Manny Diaz defenses make the linebacker the hero of a successful defense. Will 2013 be the year when these actors are ready to fulfill their destiny in the Mack Brown legacy reclamation epic?
You could say that defenses tend to follow two main strategies: playing outside in, or inside out. Muschamp and Saban's defenses play outside in with people like Kindle restricting the outside running lanes and forcing the action inside where big people are waiting to beat you up and bring you down.
Dick LeBeau's 3-4 may have similar personnel but they are playing inside out. Players look to fill the inside gaps and force the runner outside where the pursuit and secondary can clean up. "Spill it and kill it" is often the motto, particularly for 4-2-5 teams.
There's nothing wrong with either approach, you can find immensely successful defenses execute each strategy. Diaz defenses play inside out.
However, the Fire Zone marries the two approaches depending on the call. If it's an inside blitz, the ball may be forced outside, but on an outside blitz the ball is forced back inside. Within all the stunts and blitzes of the Diaz defense it's incumbent on 2nd level "hot zone" defenders to read blocks and plays and make the right fills necessary to execute either.
There may be a great simplicity to how Diaz teaches the Hot Zones but they are still a difficult task that requires the defender to anticipate where the ball will go and arrive there with suddenness. If the Hot Zone duties are performed well, you can get an INT, PBU, coverage sack or tackle for little or no gain. If they are done adequately you may get a short gain on a pass or run. If they are done poorly, the RB or receiver may explode through a major crease in the defense and require the DB's to arrive and make an open field tackle against an offensive player with momentum.
I reviewed some tapes of games at the end of the year (TCU and OSU) to get a feel for how our linebackers had come along in understanding their assignments within the defense and whether their physical gifts were a match for what they need to be able to do.
I noted during these reviews the following fact that I'd like to add as an addendum to my earlier piece on the 2013 secondary. Why it is that Mykelle Thompson seems to have the advantage over Josh Turner on the depth chart.
It's because his athleticism and leverage enables him to always get in the way. He made several saving tackles in both games (TCU and OSU) by being able to keep ballcarriers in space in front of him and make the tackle. His tackles are almost always of the "get in the way, absorb the blow, bring the ballcarrier down over your own body" variety and he's certainly not intimidating, but he is an eraser by virtue of his ability to cover wide stretches of field.
But back to the linebackers, I'm going present answers to the following questions: What are Big 12 linebackers required to do? What does Diaz ask linebackers to do? What are the strengths, weaknesses, and schematic matches of our current personnel?
1). The demands of the Big 12
I examined the demands of playing linebacker in a 4-2 alignment last summer and explained playing the run inside out and Diaz's approach of using confusion and speed to exploit the physical limitations of 300 pound college students.
However, Diaz's defense had serious problems this last year due to nature of his blitz calls, the nature of zone blocking, and the diagnostic skills necessary for non-blitzing players.
I was surprised and delighted to find our linebackers making appropriate fills against the run by the end of the year while also disturbed and disgusted by Diaz play calls that voided their gains. The Diaz formula for run defense is based on the principal that a defense can survive a 5-15 yard gain more easily than the offense can survive a negative play. That's a great foundational truth for a defensive philosophy.
But in practice, if you repeatedly call a blitz in which the defensive end has to fill an A gap against Inside Zone, you are going to rely on DB tackling to ensure only 5-15 yard gains while rarely seeing a negative play.
I watched the Texas defense use this blitz call at least four or five times in about five quarters of football and be gashed by inside zone over and over again. The nature of zone blocking is to create creases and allow the running back to find them by making quick reads and cuts. You cannot ask a defensive end to move laterally into the "Hot 3" zone and fill an interior gap against an RB who's already flying through it with momentum. Especially on a 1st and 10.
The point is this: Big 12 run games require linebackers (or 2nd level defenders) who can quickly reach and fill interior gaps and defend them against interior OL and hard charging runners. It also requires linebackers who can make plays in space against screen passes, sweeps, and outside zone, all of which require sideline to sideline speed.
Then there's filling passing windows against the intermediate passing game and making tackles all over the field to save touchdowns from successful plays. A Big 12 linebacker needs to be explosive in a small area, decisive in his play, and able to roam large stretches of field. It's a demanding job. The ideal LB would run 4.6 or better, be in the 6'2" to 6'4" range, and 220-240 pounds.
2). The demands of the Diaz defense
Technically, the stunts and blitzes in Diaz's defense are supposed to help the linebacker by confusing the offense, requiring them to make quick reads in the face of pressure, and setting up opportunities to get into the backfield. Ideally, a Diaz linebacker has the speed and suddenness I've described above, but also the understanding of what an offense is doing and how to be aggressive in both attacking and covering up vulnerable spots.
