Sometimes, when a football coach says his players are “not thinking,” it’s a good thing.
It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making bad decisions. Actually, it’s often a reference to excellent preparation. Because they’ve learned in practices, they don’t have to think during games; things come naturally, instinctively. Conscious thinking during a play can slow you down.
Last year, when first-year University of Hawaii defensive coordinator Corey Batoon brought in some new position coaches and a new system, the players had to learn. And stopping college football offenses is not a good thing for players to try to learn on the job.
Although the Warriors finished with a winning record, 8-6, the defense was young and inexperienced. UH allowed 35.1 points per game (109th out of 130 teams). The Warriors yielded 439.7 yards per game and 6.3 per play in 2018.
But now that the Hawaii defense has had a full season, plus spring practice and fall camp, to absorb the new system and get used to the new coaches, Batoon is confident those numbers will improve.
“Any time within any organization when you bring in new pieces of the puzzle there will be uncertainty. What is expected … has to be explained and understood. Football is no different,” he said. “The concepts are universal, but there are different ways of addressing things. There was no real carryover from the previous defensive system. A lot of concepts were foreign to the kids. We were chronologically young and we were really green.”
So, that meant there was a lot of thinking and learning to do before things could happen from muscle memory.
“Now they’re not thinking, not processing,” Batoon said. “They’re reacting.”
The defense will be tested from the outset, as UH opens Saturday against Arizona at Aloha Stadium. With both teams known more for offense than defense, the over posted from Vegas on Tuesday was 74. (Arizona was an 11-point favorite at last check.)
“Time is of the essence,” Batoon said after Tuesday’s practice.
He meant it because practice time is limited, but also in the sense of making sure everyone is — literally, in this case — up to speed. That’s because the Wildcats play fast-break football on offense.
“Their goal is to run 90 plays a game,” Batoon said. The average for an FBS Division I football team is 72.
Add in the fact that UH’s run-and-shoot offense usually doesn’t eat up a lot of the clock, and Arizona could be on the field for a lot of plays, and without much time between them.
That means plenty of opportunities for J.J. Taylor. The important numbers to remember about Taylor are not that he is 5-feet-6 and 185 pounds, but that he rushed for 1,434 yards last year on his way to third-team Associated Press All-America honors.
When was the last time you saw a backfield with two 1,400-yard rushers? Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate underperformed sometimes in 2018 due to injury, but as a sophomore in 2017 he ran for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns, and passed for 1,591 while tossing 14 TD throws and 9 interceptions.
“The kids have to get used to processing different tempos,” Batoon said. “Our practice on Saturday reflected that.”
As Stephen Tsai reported Sunday, the Warriors threw two scout team offenses at the defense to keep the action going and simulate the fast pace of the Wildcats.