but the quarterback won't make it through the game and the season in our league.''

Former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, now in his first season as the head coach at Arkansas State, spent 15 years as a high school coach in Arkansas before earning his first chance as the Razorbacks offensive coordinator in 2006. During his last prep stop at Springdale High School, Malzahn would often times leave Saturday afternoon film sessions and make the 15-minute drive to go watch Arkansas play - likely preparing in his own mind for his future as a college coach.

``(The speed) was overwhelming, especially if you're not used to it,'' Malzahn said. ``It's just a different game as far as the speed factor is concerned.''

Malzahn spent two seasons at Tulsa's offensive coordinator before returning to the SEC and helping the Cam Newton-led Tigers to the national championship two seasons ago. He said the biggest adjustment as an offensive coach in the SEC was how the league's defenses play more man-to-man coverage than most - relying on the cornerbacks' sheer speed and skill to shut down opposing receivers.

Malzahn replaced current first-year Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State. Both brought reputations of up-tempo, spread offenses with them, and Freeze has done his best to stay true to that with the Rebels.

Ole Miss is fourth in the league in total offense this season, showing flashes of Freeze's same offensive creativity that led to 10 wins last season at Arkansas State. Freeze said there was ``no question'' that his previous SEC experience - a two-year stint with the Rebels - has helped with his transition, as well as understanding the adjustments aren't just on the field.

``From speaking engagements to media requests, it's a much higher magnitude here,'' Freeze said. ``But as far as the day to day operations, the kids are the same, the headaches are the same, the challenges are the same.''

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, in his first year with the Aggies, has a team that leads the conference in total offense. Sumlin, who guided Houston to the top passing, total and scoring offense in the country last season, has had little trouble adapting his offensive philosophy to the SEC.

Sumlin said he used to get input from opposing coaches about other teams while at Houston, joking that ``people don't give me a lot of advice anymore'' with the Aggies in the ultra-competitive SEC.

He said the biggest change in the league has been adapting to its year-round nature.

``The coaches in this league are extremely aggressive on the football field and in recruiting,'' Sumlin said. ``Aggressive is probably not the right word, but competitive is. Because of that there's some very, very talented guys in this league and some really, really good coaching.''

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AP Sports Writers David Brandt, Mark Long, Steve Megargee, Kristie Rieken and John Zenor contributed to this report.

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Otto Porter Jr. begins 2018-19 season with way too few shot attempts in Wizards' loss

Otto Porter Jr. begins 2018-19 season with way too few shot attempts in Wizards' loss

The initiative to get Otto Porter Jr. more attempts from three this season is not off to a great start.

That right there is called an understatement. Because it would be one thing if Porter only took a couple of them, but he literally took zero against the Heat on Thursday night in the Wizards' 2018-19 regular season opener.

Yes, one of the NBA's best three-point shooters didn't even get off a single attempt from long range. That is simply hard to justify, especially after a preseason in which the team had a stated goal to shoot more threes than ever before.

It wasn't just threes. The often deferential Porter was even more gun shy than normal. He only took seven total shots in the 113-112 loss and topped out at just nine points.

Porter, in fact, had just one field goal attempt until there was 1:19 remaining in the first half, when he got two of them on the same play thanks to a rebound on his own miss.

Porter still affected the game in other ways, per usual. He had 11 rebounds, three steals and three blocks and finished +1 in +/- rating.

But for Porter to reach the next level as a player, he has to add volume to his efficient scoring numbers.

"We will look at the film and figure it out," head coach Scott Brooks said. "It's not like we go into the game wanting to only shoot 26 threes [as a team] and Otto shoot zero."

Brooks continued to say the problem is a combination of several things. More plays could be called for Porter and his teammates could look for him more often.

But ultimately, it's up to Porter to assert himself and take initiative. Granted, that may have been easier said than done against the Heat, who boast one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball in Josh Richardson. They are a scrappy team with athletic and hard-nosed defenders on the wing.

For Porter, though, that shouldn't matter. Ultimately, his share of the offense is up to him. The ball is going to swing around often enough for him to create his own opportunities.

Porter only taking seven shots is a bad sign considering Thursday was a better opportunity to get shots than he may receive in most games. The Wizards added Dwight Howard this summer and last season he averaged 11.2 shots per game, 3.4 more than Marcin Gortat, whom he replaced in the starting lineup.

It won't be easy, but the Wizards need Porter to take matters into his own hands.

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Despite late penalty, Todd Reirden doesn’t want to see Nathan Walker change his game

Despite late penalty, Todd Reirden doesn’t want to see Nathan Walker change his game

The Caps looked like they were in good shape in the third period on Wednesday. With a 3-2 lead in the final frame against a New York Rangers team that had played the night before, Washington looked like they were starting to wear down the blue shirts and tilt the ice in their favor.

But everything changed just before the midway point of the period.

Nathan Walker, in the lineup for the first time since Oct. 4, chased down Neal Pionk behind the Rangers net as Pionk went to collect the puck. Walker put his arms around the Rangers’ defenseman to slow him up and he was called for holding.

“That was the safest thing possible for me to do is to wrap him up and take him in the corner like that,” Walker said to NBC Sports Washington on Friday. “Personally, I didn't think it was a good call on the ref's side, but that's the way it goes.”

Just over a minute later, Chris Kreider deflected a shot that was going wide past Braden Holtby for the power play goal to tie the game at 3.

A third period mistake that tied the game from a player in and out of the lineup could have been a devastating moment for Walker, but head coach Todd Reirden was adamant after the game that he did not want Walker to lose his aggressiveness or change the way he plays as a result of Wednesday’s mistake.

“I insert him to be aggressive and his intensity was something we needed,” Reirden said. “I thought he won a lot of puck battles earlier in the game and at different points. He's pursuing the puck trying to force a turnover and it ends up as a call against. That's I think a tough call in that situation, but we're able to pick him up and if there's a guy on our team that we want to rally around and try to come back for, it's someone like that with a work ethic and just commitment and dedication and how he is as a teammate.”

Luckily for Walker, the Caps were still able to get the win thanks to Matt Niskanen’s overtime goal. Those were nervous moments for him watching as the team tried to overcome his mistake.

“It's definitely nerve-wracking for sure,” Walker said. “You kind of feel like you're the reason why they got back into the game. I personally thought we were all over them in the third period up until they got that goal. I think we still played really well, but obviously the play with the lead is a lot nicer than playing tied up 10 minutes to go in the third. It was nerve-wracking, but it was good that the guys came through and we got the two points at the end of the day so that's the main thing.”

The fact that Walker’s mistake did not end up costing the team will make it easier for Reirden’s message to sink in. It’s his aggressiveness that makes him valuable. One mistake should not make him change that aspect of his game.

Said Reirden, “It's something that if he stops hunting pucks and creating havoc up ice then he's just a very average player that's going to find himself in and out of the league.”

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