Monday Night’s Chess Match: More Notes On the Vols' Offense

Wanted to delve a little deeper into the chess match between DeWayne Walker and Dave Clawson. As mentioned in my previous post Tennessee fans are eagerly anticipating the unveiling of the Clawfense on Monday night, which (according to our friends at Rocky Top Talk is supposed to be mixture of “spready-type, West Coast-ish” offense. DeWayne Walker has built a very good defense at UCLA building on his experience from the pros. Our guys have shown they can handle pro-set offense as evidenced in their performance against the guys from across town last couple of years.

The interesting storyline for this season will be Bruin defense’s ability to matchup against spread type of offenses that have wrecked havoc in college football last few years. Sports Illustrated’s Phill Taylor wrote about this topic – DCs around the nation trying to come up with a plan to wrestle the spread offense “beast” – recently in SI’s 2008 college football preview. The key weapons again spread offense per Taylor’s article are nothing earth shattering: speed, solid tackling, and disrupting the timing of opposing QBs (HT to Husker Mike at Corn Nation):

• START WITH A STOPWATCH. The adage You either recruit speed, or you chase it has never been more true. The spread's main priority, to create mismatches in which skill-position players are covered by slower defenders, is harder to accomplish against a unit with serious speed of its own. That's why defenses are plugging players into positions for which they might once have seemed undersized but in which they have above-average quickness.

Players who might have been linebackers in another era become light but quick pass-rushing linemen, such as defensive ends George Selvie (6'4", 245 pounds) of South Florida, second in the nation in sacks last year, and Dexter Davis (6'2", 252) of Arizona State. Big defensive backs, such as USC's Taylor Mays (6'3", 230) and Missouri's William Moore (6'1", 230), become hybrid linebacker-safeties. "It doesn't matter how creative you are otherwise," says Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, the architect of the Red Raiders' pass-happy spread. "If you can't run, you can't stop the spread."

• A MISSED TACKLE IS A TOUCHDOWN. Defenses have to assume as much when they face the spread, which often leaves them stretched so thin that if a defender blows the takedown on even a short reception, help might not arrive in time to prevent a TD. In Division I-AA Appalachian State's 34--32 upset of Michigan last year, the classic example of the spread eviscerating an ill-equipped defense, the Mountaineers' first touchdown came when wideout Dexter Jackson caught a short slant and safety Steve Brown let him slip out of his grasp. The Wolverines didn't get a second chance at the tackle, and Jackson dashed 68 yards for a score.

"It's not always a matter of great X's and O's," says PortlandState coach Jerry Glanville, a longtime defensive coordinator at the college and NFL levels. "Part of it is just a case of execution, of tackling properly. I would think that every team getting ready to face a spread would spend time going back to basics, pulling out every tackling drill [the coaches] have ever run." Teams don't need a deep passing game because the chances of one mistake turning something short into something long are there on almost every snap. "A defense basically has to approach every tackle as if it's a touchdown-saving play," says Glanville, "because most of the time it is."

• BREAK UP THE BEAT. The success of the spread, particularly in the passing game, depends heavily on timing. The quarterback often takes a three- or five-step drop and delivers the ball in rhythm to receivers who quickly "find grass," i.e., open spots in the secondary. The most effective defenses devise ways to disrupt that timing on one end or the other. "I like my guys to jam receivers coming off the line," says former Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, now the linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. "If we make it tough for them to get into their routes, maybe they're still trying to get to an open spot when the quarterback is ready to throw."

So let’s start with the point re. speed. Who will have the advantage on Monday night? It will be interesting to see how our front-7 matches up against the Tennessee backs and TEs. With Harwell and Price anchoring the middle we have two guys as good as combination as any in terms of clogging up the run. However, it will be interesting to see whether Tennessee will try to create mismatches. Here are the receiving numbers of their backs and TEs currently in their 2 deep:

 

Pos.

