VIP Coaches Corner: The Xs and Os

It’s finally here: Southestern Conference football. In the South we don’t need calendars this time of year. There is a quality of light, a scent in their air that lets us feel an approaching Saturday in our stomachs. Fall means a long string of tailgates punctuated by the work week, giving us just enough time to savor the next pageant, or heal from a tough loss. People say that football is a religion in the South. I can see what they mean and now it’s time for the real thing. The promenades are done. The tune-ups are nothing but a footnote. It’s Tennessee game day.

(Editor’s Note – Our Coaches Corners are traditionally reserved for VIP members as an extra membership benefit as promised from day one, but today we are opening it to all to give you a glimpse of the kind of deep analysis that you’ve been looking for. Enjoy!)

Here at Gator Country, we’re always looking for new ways to help fans get into the thick of the season and to deepen their love for and appreciation of the spectacle of Southern football. In that spirit, we’re beginning this week a series of features on how the game is played from the perspective of the sidelines, the film rooms, the chalk talks, and the press box. We’re going to take you on a tour each week of the systems and schemes, the personalities and the lore of the game from the perspective of those who teach it and play it. With that introduction, let’s take a sideline look at the Tennessee Volunteers versus the Florida Gators.

While we haven’t learned everything we’re going to about these two teams, a few things can be gleaned from the first couple of weeks of football. This isn’t the Vols of last year, nor is it the Gators of a year ago. Tennessee is coming in off a hard-fought loss to Cal, a team just as explosive at the wideout position as the Gators and you can still see the smoke rising from a torched UT secondary.

UT’s losses from a year ago are substantial, and their game plan will have to adjust accordingly. No longer is there a stable of tough, fast receivers who can get the Vols those yards after the catch that allow a ball control offense thrive. What we see there this year is inexperience and potential but not the game changing threat of Meacham, et al. Mostly gone are the days of the long ball under a Cutcliffe tutored Peyton Manning.

The Vols passing attack has shortened, spread out, and is looking a bit like a sort of spread run n’ shoot. A disciple of the genuine West Coast offense (not the mislabeled Walsh system), Cutcliffe has had to alter is offense significantly and it has evolved from a big play machine to one that specializes in eating up clock. Some of that evolution is due to the strengths and limitations of Erik Ainge, and some due to what the Vols have to do to win games with a continually depleting defense. One thing the Vols still do well is run the football. One thing they don’t do well anymore is cover wideouts and tackle in the secondary and this is the angle Dan Mullen will take in attacking them.

Let’s start on defense with Tennessee:

On the exterior the Vols are going to want to keep Florida’s playmakers in front of them. Straightforward, right? But then what about the threat of a Tebow designed run, or those Gator wide receivers carrying the ball? Ordinarily to provide run support a team is going to want to play a Cover One in the secondary and commit a strong safety to run support, including run blitzes. The UT defense cannot stay in Cover One, although they will bait teams into audibling to fly routes using a disguised Cover Three where the strong safety is up to the boundary of the middle zone and the quarterback has to make a guess whether he will rush or hang back.

Due to Tebow’s presence and the effectiveness of the Gators running attack (as much as we deride it, it has shown steady reliability), you don’t expect UT to utilize +2 coverages except in obvious passing downs. John Chavis is a believer in the run blitz to provide some disruption of running lanes, so expect UT’s best LB, Jerod Mayo to be given the green light to run blitz on his keys. This will create a check down for Tebow to Cornelius Ingram in the vacated area on comeback routes. UT will attempt to utilize Mayo as a roving LB in much the same way that Auburn utilized Trey Blackmon last year in Florida’s lone loss. Blackmon was a force blitzing from his linebacker spot.

UT’s defensive line is stout against the run, and J.T. Mapu comes off blocks well, but they lack that fierce middle pass rush, much like the Gators do this season. Look for UT to try to tie up blockers and rely on the strength of the defense, the veteran linebacking corps including Rico McCoy, to provide pocket pressure and keep Tebow from getting in a rhythm. Their other defensive tackles, Deomonte Bolden and Dan Williams have not come on as they would have wished, though Williams is showing signs.

Still, UT will be tough against the run. Like the Gators, they are well coached and come off blocks laterally very quickly, even if they lack that interior quickness to push the pocket back and interfere with throwing lanes. With an interior offensive line for Florida of Drew Miller, Maurkice Pouncey, and Jim Tartt, do not expect much pocket pressure from the interior except on blitzes. Florida has shown it is occasionally susceptible to due to blocking hiccups by its running backs, aside from Moore, who has been mostly effective.

On the outside, UT’s defensive ends are solid, adequate. But the dearth of pressure and the high tackle numbers by the Vols defensive line tells us that they will likely be pinching down and scraping the line to take away Florida’s middle ISOs, and zone counters, and to play good containment on the flanks where Tebow has show the ability to get to the corner quicker than most suspect at his size.

