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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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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

It all comes down to this.

The Eastern Conference Championship is on the line Wednesday as the Capitals take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. Here are five keys for how the Caps can win and advance to face the Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.

Score first

Game 7 is in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are deeper offensively and defensively and have a goalie capable of shutting down an offense.

Oh, and the Lightning are 8-1 when scoring first this postseason.

The Capitals are at their best when they are dictating the play. They want to play physical, trap the blue line and counter against the Lightning. None of those are particularly great strategies for chasing a game.

That makes the first goal critical.

The Lightning fans have seen their team lose twice at home already this series and fail to close out the Caps in Game 6. They have watched their team reach the conference finals two straight years in 2015 and 2016, fail to win the Stanley Cup in either year and fail to even make the playoffs in 2017.

Not only does playing with a lead better suit their game plan, but if Washington scores first that crowd is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Gauge the referees

The Caps were very physical in Game 6 and they found success with that game plan. You would expect them to have a similar approach to Game 7, but they need to be careful.

In Game 6, it was clear the referees had put away the whistles. There were a few questionable plays on both sides that the referees let go. In a Game 7, you would hope the referees take the same approach, but they may not.

Tampa Bay’s power play is very good and the Caps cannot afford to give them many opportunities, but Washington will still want to play a physical style. It’s a fine line to walk so the Caps will need to quickly figure out how strictly the referees are calling the game and adjust accordingly.

Win the goalie matchup

In this series, Andrei Vasilevskiy has had two bad games and four good ones. He lost both of his bad games and won three of his good ones. He did not win the fourth, however, because he was outplayed by Braden Holtby.

Vasilevskiy was great in Game 6, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled to get on the board. When the Caps finally did, Holtby shut the door to make sure the Lightning could not climb back. Vasilevskiy allowed just two goals on 32 shots, but Holtby turned away all 24 of the shots he faced for the shutout.

This is Game 7. There is no Game 8 just because you run into a hot goalie. If Vasilevskiy is on his game again on Wednesday, Holtby will have to be just as good if not better to make sure the Caps win.

Beat the fourth line

Playing at home in Game 6 allowed the Caps to get away somewhat from the Alex Ovechkin vs. fourth line matchup the Lightning have found success with. At 5-on-5, Chris Kunitz played 6:55 against Ovechkin, Ryan Callahan played 6:22 and Cedric Paquette played 6:12, considerably less than the 13:04, 13:46 and 13:42 each respectively logged in Game 5.

With Game 7 in Tampa, Barry Trotz will not be able to get away from that matchup. That means Ovechkin will just have to beat it.

That does necessarily mean he has to score a hat-trick. Ovechkin was one of the team’s top performers in Game 6 despite not logging a point as he helped establish a physical tone that ignited the team. But he has to make sure at the very least that his line is not outscored by the fourth like it was in Game 5 when Paquette and Callahan each scored.

Have a short memory

If you have a bad game in Game 1, you know you can bounce back in the series. A Game 7, however, is winner take all. If there’s a bad bounce, a bad call by the referees, a bad play, a missed save, whatever it may be, the Caps have to be able to put it out of their minds quickly.

There is no room for the “here we go again” mentality on Wednesday. The fate of this season will be determined within 60 minutes. If Holtby is not on his game, the Caps will have to battle through it. If Ovechkin has a bad night, the Caps will have to battle through it. If the referees decide they are going to call everything down to the letter of the law, the Caps will have to battle through it.

If something goes against them, they cannot allow it to bog them down mentally as we have seen at times in Game 7s of the past.

Likewise, if things go well they need to put that out of their heads as well. Desperation will grow among the Lightning as the game goes on. This is not the time to sit on a lead or circle the wagons.

Washington can’t let mistakes or success go to their head until the clock hits 00:00.

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, May 23, 65 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

What to look for at OTAs

Redskins OTAs started yesterday. The no-contact drills are the first time during the offseason program that the offense and defense are permitted to line up against each other. The-no pads aspect of it does take off a lot of the edge but the reality is that this will be the closest thing to football we will see until training camp starts in late July. 

Here are some things that I will be looking for during today’s practice.

Who’s in? Jay Gruden told us earlier that we should expect to see some injured key players not participating as they continue to recover from 2017 injuries. Specifically, OT Trent Williams (knee), OT Morgan Moses (ankles), and TE Jordan Reed (hamstring/toe) will only be spectators if they are at Redskins Park at all. Other players who may sit out or participate only in light drills are RB Chris Thompson (leg), and ILB Mason Foster (shoulder). The Redskins have been relatively healthy the past few offseasons so we will see how they deal with the aftermath of the injury scourge that hit the team last year. 

Seven-on-seven—Sure, it’s fun to watch the full team drills with 11 on each side but since blocking and tackling is limited by the rules about contact, there isn’t much to be gleaned from watching an off-tackle run. But when they eliminate the guards, tackles, and interior defensive linemen it’s all passing and then we can watch how well Alex Smith and his receivers are connecting. One thing I’ll keep in mind is that Smith decided not to get the receivers together for a “passing camp” before the offseason activities started. He said that he wanted to get to know the playbook first. Because of that they can be forgiven if they are not quite as sharp as they might be. Also, how natural does Derrius Guice look coming out of the backfield to catch passes? His primary job will be to carry the ball, but if he is a legitimate pass-catching threat, the whole offense will be harder to defend.

Rookies vs. pros—In rookie camp two weeks ago we saw Trey Quinn putting defensive backs on the ground with some moves and Troy Apke showing great makeup speed on some long passes. But those tryout defensive backs and quarterbacks are no longer around. How will Quinn look against veteran Orlando Scandrick or second-year corner Josh Holsey? Will Smith’s ball placement negate Apke’s speed? In the one-on-one pass blocking drills, which emphasize technique over power, can Daron Payne get past Brandon Scherff?

The big guys—With Williams and Moses out, who will line up along the offensive line? Does Payne line up at nose tackle or is he used more as an end with Tim Settle in the middle? Is Ziggy Hood in the middle or will he work outside? How is Phil Taylor looking after a quad injury ended his season in training camp? As noted, the rules make it hard to tell much about linemen before Richmond but we try to glean what we can. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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My reaction to this tweet from the NFL illustrating the changes to the kickoff rules:

Timeline  

Today’s schedule:Redskins OTA practice 11:30; Jay Gruden and Alex Smith press conferences, players available coming off the field, after practice, approx. 1:30

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 20
—Training camp starts (7/26) 65
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 79

The Redskins last played a game 143 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 109 days. 

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