Recognition and decisive response is probably more important even than speed in the Big 12 and linebackers who can't understand how to fill gaps behind stunting and twisting DL will be pancaked and useless. They also won't be able to fill passing windows and take away underneath passes, forcing them to chase faster players all day.
Generally the NFL combine reveals players like Manti Te'o who are not particularly fast, but play faster than kids with much quicker 40 times because they diagnose and respond so quickly. Against some of the finesse offenses in this league the ability to quickly be where you need to be will carry the equivalent of 20 pounds and a notch off your 40 time when dealing with OL blocks.
3). How do the linebackers on campus fit?
Again, I was encouraged by how the linebackers seemed to be catching on to the system by the end of the year. Oregon St and TCU both exposed bad run defense but the problems were usually a result of mistakes by backup DE's and insane Diaz playcalls. Mistakes by linebackers were a much smaller piece of the pie.
When Edmond understands how to fill against a particular run play, he's extremely effective. His long arms and powerful base enable him to absorb and shed blockers with apparent ease. They also allow him to drag down ballcarriers.
In pass coverage, when he makes the right read he can fulfill his obligations. He can chase and cover RB's out of the backfield or he can fill interior passing lanes with his long arms. We've already seen that his soft hands make interceptions a possibility as well.
If he's confused and drawn out of position, or the play goes somewhere else, he's simply not a factor. He can't change direction and accelerate in the open field.
Perhaps more weight loss will enable him to be more effective but the facts are these; Edmond was both recruited and born to be a 3-4 inside backer in a defense that constricts the offense into the middle of the field and asks it to operate in tight spaces. In the Diaz defense he can "spill it" but he's not much at "killing it" when the ball goes outside. He has value in base defense as an interior gap defender, as a blitzer, and as a Hot 3 defender when the blitz forces the ball inside.
I'm not sure that he can become a complete backer in this defense, in this league.
At whatever weight he played at in the Alamo Bowl, Santos is a better match as a Diaz Mike backer. He still needs serious seasoning and experience in understanding how to build the wall but physically he has the ability to handle the physicality inside and the speed to play sideline to sideline in pursuit.
In that game he made a few mental errors but he tended to make them at full speed, at least. When Edmond didn't know what was going on last year he tended to hesitate and get blocked.
Even at the end of the year Thompson was a player more prone to hesitation and mistakes. He has the suddenness to be a good blitzer and interior defender but I'd say that his best fit in the defense is at Will, where there are two better candidates.
Jinkens is exactly what you want in a Big 12 linebacker. If he's in a running crease inside, he's going to be extremely difficult to get around due to his quick hips. In coverage, he can run with someone in man2man or pick up and carry receivers in his zone.
With Jordan Hicks coming back and two solid candidates at Mike linebacker I'm not sure where he fits in 2013 but he needs to be on the field regularly. He's physical enough to play inside but still athletic and fast enough to do everything else. I'm hoping they are working him out at SAM to be what we hoped Cobbs would be in 2012.
Cobbs is possibly an even better athletic fit for this league than Jinkens, because he's also tall. He's physical, can handle playing inside, can run with receivers, can change directions, etc.
Unfortunately he plays with terrible leverage and has no idea what he's doing half the time. He's evidently injured so I don't know how he will fit into the equation in 2013. If nothing else, athletically this is the kind of guy Diaz should keep looking for.
A complete player. Has the physical and mental qualities necessary to be a star linebacker here. I would start him at Will and move him inside to Mike in the Dime packages.
Jackson is sort of the odd man out when Hicks returns. They played him at SAM a lot towards the end of the year with Jinkens staying inside at Will. Jinkens is the faster player and more natural fit at SAM but Jackson was not as good inside because he's not as quick to diagnose and fill on inside running plays.
Playing inside linebacker at Will or Mike requires a player that reads the run flow and gets downhill to where they need to be in an awful hurry. Jackson and Thompson have the suddenness but they don't always react quickly enough to make use of it.
That said, Jackson was very valuable in Dime packages last year. He plays in space well and is a solid blitzer. If nothing else, he'll provide great depth so that LB play doesn't go over a cliff again if someone's hurt.
All in all, there's a chance that our great suffering amidst the growing pains of 2012 will pay off in 2013 with a linebacker corp that can actually thrive and do damage. The main hangup is this: if the linebackers understand how to diagnose running plays quickly and understand how to play with leverage as Hot zone defenders in the blitz, they can unlock the physical attributes that made them four and five star recruits that everyone wanted.
Most all of these guys have tremendous athleticism or speed that will translate into negative plays, jarring hits, and really aggressive and stunning play once they know where to aim. After reviewing tape I actually have hope this might occur.
I'm sure Diaz is praying every night that it does.