The Vols have seen the film of number 15, and you don’t want to provide support against him it at the expense of single coverage in the deep zones against a Percy Harvin or a Riley Cooper. Additionally, UT is going to want to get a body or two on Ingram, and while I suspect that they’d prefer to run a 4-3 Cover Two man under, this gets your corners’ backs turned toward Tebow. In Cover Two your run support is back guarding the deep out and skinny post. Nor do the Volunteers have the cornerbacks to play up on Florida’s deep threats. A Cover Three will allow them to play zone under and not get abused by our slippery wideouts, while maintaining deep coverage. A Cover Two (while playing an 8-man front, which I think they’d ordinarily want to do) pretty much commits you to man under coverage and that spells trouble for UT in the long run-for wobbly throws and all, Tebow launches the deep ball with accuracy.

Tennessee will expect Harvin to see more touches than he has in the first two games, especially now that Bubba Caldwell has been sidelined with an MCL sprain. They may attempt bracket coverage on him, but if they have film from the first two games, they’ll conclude that this is a real risk of single coverage on lesser known kids who can get behind you in a hurry, as well as little run support. UT’s secondary doesn’t have a reputation as the fleetest afoot, and their self-scouting has shown them this. UF, despite the media fawning over Cal’s WRs, has a receiving corps every bit as fleet as Cal’s, even absent the veteran Caldwell.

On defense for the Gators, we will likely employ our familiar Cover Three type of defensive backfield scheme. Cover Three schemes are ordinarily used to defend against passes, mainly those towards the deep middle of the field. The return of Markihe Anderson and a resurgence by Kyle Jackson are wanted here, though I expect we will see more and more of Major Wright and Dorian Monroe. The first two games of this season demonstrated that we are vulnerable in the middle zones. Nevertheless, our Cover Three is a scheme we have some experience in, as it was our mainstay coverage last year with game-changer Reggie Nelson taking away that middle zone. His absence makes this scheme less effective, but it is still the one we know the best, and shores up our inexperienced secondary by putting a lot of bodies within distance of the middle zone without sacrificing a player in a position to apply umbrella coverage up-top.

If Anderson plays, you may see some split coverages with zone on the playmaker and man on the secondary options in the route scheme. If Anderson is playing man up, then look for hard bumps to throw off the timing for UT’s secondary route options. Look for UF to try to play UT’s offensive line straight up, using a bit of a narrower gap in its defensive tackle alignment. We will end-tackle curl to try to release our playmakers up the middle. We have shown susceptibility to poor backside contain when we slant, and I’m expecting us to avoid slants unless our blitz package is not having the desired effect. Will UF’s defensive ends come to play? Will our passing situation substitution to an all defensive end front have the quickness and power to disrupt Ainge? Can we disguise coverages adequately from a base Cover Three look?

The disadvantage of UF’s Cover Three scheme is that it is vulnerable to short, timed passes to the outside due to the hard drop of both cornerbacks. The Gators will give this route up throughout the game, especially sitting on a lead. This puts pressure on the outside linebackers to get into their drop quickly. UF has very speedy outside linebackers so expect their spacing to drift to the hashes a bit, trusting the middle to Brandon Spikes and the defensive tackles to come off blocks laterally. This makes us especially vulnerable to screens, particularly on obvious passing downs where we’ll play our heavier Fox ends and three techniques across the line. Another disadvantage of Cover Three schemes is they are relatively easy to diagnose by opposing quarterbacks. Because of this teams will often employ slight wrinkles in their coverage to confuse offenses.

Cover Three also minimizes the coverage seams that are so vulnerable to the post and skinny post, a favorite route of Cutcliffe. Though we’ve heard a constant mantra on how the Vols intend to play a possession game (and no doubt there is a lot of truth to this notion), don’t take that as an inflexible policy just because it’s common sense. The Gators have too much on film from games one and two to not tantalize Cutcliffe into taking a few shots downfield, and he always does, just as a matter of course.

In their coaching sessions they have likely talked about two things: the deep threat from our receivers and our red zone efficiency. They are anticipating that they will only slow UF’s offense down, even in the optimistic case. Therefore, look for some aggressiveness in anticipation of having to play from behind due to special teams for UF giving the Gators a short field. Umbrella coverage is not going to keep UF out of the end zone. What it will do is prevent UT from being three touchdowns below sea level before the color guys have gotten their first cup of coffee. Expect UT to some extent to come out of its shell and play as if from behind on occasion, especially if UF goes up by more than seven at any point.

