Gator Football Spring Practice Week 1 Wrapup

March 30, 2009

The Offense

Florida is experimenting with a fast-paced, uptempo offense. It is partially as a result of seeing Kevin Wilson’s Oklahoma offense in the national title game and partially as a result of seeing Kevin Wilson’s Northwestern offense in 2001.

I took a look at pace earlier this offseason, and I projected that the Gators would have scored about 55 a game last year if they played at Oklahoma’s pace. Urban Meyer may or may not have seen a similar figure from his stats guys, but he seems most interested in the way that an uptempo offense disrupts defenses.

The other big difference is that Tim Tebow will be taking some snaps under center. Tebow says it’s happening because it’s the way Scot Loeffler is influencing the offense, while Meyer says it’s happening to get Tebow more comfortable with it since he’ll have to do that in the NFL. It’s not that one is wrong and one is right, since the offense has always been a team effort under Meyer.

Many have pointed out that packages with the quarterback under center existed in Meyer’s offense in 2005 and 2006 when Chris Leak was running the show. That is true, and the I-formation is also coming back if they can find a fullback.

Behind Tebow, redshirt sophomore QB John Brantley is looking sharp.

Receivers

The question on everyone’s mind comes down to this: who will replace Percy Harvin? Meyer said around national signing day that he sees incoming freshman Andre Debose in that role. So far, that appears likely because no one has stepped up to take control of that role so far. Deonte Thompson, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps are the other candidates for that position.

Carl Moore was the invisible man for a lot of last season, which was odd for someone touted as a five-star guy from junior college. He’s been looking a lot better this year, now that

David Nelson and Aaron Hernandez have also looked good catching passes. Justin Williams has been practicing with the first team offense along with Thompson and Nelson. Riley Cooper is playing baseball and is not participating in spring football practice.

Personally, I’m thinking that the 2008 receiving corps is not going to be the best analogue for the 2009 corps in terms of fitting guys into roles. To me right now, 2006 seems like a better comparison given the personnel and likely ball distribution. Having Nelson as Dallas Baker, Thompson as Bubba Caldwell, Debose as Harvin, Moore as Jemaille Cornelius and so on feels a little more right. We’ll see.

Running Backs and Offensive Line

With Rainey rehabbing from surgery and Demps running track, Emmanuel Moody is the only scholarship running back at practice. Fortunately, he’s been playing very well so far though the defense has been stuffing him in goal line scenarios.

A probable cause for that is the fact that the offensive line has not been great. Partially that is because both Pouncey brothers are sidelined with injury right now, and the only other returning starter (Carl Johnson) is at a new position.

The younger guys who haven’t played much haven’t stepped up a whole lot. Things will get better when the Pounceys come back, but they alone won’t solve all the problems. It took half the season for last year’s line to gel, but hopefully this year’s crew will work themselves out a little sooner.

Defense

The defense has been dominating so far, but Meyer says that’s “usually” the case at this early stage of spring practice. It makes sense considering the offense is working through a lot of issues with new schemes and personnel while the defense is enjoying complete continuity.

The defense won the first scrimmage.

Defensive Line

Things are great at defensive end. They are so good and so deep that redshirt freshman Earl Okine has been moved to the inside.

With Torrey Davis kicked off the team and John Brown deciding to transfer, depth is again an issue at defensive tackle. Even the vaunted 2006 line needed Ray McDonald to move from the outside to the inside for depth.

As it turns out, things at tackle have been fine so far. Jaye Howard is bigger than ever and looking like a solid backup to starters Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders. Okine has been adjusting well so far. Omar Hunter, the guy Meyer called the Tim Tebow of the 2008 recruiting class, is finally in shape, healthy, and contributing.

Linebackers and Secondary

Brandon Spikes is happy to be back, and the Gators are happy to have him. He will be the unquestioned leader of what should be one of the top defenses in the country. This position is one of the best and deepest on the team, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Spikes, Stamper, and Jones are the first teamers right now, while Doe, Lorenzo Edwards, and Lerentree McCray are the second teamers.

The secondary is very crowded, especially at safety. Starters Ahmad Black and Major Wright are back, and both are playing well. Fifth year senior Dorian Munroe, injured all of 2008, wants his starting role back. Will Hill has been making plays. Dee Finley is finally on campus, and he’s looking athletic. It’s crowded back there.

