Percy Harvin’s Signature Play: The Counter

November 17, 2008

The counter play is a general term for a misdirection running play where everything appears geared to having the ball carrier go in one direction, but he ends up running the other direction. In other words, the runner goes counter to the expected direction.

It is a play that Percy Harvin is absolutely lethal on. Both his first quarter and third quarter touchdown runs against South Carolina came on the brand of counter play that Urban Meyer likes to use. I will diagram the latter since it was longer, but the other would have been a touchdown from any distance away from the end zone as well.

The Third Quarter Run

Here is the formation:


Florida begins in a three-wide set with Kestahn Moore as a running back next to Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez lined up as an H-back behind RT Jason Watkins. Louis Murphy is wide to the right, Riley Cooper is wide to the left, and Harvin is in the slot.

Here you can see Tebow signaling to Harvin to go in motion. Harvin will come in close on the other side of Tebow to create a symmetrical two-back set.

The South Carolina defense begins in a nickel set, named as such because there are five defensive backs. The defense recognizes that this will probably be a running play with Harvin moving to the backfield, so the corner that was on Harvin slides behind the linebackers to add another layer of run protection. One of the safeties moves up by the linebackers to create a de facto 3-4 set.

Here is what will happen once the ball is snapped:


This is a bit busy, so let’s take it one piece at a time.

Four of the five offensive linemen will block to the right. Moore will come out of the backfield to the right as well. When Harvin takes the hand off, his first couple steps will be to the right. This is the setup, preparing the misdirection of the counter.

RG Mike Pouncey is a pulling guard on this play, called that because instead of going straight ahead, he will pull away from the rest of the line and run around back of it. He will pick up the blitzing outside linebacker on that side. Hernandez will also come around in that direction and shoot between Pouncey and LT Phil Trautwein like a blocking fullback. Harvin, after faking to the right, will cut back to the left and follow Hernandez through the hole.

Something that I didn’t diagram above because it would have made everything too messy is that after the handoff, Tebow rolls right and fakes a throw to Murphy to give the defense one more thing to think about. Murphy will run down field to block, and Cooper at the top will battle his covering cornerback.


The actual outside linebacker on the left went in after Tebow’s fake. The middle linebacker No. 40 you see there initially went forward to pick up Moore coming out of the backfield, but when he recognized that Moore did not have the ball, he turned around to go after Harvin. The safety who had come up to become the fourth linebacker also got frozen by Moore’s fake run, and he also reversed course to go for Harvin. Both were too late though; Harvin is too fast for either to catch him.

Harvin’s original covering cornerback was Hernandez’s blocking target, but the corner began running back up the field before Hernandez could get a clean block. It didn’t matter though; Hernandez got enough of him to slow him up, and that’s all Harvin needed.

Cooper has the next important block, and it’s no surprise he’s up there as he has become Florida’s best blocker among the receivers. The corner will eventually release from the block, but once again, he was slowed up enough for Harvin to speed past him. The other safety (not pictured) will come in to try to make a play shortly after this frame, but he underestimates Harvin’s speed and takes the wrong angle.

Harvin splits that corner and the safety, and his raw speed helps him pull away. Here’s the video of both the first quarter run and the third quarter run, and you will see the same thing in both: a fake to the right and run to the left.

That Looks Awfully Familiar…

If you’re thinking to yourself that those runs looked familiar, then you are right. Let me paint the scene.

It’s the 2006 SEC Championship Game. Florida led 17-7 at halftime, but a mostly disastrous third quarter allowed Arkansas back in the game. The Razorbacks took a 21-17 lead, but a muffed punt by Reggie Fish that the Gators recovered gave them a 24-21 lead.

It was still close, and Arkansas still had a slight edge of momentum. That is, until Percy Harvin ran a counter play.


Here we see more of a spread formation. Jemalle Cornelius is at the top, with Bubba Caldwell next to him. Dallas Baker is the tall receiver at the bottom, with Harvin inside of him. FB Billy Latsko is lined up in the H-back position that Hernandez was in above.

