Mark Edwards: Older doesn't mean slower for Rich Rod's offense at JSU

·5 min read

Jul. 22—ATLANTA — The ASUN sponsored its inaugural football media day event Friday, and there was this fun little moment early in the program.

As a conference official stood at the podium reading off whatever it was he was reading off — it was boring — five of the six league football coaches dutifully had their eyes up while they clearly were paying close attention. Meanwhile, Jacksonville State's Rich Rodriguez, the veteran of the group, didn't appear as if he was listening.

He had his head down reading some notes. Maybe he was looking at his phone, who knows?

He's been through this before. Rodriguez has been in this game long enough that he's been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. In fact, that T-shirt is so old it's ragged and gets worn only when he mows the lawn.

Rodriguez is entering his 25th year as a college head coach, which he jokes makes him sound old. When that figure was included in his introduction, he quipped, "I started when I was 6." (He turned 59 this past March.)

The rest of the league's head coaches have a combined 20 seasons of head coaching experience and 204 games. Rodriguez has coached 284 games in his 24 previous seasons as a head coach.

He said he hopes he has benefitted from all that experience — including 10 years as an assistant coach — otherwise, "it's like you're repeating that first year 25 times."

At this point in his career, he's sure about what he wants to do, especially with his offense. That's where Jacksonville State fans will see a big difference from the past.

Standing inside one of the meeting rooms with Rodriguez after all the interviews are done, it's like getting a clinic in fast-tempo football. He really does like to teach.

When his teams run their fastest pace, he calls it Jet Tempo, and that's been his preferred style for about 20 years at least. Not many have run it longer, although plenty of teams try to run fast at least sometimes now.

He's got lots of great lines about how much he hates slow-paced offenses.

"Twenty seconds in a huddle? The idea of spending 20 seconds in a huddle makes me puke," he said.

He's got more about huddles: "Nobody wants to see 11 fat guys holding hands in a huddle. They want to see the ball move."

But his reasons for fast tempo are sound and rooted in his study of the game.

He says that by rule, offenses have two advantages: they know where they're going and they know when. Defenses have one advantage: all 11 guys can move as much as they want before the snap.

Jet Tempo helped minimize that defensive advantage. Get to the line, snap the ball and go, so defenses don't have all this time in the world to move.

Again, plenty of other coaches have discovered this, too, but few employ it as consistently as Rodriguez.

One disadvantage for the average offensive player: there's no time to think about your assignment before the ball is snapped. Rodriguez said you have to be smart about it and just do it.

Rodriguez doesn't necessarily have a set number of offensive plays he wants to run each game, but if JSU hits 90, that's a good figure.

As for numbers like that, he says, "I'm not a big stats guy," but he does have one he likes: first downs.

"If we get 25 first downs, we're controlling the pace," he said.

When he coached at Arizona in 2012-17, the Wildcats were third in the country in first downs twice and eighth once.

He also doesn't like to punt. He joked that he's told JSU punter Jack Dawson, a preseason All-ASUN selection, that he likes him but doesn't want to see him.

If JSU is within 40 yards of the end zone, it's unlikely he'll ever punt.

"If I do, come check my pulse because that's not me," he said.

What if it's fourth-and-40 at the 40-yard line?

"I'm going for it," he said.

Will all this mean big things in the first season at JSU? It might at times, but the league's coaches picked JSU fourth out of six schools in the preseason poll for a reason.

The JSU defense looked strong this past spring, but the offense is a work in progress.

It all starts at quarterback, and there's nobody with any game experience running Jet Tempo in Rodriguez's system.

Fifth-year senior Zion Webb was the starter for the Gamecocks' 2020-21 OVC championship team, but keep an eye on North Carolina State transfer Aaron McLaughlin, who's 6-foot-5 with a big arm and has four years of eligibility remaining. Te'Sean Smoot, an incoming freshman from Ohio, will make some noise, too.

Certainly, there will be times Jet Tempo will look about as rickety as the plane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. At other times, it will look like it's supposed to look.

No matter what, it should be fun. It'll be the start of something good that Rodriguez has the chance to build at JSU.

He's been in the game long enough to know that.

And he doesn't have to pay attention to some boring speaker at media day to get it done.

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.