Does the Spread Offense Make College Football Too Dangerous for the Players?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2013

Northwestern CB Daniel Jones gets carted off in the Wildcats' Week 1 win over Cal.
Northwestern CB Daniel Jones gets carted off in the Wildcats' Week 1 win over Cal.Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

How much does the speed the game—rather than the inherent violence of it—lead to serious injuries to college football players?

This is one of the issues ex-UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore explores in an excellent piece he wrote this month as a guest columnist for Bleacher Report.

The article discusses “why the targeting rule is missing the point.” The premise is that “it’s not the severity of the hit, but rather the frequency of hits that compromises the long-term health of student athletes.”

To that point, Larimore asserts that the spread offense—with more plays per game and less time between each play—presents a danger to athletes that is more acute than with a traditional offense:

When we played against Oregon and its notoriously fast-paced spread offense, the biggest safety concern was fatigue. When you have less time in between plays, the fatigue factor can leave players even more vulnerable with their positioning. That’s when serious injuries occur over and over again.

So, is the en vogue “spread ‘em out and score on ‘em” method of offense actually causing more serious injuries in college football?

The lack of comprehensive, long-term injury reporting makes this question difficult to answer. But what can be analyzed is recent injuries suffered by teams facing spread offenses versus traditional attacks.


2013: Tennessee vs. Oregon/Tennessee vs. Western Kentucky

The last team to face spread-happy Oregon, Tennessee fell to the Ducks 59-14 in its Week 3 game in Eugene.

Oregon ran 76 offensive plays, 35 passing and 41 rushing. 

According to Patrick Brown of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tennessee's injury report from the game included linebacker Dontavis Sapp and defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry.

EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 14:  Byron Marshall #9 of the Oregon Ducks runs the ball as A.J. Johnson #45 and Trevarris Saulsberry #96 of the Tennessee Volunteers move in for the tackle on September 14, 2013 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by J
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Sapp was expected back at practice this week, while Saulsberry is out for three to six weeks.

In Week 2, the Volunteers beat Western Kentucky 52-20 at home with no reports of significant injuries.


2013: Northwestern vs. Cal/Northwestern vs. Syracuse

Northwestern opened the season with a 44-30 road win over Cal. The Golden Bears—in their debut with Sonny Dykes’ hurry-up, spread offense—ran 99 plays.

Though there was lots of chatter after this game regarding “fake” injuries designed to slow down Cal’s attack, starting Wildcat cornerback Daniel Jones did suffer a knee injury that will cost him the rest of his junior season.

You can’t fake that.

Aug 31, 2013; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears running back Brendan Bigelow (5) escapes the tackle by Northwestern Wildcats cornerback Daniel Jones (15) during the first quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sport
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern moved on to its home opener versus Syracuse in Week 2, a game it won 48-27. The Orange ran 79 plays in the game, 20 less than Cal had the previous week.

The result was no major injuries on the Wildcats’ defense.

Though it would be far-fetched to claim that the spread offense was the singular cause of Jones’ injury, it does make you wonder whether the claims of “faking” are unfounded.

Is it true that defenders feign bodily harm when spread offenses heat up? Or, instead, is there a correlation between the frequency of defensive injuries and the frequency of offensive plays?


2013:  TCU vs. Texas Tech/TCU vs. LSU

TCU played fast-paced Texas Tech in a Week 3 Thursday night game, resulting in a 20-10 loss.

Though the Red Raiders' offense did sputter through most of the second half, Tech did manage to run its uptempo spread attack, especially in the first half and late in the game.

Injured in the defeat was super-stud Horned Frogs defensive end Devonte Fields who—according to Stefan Stevenson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram—suffered a foot injury, forcing him to leave the field late in the game.

Oct 20, 2012; Fort Worth, TX, USA; TCU Horned Frogs defensive end Devonte Fields (95) defends against the Texas Tech Red Raiders offense during the game at Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Red Raiders defeated the Horned Frogs 56-53 in overtime.  Mandatory Cre
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Fields is listed as questionable for the Week 5 game with SMU.

Two weeks prior to its trip to face Texas Tech, TCU squared off with LSU in Week 1—a 37-27 loss—which resulted in no season-ending injuries.

Though it would be a stretch to say that these brief examples verify Larimore’s thoughtful observations on an uptempo or spread offense, they provide food for thought.

Is player safety being sacrificed for boatloads of yards, points and, yes, wins?


 The status of individual injuries courtesy of, stats courtesy of ESPN.







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