Reception

Receiving Yards

TD

Arian Foster

TB

39

340

2

Montario Hardesty

TB

3

25

0

Jeff Cottam Jr

TE

4

19

1

Luke Stocker

TE

4

11

1

Stat Source: NCAA

Arianne Foster’s numbers look pretty solid out of the backfield. After him there is a drop off. But we don’t have a lot of data points to conclude whether the TEs in Clawfense will remain as much of an afterthought (going strictly by statistics here) as they were under Cutcliffe’s O last year.

We can imagine Walker and his crew will have a target painted on Foster’s back. He is capable of being menace both via the air and the ground. However, our front-7 needs to remain alert about these other guys. Note Jeff Cottam is out with an injury. But don't get too excited. One guy not listed in the chart above is TE Brandon Warren, a transfer from Florida State. Walker knows about Warren:

Warren, a transfer from Florida State, played against the Bruins in the 2006 Emerald Bowl with little impact, but earned some freshman All-America recognition after that season.
“I know he’s a good player, so that’s just another guy we’ve got to worry about,” Walker said.
Warren left Florida State in the spring of 2007 to be near his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden chose not to release him from his scholarship. Because he was not a full-time student in 2007, Warren needed waivers to play this year.

Also it sure sounds like Stocker can play. He hit the paydirt once last season, and as Joel noted on RTT, Crumpton managed to find Stocker for a seven yard TD pass during the spring game. So John Hale and Akeem Ayers will need to watch out.  Also, with Christian Taylor gone, Reggie Carter will need to be extra aware to make sure his team-mates are in the right position so that they don’t get caught in any mismatches.

Meanwhile, with a new defensive backfield, Walker will get to test out the raw athletic talent of his freshmen DBs early. Rahim Moore is going to get the start at SS. He can bring the lumber. The question will be whether he will make sure he is the right spot (along with his other backfield mates) to make the play.

That takes me to the point of sure tackling. This is probably the most concerning aspect for us heading into Monday night. DeWayne Walker has been very good in terms of instilling fundamentals into our defense. For the first time in years we have a Bruin defense that has been good at basic tackling (something we haven’t seen since in a consistent basis the departure of Rocky Long). Our defense has been great last two years in that department. However, heading into this season we will have lot of new faces getting into the college game as starters for the first time in their careers (or for the first time in case of some of our DBs). So I am sure there will be a lot of anxious moments because if the Tennessee’s spread scheme is clicking right out of the gate, there could be disastrous scenarios in which a mistackle would turn into 6 points.

As for disrupting the timing of the passing game, that’s a no brainer. Already mentioned in my last post on this game if Crompton has all night to stand back and chose his options, it will be a long night for all of us. If we were to have any chance on Saturday, our defense must put pressure on Crompton. They can’t allow him to get comfortable. They don’t need to register boat load of sacks. What they need to do is to make sure he is hurried into making decisions and pressured into getting rid of the ball earlier than he wants.

Disrupting the timing of their passing attack would also entail our DBs to be physical and jamming up the Vol receivers up front. That of course will put a premium on sure tackling.

Anyway you look at it, this will not be easy. Both sides will be rolling out lot of new pieces on Monday night. However, the one advantage Volunteers will have in this matchup is the experience of their OL. So we will probably have the announcers will go back to the old cliché of whoever is winning the battle in the trenches will come out on top.

As always, one thing that can help our defense is a riled up home crowd. I know it’s going to be tough to fill out the stadium as we are still three weeks away from the start of school year. We will most likely not have the full band and lot of our students will be out. But whoever shows up, they will need to be in this game, and spur our guys on defense with everything they have. Our home crowd needs to make sure our defense can get as much emotional boost as possible from a Rose Bowl crowd, all fired up for the first football game under a new head coach.

Our guys can use every advantage they can get in what will most likely be a fairly even chess match. Considering the inexperience and other issues around our offense, this is where our guys will need to get an edge if there are looking to pull out a memorable upset on Saturday.

GO BRUINS.

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