Not much has been reported about the corners, other than that Janoris Jenkins has been taking some reps as a punt returner thanks to Brandon James being out. Freshman Adrian Bushell intercepted Tebow as well, and that’s about it.

I would expect that the position will be just fine with Joe Haden and Jenkins locking things down as the starters. The depth at secondary is something any other team in the country would be envious of.

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How to Setup a Perfect Option Play

February 25, 2009

As unbelievable as it would have sounded in 1996, Florida has turned into one of the best option football teams in the country. The Gators use it about as effectively as anyone else, and it is a major part of the offense.

Since Florida doesn’t use the option as its primary offensive play like Nebraska used to or Navy currently does, it can be even more effective than normal if the Gators set it up properly. Of course, having devastating backfield speed helps it succeed as well.

Here I’ll show you how Florida set up an option play against LSU this past season to score a back breaking touchdown.

thesetup

This is the play prior to the option. TE Aaron Hernandez is lined up on the left side of the line, but the formation’s prominent feature is the bunch of receivers on the right. RB Chris Rainey is in the backfield to QB Tim Tebow’s left.

What ends up happening is a rather pedestrian hand off to Rainey who gets a rather pedestrian three yards. The receivers did a pretty good job of blocking for him, but the middle linebacker followed Rainey the whole way and made the stop.

The next play is from the right hash in practically the same formation.

theformation1

This time the running back is Jeff Demps, and he lines up on Tebow’s right. Otherwise, the formation is identical. It’s an unlikely proposition though that Florida would run the same play twice in a row, especially since the right side is now the short side of the field. Urban Meyer’s philosophy is to get players into open space, after all.

Anyway, LSU lines up in exactly the same defense and prepares to defend the formation exactly the same way. The Tigers are in a basic 4-3 defense with the safeties in cover 2. Each safety will move forward to provide support on his side.

Hernandez will peel off of the line immediately to block the outside linebacker. LT Phil Trautwein will go upfield to take on the middle linebacker. The two guards will go for the two defensive tackles, but C Mike Pouncey pulls away and shoots between the defensive end and left DT. His target is actually the left safety.

As is often done on option plays, the defensive end will not be blocked. He must decide to play the quarterback or running back, and if all goes according to plan for the offense, whoever he doesn’t go for will spring for a big gain.

thepitch

Here we can see Hernandez engaging the linebacker on the left, and he will drive him towards the sideline. Trautwein has already taken out the middle linebacker. Mike Pouncey can be seen running through the line to go take on the safety.

Right guard Maurkice Pouncey tried to cut block his defensive tackle by diving at his feet. After all, since the play is to the left, he doesn’t have to get much of a block. However, the tackle sidesteps the cut block and can be seen pursuing Tebow.

At this point, LSU would seem to have defeated the play because the tackle can go for Tebow and the end can go for Demps. The only problem with that is that the end doesn’t know it, and he stays locked on the quarterback.

Tebow pitches to Demps, and the running back uses his speed to go right by the defensive end. There’s plenty of open space ahead for him to run in.

thecutback

Now out in the open field, Demps is running towards the sideline. He had to swing wide of the DE, and that is also the direction the blockers are going in.

Demps is not content simply to head out of bounds for a big gain though. He knows he has excellent speed to get even more. So, he cuts back once he has cleared the DE and is behind the blocks. Hernandez has done a great job of keeping his man contained and Mike Pouncey is about to push the safety over.

In the upper right you can see a couple other LSU defenders coming over to try to help, but it is far too late at this point for them to be of assistance. Demps is too fast for that.

thefinal

The safety that Mike Pouncey blocked is in the bottom middle, getting back up to his feet after having been knocked over. All of the defensive linemen and linebackers who had been in pursuit can be seen in the bottom right as they slow down. They know they can’t catch up.

That leaves one man to beat: the other safety. Once he recognized that the play was not to his side, he made a beeline to the other and as you can see, he took an excellent angle.

Unfortunately for him, Demps turns on his afterburners at about the 15 yard line. The diminutive ball carrier also changes his angle to go more towards the corner to escape the oncoming defender. The safety finally catches up at the one yard line, just in time to give Demps a helpful shove in the back as he crosses the goal line.

Here’s the play in real time from both the normal camera angle and the blimp shot. Gary Danielson does a quick rundown of what I laid out here in depth. I like how instead of discussing angles at the end, he opts instead just to say “ZOOM!” If I wasn’t a Gator fan, I’d probably hate him by now.