One must also factor in something not often seen in this rivalry. UT is coming in off of a nationally televised loss in which they looked outmanned. Two losses will just about end any post season aspirations they maintain for being in the BCS mix. In my opinion, this game is make or break for UT’s season. Their motivation cannot be questioned. Further, they are somewhat more seasoned than UF, having been in a tough road battle with a good opponent. They’ve won in The Swamp in recent memory. UT will approach this game with confidence and a sense of urgency. Thus the conventional wisdom about getting into a time of possession battle with UF may not completely hold.

Seem counter-intuitive? One thing must be remembered about a ball control game plan: it only really works if the other offense is either equally or less productive than your own. If this condition is not met, then ball control simply limits your own scoring opportunities, and my crystal ball tells me UT will need all the scoring opportunities it can get. Mitigating this tendency, though, is the lack of difference-making speed and route running experience at the flanker positions. While the Vols are not without talent here, they don’t have Robert Meacham, et al. any longer. Unless a WR surprises, don’t expect much more than limited success from this stratagem. Expect Cutcliffe to dust off some of his Air Coryell legacy by taking exploratory shots at the middle and deep zones, especially layered routes on the coverage seams designed to isolate Kyle Jackson, who’s athletic but prone to misjudgments. Still, Florida’s Cover Three and the relative lack of playmaking ability at the wideout spot for UT will consign them to grinding it out with an excellent stable of backs led this week by Arian Foster and Lamarcus Coker.

UT’s offensive line is usually a strength, but I feel is lacking that overwhelming power of previous years. To be sure, Chris Scott and Eric Young are good ones. They will be running UT/Cutcliffe staples, the tackle trap and both the 32 counter and the counter trey. Look for a steady diet of Foster and Coker to try and wear out the relatively thin and light Florida front. Further, look for the play action to freeze the UF linebackers to free up some space in the near zones to the hashes and the middle zone opposite the third defensive back.

In the running game, their hope is to pin in UF’s ends on the back side to free up counters and bootlegs, especially targeting Jermaine Cunningham who is lighter than you want and showed some containment issues against Troy. UT will try to take on Derrick Harvey mano a mano, but in the end will have to chip and double him to take him out of the game, and it is at this point I expect UF to have some pass rushing success. UF will substitute liberally on the defensive line, especially at the defensive end spot, and get snaps for its emerging playmakers Lawrence Marsh, Torrey Davis, Carlos Dunlap, Duke Lemmens, and Justin Trattou. Against a Cover Three, UT can make a living off of square outs, digs, and drag routes using their excellent tight end Chris Brown, who leads the team in catches. Third in catches was Foster, so expect the check down routes to be used repeatedly.

On offense, the Gators look to make UT pick which threat it will devote its resources to. Given UT’s relative disadvantage in quick strike capability (demonstrated against Cal), UF may look to avoid a time of possession, last team with the ball wins type of game. Although UF feels they need to protect their defense somewhat, I’m not convinced that they will do so immediately. With a fresh defense in the early stages of the game, expect UF to try to take some shots downfield and force UT out of it’s game plan. UT does not have enough coverage resources to keep UF consistently covered up, especially deep, and we’ll call plays early to make them choose between giving up 7-10 yards to Tebow bootlegs, middle ISOs and option rollouts, and giving up the deep play to Harvin et al. in single coverage.

If UF goes up by more than 10, it can start playing defense downhill, and the offense can look to move the chains. Of note will be the role Cornelius Ingram plays. UF will likely use him to help draw linebackers into coverage and get them backpedaling, thus negating their ability to fade to the hashes and play wide to protect the option. I am interested to see if the full role for H-Back motion will be implemented. We saw some in games one and two, hinting that a more Utah style role for the H-Back may be in the offing. With Ingram clearing out the linebackers, and UF’s three fast wideouts flying upfield into middle zone seams, look for the option to be somewhat successful, and for their to be backside space for Moore and Fayson on the Zone counter. Also look for clear-out routes run by Ingram to make UT choose between him setting up in the middle zone and the drag route by Harvin. If Tebow can show the ability to tuck it and take what the defense gives him when UT occasionally drops eight into coverage, it will draw up some of the coverage and this could end up being a runaway. UTs secondary is somewhat depleted, and vulnerable to accurate middle and deep zone pasing.

In the final analysis, the history of the UT-UF game is one of close wins. While this game has the POTENTIAL to be a runaway for UF, I’m going to say that it’s close like rest, with UF pulling away somewhat at the end. Look for special teams play to give UF an advantage early in field position. A short field for UF on several early series will decide the game, along with UT’s inability to get pressure on Tebow (who will roll out quite frequently) compared with Florida’s ability to occasionally rattle Ainge. Look for a couple of players to emerge, as has been the case in the past. My pick is Carlos Dunlap and Jarred Fayson for the Gators.