Harvin goes in motion towards Chris Leak, and the linebacker who had been on him also slides back behind the other linebackers. It’s the same move we saw the South Carolina cornerback make. This time though, Harvin does not come to a stop, but instead he slows down and his shoulders are still parallel to the sideline when the ball is snapped.


As with last time it’s a bit busy, but again let’s take it a piece at a time.

The play is going the opposite direction as before, so four of the five offensive linemen block to the left. LG Jim Tartt pulls this time, and he takes on the right defensive end. Latsko will come around and pick up the middle linebacker who is following the DE.

Harvin takes the handoff facing the left sideline, so his original covering linebacker will continue in that direction. I didn’t diagram the quarterback again this time to keep the messiness down, but Leak will run to the left as though he had the ball after handing it off. In response, the outside linebacker on the left will crash the left side of the line as you would expect him to.

After taking the hand off though, Harvin catches the defense off guard by immediately turning around and running between Tartt and Latsko. Upon seeing this, Harvin’s linebacker will turn on a dime and head the other way.

Let’s go to the wide shot for the final part.


Harvin is now in the open field, and that’s always a bad thing for opponents. Only two players have a chance to get him now: Harvin’s linebacker and the sole safety on the play.

The linebacker is trying to make up for being fooled, so he is slightly off balance and running as hard as he can towards Harvin. The safety who is playing center field apparently doesn’t think his teammate can make the tackle, so he also runs as hard as he can towards Harvin’s projected running path instead of hanging back to be the last line of defense.

In other words, both guys overpursue on the play. Harvin sees this happening, so he cuts it back to the left and sails down the field for an easy score. Here is the play in real time:

On the first play after a punt, Harvin takes it to the house to give Florida a 31-21 lead and the momentum back. Each team would tack on another score for the final margin of 38-28.

In Final

Urban Meyer will tell anyone willing to listen that Percy Harvin has the best first step in college football. These plays make it easy to see why.

The 2006 edition of the play also illustrates one of the reasons why Meyer, a guy who loves running it up the middle as much as anyone, will spread the field often. By having two receivers at the top, Arkansas was forced to cover them both with corners. That meant there was only one safety instead of two for Harvin to have to deal with. Removing defenders from the middle was the goal, and it worked.

Chris Fowler’s column last week went over how Florida has become a lot more of a power team instead of a spread team this year. That was reflected in 2008’s play above where there were three guys in the backfield instead of two. However, Kestahn Moore coming out wide to the right from the backfield drew both a linebacker and a safety, effectively accomplishing the same goal.

Harvin has had many highlight reel plays in his time at Florida. No play appears more frequently on it than the counter.


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.


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.

The Arkansas Game Summed Up in a Picture

October 4, 2008

The Gators pulled away late to put some lipstick on this pig of a game, but it was still a frustrating thing to watch. The biggest difference from last week was that Arkansas was a hopelessly overmatched opponent instead of a talented and hungry squad looking for a signature win.

I’m sure another look at it will make it seem not so bad and the game never really was in doubt, but this did not feel how it should have felt. They definitely missed Moody badly.

More to come tomorrow.

Last Minute News and Notes

October 4, 2008

A few tidbits from around the conference over at Team Speed Kills, including Tennessee’s quarterback change, Vanderbilt’s hosting of GameDay, Auburn’s offense, and Florida’s defense.

Also in honor of the game against Arkansas, I give you Clint Stoerner endorsing what must be HGH-laced dairy products:

If you had this stuff as a kid, you’d be 4 inches taller? Sounds fishy to me. Also, notice how tightly he’s grasping those glasses at the end? That couldn’t be a subconscious consequence of something in his history, could it? Nah.

James Honored by SEC Again

September 23, 2008

For the second time in three games, Brandon James is your SEC Special Teams Player of the Week. He also garnered the honor for his fine work against Hawai’i. Something tells me that this won’t be the last time he gets that title in 2008.

