With Samaje Perine, Thunder To Counter Spread Lightning

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Samaje Perine sent social media all atwitter Wednesday afternoon, when the official account of Oklahoma football shared an image of the sophomore running back look especially jacked.

With all due respect to Hulk Hogan, the question Big 12 defensive coordinators are going to have to answer in 2015: whatchu gonna do when Samaje Perine and his pythons run wild on you?

Samaje Perine is coming off a freshman campaign in which he rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns, 427 and five of which came in a record-setting afternoon against Kansas. Perine’s monstrous debut has him positioned as a Heisman frontrunner heading into 2015, but his output in 2014 was partially out of necessity.

The Sooners passing attack was erratic at best, a handicap at worse.

New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley promised a more potent aerial assault during spring football, as Oklahoma implements a more aggressive variation on the spread offense. A heavier emphasis on the pass might seemingly take away from Samaje Perine’s workload, but the throwback power-rusher is in fact the perfect cornerstone for such a system.

Look around college football, and the next evolutionary step in the various en vogue spread offenses is the return of the burly, workhorse running back.

It’s no coincidence January’s College Football Playoff championship game featured two of the game’s offensive innovators with Oregon and Ohio State, both of which put a renewed emphasis on the old-school power-back to complement the speed principles inherent in their systems. For Ohio State, it was spotlight-stealing Ezekiel Elliott.

For the Ducks, it was freshman Royce Freeman, the last in Oregon’s long line of stellar running backs.

While Oregon’s system has been inviting for prolific ball-carriers, whether under Chip Kelly or Mark Helfrich, Freeman’s power style was something of a deviation from LaMichael James running the ball. Oregon’s aggressive pursuit of Freeman on the recruiting trail was an indication of the Ducks’ philosophical shift, as Helfrich beat out Alabama head coach Nick Saban for the Imperial, California product’s commitment.

Alabama’s interest in Freeman speaks to the style of running back that he is. And with Oregon adding such a player showed Helfrich’s belief in the old adage: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The knock on Oregon was long that its offense, while success in the Pac-12, was too gimmicky and soft to beat the big hosses of the SEC. A low-scoring defeat in the 2011 BCS Championship Game to Auburn and season-opening blowout loss to open the next season against LSU seemingly confirmed that. Conference title-denying losses to Stanford in 2012 and 2013 further emphasized Oregon’s need to add some thunder to go with its lightning.

Oregon’s beefed up in other areas, including in the backfield. But there’s still room for the Ducks to improve, as evidenced against Ohio State. Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer is one of the pioneers responsible for bringing spread offenses to the forefront of the college football, and the three-time national champion has combined the playmaking-in-space elements with a power-based scheme that rams the ball right down opponents’ throats.

Just ask Alabama, the poster program for such a straightforward philosophy, just how effective Ohio State’s power game is.

The proliferation of the pass that the spread’s…well, spread gave rise to forced defenses to adjust. Defensive coordinators around the nation shifted focus to speed. Former UCLA coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, who left to join the Atlanta Falcons in February, said last summer that spreads around the Pac-12 necessitated schemes that used the multiple-defensive back nickel and dime packages as their base.

The natural counter-punch to this speed is a haymaker. Royce Freeman, Ezekiel Elliott and Samaje Perine all pack the wallop necessary to exploit defenses trotting out smaller, quicker defensive backs. Coordinators are left with the choice of using linebackers, better suited to tackling these behemoths of the backfield but mismatched against speedy wide receivers, or committing to smaller defensive backs who are susceptible to giving up big yards-after-contact.

Power and speed are now college football’s greatest tag team — though Samaje Perine’s right and left biceps are a close second.