This touchdown put Florida up 34-14 with a minute to go in the third quarter, effectively icing the game away for good.

Wrap Up

Two main factors helped make this play a success. One is the outstanding speed of Jeff Demps. A slower back would likely have been tackled by the defensive end at the cutback stage, as that window was very small. Plus, someone with less speed would definitely have been tackled short of the goal line by the second safety.

The second factor was the setup for the option with the previous play. That one made it appear that the bunched receivers were there to serve only as blockers, and by running behind them, it drew the defense’s attention like a magician’s beautiful assistant.

While they were blockers the first time, the second time they were only there to keep four extra defenders on that side. It opened up the rest of the field, and by having the quarterback be a threat to run, Florida created a numerical advantage on the left.

Most modern offensive football theory one way or another revolves around creating a numerical advantage. The option is one way to do that, and if you set it up correctly, it can be devastating.


Analyzing the Offense Against Arkansas

October 8, 2008

A reporter called it mundane at times. The head coach called it awful at times. “It” was the Florida offense against Arkansas.

A glance at the box score and news might lead you to think that “it” wasn’t that bad. You’d see 38 points scored on over 500 yards of offense, and two members of it earned All-SEC honors for the week. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Well, “it” didn’t pass the smell test for most of the first half, and it had a more difficult time getting into a true rhythm than it did even in the loss to Ole Miss. There was some sputtering, there were a lot of hankies on the field, but ultimately the game ended in a break through.

Florida’s Game Plan

For the first time all season, I could definitely tell that Florida had a well-defined game plan. Even against Tennessee, they of the squad that’s ranked 5th in the country in total defense, the offense kind of did whatever it wanted to almost aimlessly. It poked and prodded but never settled on something.

In this game against Arkansas, the objective was clear: use the run to set up the pass. I have a feeling that was always the plan, but in previous games there was a bent on finding out whether this is a “tough” Florida team or not. It’s something that Urban Meyer has done every year except last year (for whatever reason), and best as I can tell the main test is whether or not they can run up the middle.

There was still some gratuitous running up the middle, but for the most part it was part of a coherent offensive attack. They still tried to run microback Chris Rainey up the middle on 3rd-and-1 twice, something they did once last week, and it has yet to work any of the times.

However Tim Tebow brought back the self-play action, what the voice of the Gators Mic Hubert calls the “rocker step,” where he leans forward faking a run to set up passes. For some reason, that was mysteriously missing from the other games. Its return shows a conscious effort from the offensive staff to actually use the threat of running to set up passing.

Arkansas’ Game Plan

The Razorbacks’ strategy was not as cut-and-dried as Miami’s and Ole Miss’ blitz-heavy schemes. Arkansas did do some blitzing, but it was not overly successful and more often the Razorbacks left their linebackers up in pressure. They did not send them in quickly, but they didn’t drop them in coverage much either.

One new thing they did was a delayed blitz, where someone would wait a second before blitzing. That is something that no one else has tried on the Gators yet. They only did it twice; the first time Tebow was hit as he threw, resulting in an incompletion, and the second time was a short quick pass to Jeff Demps, not leaving enough time for the linebacker to get to Tebow first.

Arkansas clearly is challenged on that side of the ball, but for the first half they did well for their standards.

First Half

The Gators set the tone of the game with the first three plays. First was a triple option, second was a handoff to Percy Harvin up the middle, and the third was a self-play action pass by Tebow complete to Carl Moore over the middle. Just when it looked like another game of “are we tough?” nonsense, they shook things up.

Tebow didn’t start off at his best level. He only had two incompletions on the first two drives, one due to good coverage and one due to a bad throw, but he made two uncharacteristically bad decisions on read option plays. On one he should have pitched to Harvin, and the other he should have kept it instead of handing it off to Brandon James. I know making those reads quickly can’t be easy, but usually he’s better than that.

The second drive was the only three-and-out for the Gators on the day, with the improper handoff to James resulting in a six-yard loss on first down. On third down, Louis Murphy’s route was two yards from the line and he couldn’t shake tacklers once he caught it.

The third series was the one with all the penalties. It began with a pass interference call on Arkansas, but four of the next six snaps were flags on UF. One was an illegal formation penalty, something that has been called on Florida four times in the past two weeks. The coaches need to do something about that.