That also continues the Gators’ streak of having an individual get conference player of the week honors. Jermaine Cunningham was the Defensive Player of the Week after the Miami game. Hopefully, this week extends the streak and completes the trifecta with someone getting offensive player of the week. Ole Miss’ defense has not exactly been dominant so far, and it would go a long way to get people to quit complaining so much about the offense.

Also, the Arkansas game has been picked up by Raycom. As is custom, it will be at 12:30. The game is October 4 in Fayetteville and not in the Razorbacks’ occasional home in Little Rock.

SEC Power Poll Ballot, Week 2

September 9, 2008

1. Georgia

I have a few quibbles about their performance, but really they’re nothing more than nitpicks. CMU got more pressure than I thought it would, which happens to be “any at all,” and the defense lost focus early in the second half. This game would have been closer for longer if Dan LeFevour actually ran the ball before the final drive of the second quarter.

They played like they should have played and won like they should have won.

2. LSU

Will Hurricane Ike let them play next week? It’s looking better now than it did Sunday when I originally drew up these rankings and comments.

3. Florida

The 26-3 final score doesn’t give a fully accurate impression of the game. The UF offensive staff got outcoached, but fortunately the Miami offensive staff did too. The Gator defense looked really good against a vanilla Miami attack, but they didn’t look as dominating as the stats make them out to be.

4. Auburn

They started strong and kind of let off the gas a bit, but the passing game had a pulse and the defense and running were still there. Without some uncharacteristic fumbles, Auburn’s margin of victory would have been much greater.

5. Alabama

Welcome back down to earth, and how. Without some great special teams plays, the Tide might have only won this one 7-6.

6. Ole Miss

Jevan Snead is Matt Jones, Jr. and Ole Miss would qualify as about the third best team in the ACC. They battled the whole game and easily could have won. This one portends good things in Oxford.

7. Tennessee

They better show something against UAB. And by that I mean the Blazers better not be anywhere near contention in the fourth quarter.

8. Vanderbilt

This year’s Mississippi State? A definite maybe on that for now.

9. South Carolina

They had their chances, but the offense stunk without McKinley. Then again, it wasn’t exactly putting up fireworks with him. They didn’t play like they wanted it as badly as Vandy did, and the defense fell apart to a degree in the second half.

I never thought I’d see Spurrier lose twice to Vandy, much less twice in a row.

10. Kentucky

Maybe Cobb is the answer at quarterback, but how much can you really learn against a I-AA team?

11. Mississippi State

You beat SELA. Congratulations.

12. Arkansas

Another close call against a bad team. They will be fortunate to win more than one conference game.

SEC Power Poll Ballot, Week 1

September 2, 2008

It is extremely difficult to parse the differences in the ways that elite teams blowout overmatched opponents, especially for me since I really only got to see the South Carolina-NC State and Florida-Hawai’i games all the way through. I only saw pieces of other games, if any at all.

Don’t be offended if you don’t like where your team is at. The margin between the top teams is razor thin, and until everyone starts playing real opponents, we’re all guessing anyway. Relax, it’s only Week 1; there are 13 more weeks of regular season to go.

These rankings are based heavily on the games played this past weekend. As time goes by, they will change based on how the teams’ résumés change.

Florida – The Gators are my top team as much as anything because I got to see them in person this weekend and no one else. Still, they answered fairly definitively two major questions. Yes, they have running backs, and yes, the defense is a lot better. The D-line was in the backfield all day and the secondary made fundamentally sound tackles for the first time since 2006.

It’s important not to overreact to one single game, but Florida showed enough to make me conclude that at their peak, they’re the best in the conference.

LSU – The quarterbacks were not electrifying, but the rest of the Tiger team showed that those signal callers will not have to be great. Despite a last-minute kickoff time change and a hurricane bearing down, Les Miles had his team focused enough to blowout a normally game opponent. I have few worries about this team for the rest of the season right now.

Georgia – The Bulldogs dismissed their lesser opponent with less authority than the above two did, so they end up third. Honestly, it’s tough to tell teams apart based on beating up patsies. As much as anything, they ended up third because they lost yet another player for the year to injury in DT Jeff Owens. Sure UGA has a lot of depth on the defensive line, but it is negative momentum.

