Thanks to some award winning Barking Carnival connections I've been able to see a few of the closed practices. There is little to report since everything worth watching goes on inside the bubble, and you can't get in there unless you're wearing a jersey or have a building on campus named after you.
Even so, there are patterns emerging.
Defending the spread is fundamentally an exercise in resource management. Defenses can't defend everything at once, so on any given play the coaches have to decide what they want to defend and what they want to leave open. Spread offenses take advantage of this by being able to attack everything, so anything you leave exposed will get a roofie dropped in it. You generally get one of two strategies: either man up and rely on your players, or take away one thing and hope the offense doesn't do other things well enough to beat you. The problem with the former is that there are maybe 5 teams in the country that have enough talent to play football at all 11 positions, and nobody has the talent to do that against a very good team (see: USC vs. Texas). The latter's problem is that consistently taking away one thing tells the offense exactly what they have to do and takes all the guesswork out of the play (see: UF vs. OSU).
There is no magic pill. Spread offenses are the Mexican immigrants of college football, they stay because they work. But you can fight fire with fire.
The offense works because they can keep you guessing. When you're unsure, you're slower. Offenses at the college level and below already have the advantage here. It's harder to defend than attack, and the lower level (i.e. slower) you are the bigger the field gets, so it's important to minimize the disparity as much as possible. Don't try to out-execute a spread team, because it rearry won't work.
You've got to beat them where they beat you -- make them play football.
Stop The Run
When he was hired, Gene Chizik pulled a Sean Hannity and proudly announced how we'd stay in our base and dictate the offense because we're Texas and doggone it we're the biggest and the bestest and no one tells us what to do.
For whatever reason the problems didn't manifest on '05. The next two years were 13 straight reenactments of the Sisters scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Marcus Griffin played Andy. Chizik wasn't totally wrong, he just misunderstood the entire concept of what a base is. It's not three linebackers, it's two safeties . . . as in 2 deep.
If you want to stay in your base, you can still run a nickel, dime, or Sacajewea dollar. The important part is that you keep two safeties back because of the options the alignment affords you. With a safety down there are really only two coverages you can run: man or cover 3. Both have the same weaknesses so offenses generally know ahead of time where they are going with the ball. The important thing is stopping the run without needing your safeties.
Muschamp's work with the LBs included a drill focusing on beating blocks and staying strong at the point of attack, something we have never seen at Texas under Mack. Instead of trying to run around the blocker you want to get low, hit him harder than he hits you, and keep your playside shoulder and arm free. If everyone does that the RB has no place to go. It's like trying to pass a fat midwestern family on the sidewalk.
The second part of stopping the run is to get everyone involved, but without compromising anything. We've already seen what happens when safeties get too aggressive post-snap and fall for halfback passes every weekend. During a drill designed to teach proper reaction to a pitch, Duane Akina stood in for a blocker at TE, and on one occasion faked the block and jogged right past Blake Gideon for a long, meaningless gain.
The point he made to them should not be lost. The secondary should always play pass first, and take care of their shit before coming up on the run. If it means the play gets 2-4 yards then so be it, just don't get repeatedly Griffined. If you're going to gamble on the run then you had better be damn sure it's going to be a run.
You've seen it a thousand times by now. The offense lines up, gets in their stance, then every single member breaks it and turns to the QB for the call. Sometimes they'll all look over to the sideline to coach calling the play.
Too many defenses won't adjust. Why would you surrender such a huge advantage to the offense every play? The hardest thing about playing QB is quickly making sense of the mess in front of you. Remove that and suddenly that mediocre QB is winning Heismans.
There are two main ways to disguise your coverage, and neither one is overly complicated or anything anybody doesn't already know. The main thing is to actually do them, and it looks like we will. The first method is just to line up the same way every time but play a lot of different things out of it, making the QB figure it out after the snap. The other way is to roll to another look at the last second to disguise where you want your strength to be. You can and should do both as neither one is difficult, and they aren't mutually exclusive. If you want an 8 man front, do it, but run your safety up late. There is no need to plant him 6 yards off the ball and announce where the opening in the defense is going to be.