That was also the drive where Harvin rolled his ankle and was seen getting it taped on the sideline. It is fairly symbolic then that, after Arkansas RB Michael Smith’s fumbled punt reception and two more offensive line penalties, Demps ran 36 yards for a score. It was the first big contribution of several from guys who had been lost as part of the Tebow and Harvin show. Plus as the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley pointed out, it’s rare that you cap off a 16-yard drive with a 36-yard touchdown run.

The final drive of the first half began well, but three bad pass plays caused it to end in a punt. One was Tebow being hit as he threw from a delayed blitz, one was where Riley Cooper inexplicably stopped running on his crossing route, and the final one was a low throw by Tebow. The Gators were up 14-0, but penalties and bad execution prevented that score from being higher.

Second Half

The second half was one of the more productive halves Florida has had this year.

The first drive ultimately stalled out because of a sack, Arkansas’ only one of the game, but it didn’t exactly flow well. It started off great, with four effective plays among the first five, but spotty blocking from LG Carl Johnson, C Maurkice Pouney, and LT Phil Trautwein kept plays from maximizing their potential. They still did well enough to kick a field goal.

The second drive ended in an interception, a lazy throw that would have been complete if Tebow had put some arc on it. Plays were either effective or would have been with proper blocking. Aaron Hernandez couldn’t get through the line to make his block on the first play, Johnson missed one on the third play, RG Mike Pouncey missed one on the fifth play, and RT Jason Watkins missed a second level block on the eighth play.

The defense stopped the Razorbacks on the ensuing drive, making the third second half possession a chance to crush Arkansas’ hopes for good. Florida did that with five of the drive’s six plays being effective. Tebow was 4-4 with 76 yards, and the only play that didn’t work was a read option handoff that the defense played correctly. It was the perfect answer, and it put the game away for good.

The next drive was capped by Rainey’s 75-yard touchdown run on the fourth play, so there’s not much to analyze. It was another rough one for the offensive line though. Trautwein fell down while trying to block on the first play, a handoff left to Harvin, and the pulling RG Mike Pouncey couldn’t get there in time for backup. Mike would then let a guy go by him on 3rd-and-1, a barely successful Tebow smash play, in order to double team someone in the second level. Why he thought the second level mattered on a Tebow smash is beyond me.

The final drive was our first chance to see John Brantley at quarterback, and overall he looked good. He picked up a first down on 3rd-and-8 with a sharp pass to Carl Moore. His only incompletion was a pass too high, but it had to be high so as not to be batted down by a blitzer.

Overall

I suppose I kind of get why Meyer said it was the offensive line’s best game of the year penalties aside, because the guys definitely looked physical. They did manage to open some holes, and Florida had two 100-yard rushers for the first time since 1997. Neither of them were Tim Tebow, a remarkable occurrence in post-2006 Gator football.

You knew there were going to be some issues with the top three options at left guard out hurt and a converted tackle playing the spot. Still, you can read the second half synopsis above. Florida could have had even more success without guys missing blocks and without the parade on penalties in the first half. Of course, no one is perfect.

I don’t expect to see a ton of penalties from the line against LSU, just as we didn’t see the Ole Miss game’s fumble flurry return. We’ll see a couple, but nothing like what we saw last Saturday. We know LG Marcus Gilbert will be back, though he didn’t seem like a huge upgrade over Johnson when you compare the Arkansas game to the Miami and Ole Miss games. Even if starting LG Jim Tartt tries to go he won’t play the whole game.

What was big was Rainey and Demps getting to remind Meyer about how good they are in space. It almost seemed as though he forgot about them for a little bit there. To be clear though, they must get into space: Rainey and Demps averaged 3.1 and 3.8 yards per carry when you subtract out their 35+ yard carries. They cannot live on running up the middle in a crowd, something that should be the domain of Tebow, Harvin, and Kestahn Moore exclusively against LSU’s fearsome defensive line.

With the return of good special teams play as well as a budding offensive identity, Florida fans can feel better about this upcoming game against LSU than they did after the Ole Miss loss. Things are still not perfect, and the defense’s regression of the past two weeks is a whole other story, but the point-scoring faculties are on their way up.


Gators Hold Sunday Night Practice

September 29, 2008

Florida doesn’t usually practice on Sundays. The Gators don’t usually fumble five times, drop four passes, and allow 86-yard touchdown passes either.