Alabama – As I said earlier, it’s important not to overact based on one game. However, I did see some of the Alabama-Clemson game and Bama controlled the trenches on both sides with startling ease. The Tide just plain wanted it more, and they made a statement with their play. Then again, beating up on a Tommy Bowden team that has high expectations is hardly a stunning achievement.

Auburn – The defense and running game will have to carry this team until the passing game gets sorted out, but it appears for now that they’ll be able to do it. That’s fine in the short term, but Kodi Burns, the best runner of the two QBs, still can’t pass and that’s a problem. Defense and running the ball suit Tommy Tuberville just fine though, so it’s a little early to worry. Eight-man fronts in the SEC could pose a problem.

South Carolina – Thanks to them playing on Thursday, I got to see most of the Gamecocks’ opening game. The defense appears legit again, with Jasper Brinkley making a huge difference. The offense was putrid until Chris Smelley came in, but he also got to play against a demoralized defense after the game was already decided. This team is far from perfect, but Smelley showed at least there’s some hope for finishing above fourth in the SEC East.

Tennessee – I’ll be honest, I haven’t had time to really look at the Vols’ performance against UCLA. I had a late flight into Charlotte and got a flat tire on the way home. It doesn’t look all that great at first glance because I don’t have a high opinion of the Bruins right now, but that could always change. Tennessee got four first half turnovers but only 14 first half points. Crompton’s percentage was bad, but UCLA has a decent defense. I can’t ding them too bad for now since they at least went and played on the west coast.

Ole Miss – Memphis is not very good, but Ole Miss showed some real promise. The Wild Rebel formation, about the only thing Houston Nutt took away from his year with Gus Malzahn, was a smashing success. All that talk about Ed Orgeron stocking cupboards in Oxford was true, and if Nutt can harness it into something cohesive for a season, the Rebels will finish comfortably ahead of Arkansas and their in-state rival.

Kentucky – When Rich Brooks said his team had an SEC-caliber defense, I chuckled and decided to take a wait-and-see approach. Apparently he was absolutely right about that, but he forgot to mention that the offense might not be SEC-caliber. All but three of the Wildcats’ points against Louisville were scored or set up directly by the defense, and the offense prevented a shutout with QB Mike Hartline getting a grounding penalty in the endzone. If the Cats can’t figure out how to score more points, they’ll have a hard time climbing any higher than ninth.

Vanderbilt – Chris Nickson surprised a lot of people with his strong play against Miami University, and the Commodores won somewhat surprisingly easy. That bodes well for a team that lost a lot from last season. Bobby Johnson will have his work cut out for him if he plans on repeating last year’s five-win performance, but it will be easier if Nickson runs for 166 yards every week. D.J. Moore? Beastly.

Mississippi State – Louisiana Tech will be pretty good this season, but still, the Bulldogs had no business playing in Ruston, much less losing there. The magic from last season is fading already as Mississippi State had a -3 turnover margin. They outgained Tech 322-243, but ten penalties, five turnovers, and a 4-15 mark on third down negated that advantage.

Correct the mistakes and they win the game, but it’s not looking good for finishing above fifth in the division right now. Sly Croom is going to have to go back to his bag of tricks to get them to another bowl game.

Arkansas – Yes Mississippi State lost, but if you beat a I-AA team by just four points, that’s not good. This season, I’d classify that as worse than losing at LA Tech. Casey Dick can pass, but the Razorback faithful had better hope this Michael Smith kid (suspended for the first game) can really run. Having just 76 rushing yards won’t cut it in most SEC games.

Arkansas outgained WIU 394-262, committed just four penalties, went 7-11 on third downs, and yet was still down by 10 points in the fourth quarter. That’s some special kind of voodoo right there. Three turnovers, a reported six or so drops by receivers, and a 13:23 deficit in time of possession are troubling. This could be a long, long year in Fayetteville.