The first drill I saw them running last Sunday was exactly this. They spent the entire afternoon in a basic cover 2 shell, but they were bringing safeties down and running cover 3 as discreetly as possible. They were just basic assignment drills but it points to a larger philosophy. Defenders don't have to spend the entire play within a 10 yard box. You can play a deep corner from 6 yards off the receiver. Why anybody lines up 13 yards off the ball this day in age is a mystery, but we saw plenty of it last year.
If you can stop the run with 6 or 7 and allow your safeties to stay back, you can play the same game the offense does. The last 3 years have seen us hand the offense unnecessary advantages. We can only hope that the days of 80% completion rates from 55% type QBs have come to a end.
In high school you learn to drop to a spot and defend whoever comes through your area. This works for night security guards at a strip mall in Tulsa, it does not work for college defenses.
The best zone defenses are physical and still cover like they are playing man. This is what we've seen from Muschamp in the past so it's no surprise we are seeing it here. It gets tough to tell what coverage we're in sometimes because of how we play in practice. If I can't tell from the sideline then the QB is going to have problems, too. Against a team like Tech that adjusts their routes based on man vs. zone it'll keep them guessing throughout since we aren't just dropping back and giving it away instantly.
The concept isn't complicated. Redirect the first guy that runs through you, then clamp down on the second guy. Under Chizik we had players who couldn't possibly have covered their assignment (Michael Griffin vs. Anthony Gonzalez), and under Akina we just the same thing but worse because of the spot drops. It's important to cover receivers, not grass.
In another controversial change from last season, we'll be playing DBs actually capable of covering people. Deon Beasley is probably just under Huff and right with Rob Babers as far as pure cover ability, and he's shown he can be more dynamic than Babers ever was. Earl Thomas and Ben Wells can both cover (once Wells fills in whatever gap is letting Gideon start over him, watch out), and depending on who is opposite Beasley at any given time, we might have 4 guys who can all play on an island.
Chykie Brown is an NFL talent, but apparently has a learning disorder, or the short term memory of Guy Pierce in Memento. Ryan Palmer is adequate but will stick out like a sore thumb with the rest of the guys. Curtis Brown is an athletic freak but hasn't seen much action, and Aaron Williams is a future superstar who is 18 years old. The coaches are high on our group of safeties, so we'll only need one of these CBs to round out and play well since Earl Thomas apparently has the slot/nickel position locked up.
Palmer gives us a 50/50 shot on passes in his direction so if either C. Brown or C. Brown beats him out we are in really good shape.
Spread offenses like to gloat that they can isolate you in space. Well guess what fuckers, that street runs two ways, and it runs through the ghetto. Yeah we have to cover, but now you have to deal with Teh Motherflippin' Kindle in space, which is the football equivalent of brushing your teeth then eating an orange.
When you have an athletic freak who is bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else, you don't sit the guy because he doesn't know where to stand in coverage. How do you take advantage of raw talent? Easy, send him at the QB. Your other option is to make sure he rots on the bench so he never gets better while playing a guy who maxed his potential in 11th grade and won't ever be able to do the job. It's up to you, really.
We're planning to use Kindle as the bludgeon to strike fear into opposing QBs. Sometimes it'll be as a DE, but in our 3 man line packages he can be moved around and blitzed from different places. Making the defense find him on every down means that much mental energy is used on something other than the play.
Against teams like Tech and Missouri who use very wide splits, you could even use him, functionally, as a DT. There is so much room that Kindle will be able to go left or right and be a pass rusher right up the gut (Barking Carnival not responsible for severe reoccurance of mugging-related PTSD).
The fact that he is a LB and not a DE means we can pick out the weakest OL and let him tango with Sergio. Hopefully he carries a rose in his mouth while he plays. That is how you dictate an offense and make them adjust to you. It is not matching up a linebacker on Danny Amendola.