Urban Meyer called practice for an hour and a half last night, apparently to make a point about ball security. That time will have to come out of another day’s usual practice because of NCAA rules.

Meyer is a big advocate of not fumbling, as most coaches are, and he usually benches guys for putting it on the ground. The only problem with that was that three fumbles came from Percy Harvin, one from Aaron Hernandez, and another on a (possibly fake) handoff between Tim Tebow and Brandon James. Those aren’t really benchable guys.

It makes sense because Arkansas has been so bad this season, all the Gators really have to do is play a fundamentally sound game and the talent disparity will overwhelm them. The sloppy play has to stop.


Paging Joe Haden…

September 13, 2008

Hey Joe, Georgia can’t deal with the corner blitz. Also Aaron, they are having some real issues with covering the tight end too. Food for thought.

Great effort by South Carolina, even though Georgia looked out of sync. Then again, a lot of the out of sync problems were due to South Carolina’s defense.

My Michigan pick would have been better without all those fumbles. Thanks a lot, Wolverines. Also, NBC needs a rain shield for its ambiance microphone.

It was ugly, but VT got the win. I have a feeling that’ll be the summary for all of their wins this season.

Until after the Trobuckalypse, I say farewell.


Hernandez Probably Wasn’t Suspended Against Hawai’i

September 2, 2008

Starting TE Aaron Hernandez missed the game against Hawai’i, and the only “explanation” Urban Meyer gave was that he wasn’t ready to play. Over and over he’s assured everyone that when #81 is ready, he’ll play.

Getting information about suspensions and injuries out of Meyer is often harder than getting information about the unreleased new line of iPods out of Apple. He likes to handle discipline issues behind closed doors and generally would rather not give opposing coaches hints about injuries.

Meyer has been unusually glib about his banged up players, saying Monday that Harvin and Spikes are probable and that Jim Tartt is questionable for Saturday’s contest with Miami. Perhaps for that reason, many people have speculated that Hernandez missed the Hawai’i game due to an undisclosed suspension.

I didn’t think it was because of an arrest. By now, I’m sure every major press outlet in the state has been poring over recent arrest records in Gainesville and Alachua County searching for his name. It would have had to be something like slacking in practice, missing class, or a variety of other no-nos that aren’t illegal but are generally frowned upon by college coaches.

Turns out, it may not have been a suspension like everyone assumed. Someone at the Orlando Sentinel got in contact with Hernandez’s high school coach, and he said that Hernandez’s family told him that Aaron was held out because of a nagging injury of some sort. With other players being shelved for that reason, it makes sense.

Why would Meyer be all hush-hush about a relatively low-profile player like Hernandez but talk all day about his stars’ injury status? I don’t know. The guy puzzles me from time to time. The good news is that it’s not a character issue, and hopefully the nagging will go away. Having big #81 in the game creates many enticing mismatches all over the field.

UPDATE

Hernandez is a “full go” for Saturday, and as a bonus, Harvin thinks he’ll be ready too though he’s at “not full go.” In normal terms, that still means “probable.”


GameDay from Gainesville, Injury Report

September 1, 2008

I was out of town this weekend visiting family and friends as well as going to the game. In fact, I’m still on the road as I am writing this in Terminal A of the Tampa airport. I am still catching up on all the weekend’s action and won’t get to see the Tennessee-UCLA game tonight. Thank goodness I built a DVR.

Anyway, ESPN’s College GameDay will be in Gainesville this weekend. I’m guessing they chose to come because:

  1. It sounds like a big matchup (even though the game won’t live up to it),
  2. Florida hasn’t defeated Miami since the Reagan administration, so they get to dig into their video archives,
  3. Both UF and UM scored over 50 points this weekend, and
  4. It’s a relatively weak slate of games this Saturday, with Cincinnati at Oklahoma and Oregon State at Penn State being really the only others with any sizzle to them at all.

Also, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes are “probable” for Saturday’s game according to Urban Meyer. Jim Tartt, who has battled a bum shoulder his entire time at UF, might also get to play. Aaron Hernandez, who was held out Saturday for undisclosed reasons, could also play if the coaches decide to let him.

Think about that for a second. Florida beat Hawai’i 56-10 on basically three quarters of effort with their top receiver, linebacker, offensive guard, and tight end out. It’s safe to say depth has returned in Gainesville.