A Final Draft Wrapup

April 29, 2009

In the end, three Gators got drafted and four more found jobs as undrafted free agents:

Percy Harvin, 1st round to Minnesota

Louis Murphy, 4th round to Oakland

Cornelius Ingram, 5th round to Philadelphia

Phil Trautwein to St. Louis

Jason Watkins to Houston

James Smith to Cincinnati

Kestahn Moore to Denver

It was a bit disappointing, all things considered. I had heard that Murphy and Ingram each had the potential to go as high as the second round. I never expected to see them have to wait until the fourth and fifth rounds to go.

In Murphy’s case, it may not have a happy ending. The Raiders at this point are a black hole for talent, though he does get to have JaMarcus Russell put football-shaped holes in his hands on Sundays. He’ll be a great addition to Oakland’s track team, along with Darrius Heyward-Bey, but whether Oakland will find football success is beyond me. Incidentally, I don’t think Heyward-Bey is any better than Murphy is, but the inanity surrounding 40 times at the combine made him a No. 1 pick. Go figure.

In Ingram’s case, it is probably a blessing in disguise. Philly had the best draft in my estimation, and with Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, and Ingram, no one upgraded their offense more. He did say in an interview that the Eagles would have taken him earlier if they had a third or fourth round pick, so that makes him (and me) feel better. Regardless, he’s going to be on one of the NFL’s best offenses within two years thanks to McNabb, Westbrook, Jackson, and his fellow draftmates.

It seems odd to me that neither of the tackles got drafted. I know that Trautwein and Watkins weren’t going to be franchise cornerstones, but I would have thought they’d be worth a late round pick. It seemse like the NFL hasn’t been liking Florida offensive linemen lately, though that will probably change whenever the Pouncey brothers enter their names in.

I am glad to see Moore get picked up by Denver. He has no shot at playing running back there, as Denver now has about 15 of them on the roster, but he could make it as a blocker and a special teams guy. Last season had to be tough for him, having lost his feature back role to a couple of freshmen. However, he apparently never complained and kept on picking up blitz after blitz to buy Tebow time. Say what you want about his running back play, and someone probably already has, but the guy can block and could be in the league for at least a few seasons.

I am also glad to see James Smith get picked up. He’s a former walk on who will be remembered by die hard Gators as the guy who recovered South Carolina’s ill-fated throwback during a kickoff last season. It’s rare that long snappers ever get drafted, so he really never had a shot at hearing his name called over the weekend. However, he probably has a decent shot at making a roster somewhere due to his specialization and demonstrated ability to play well on special teams.

Next year, Florida will have a boatload of guys in the draft. Seniors like Spikes, Tebow, and Cunningham will be there, and underclassmen like Haden, Dunlap, and the Pounceys will probably be there too. Some mock drafts for 2010 are already out there, but I won’t link to any since they’re of no use now. After all, at this time last year, Todd Boeckman and Cullen Harper were no worse than second round picks.

What I do know is that the thin draft is not a sign of weakness, as FSU’s and Miami’s were, but the last echoing effect of the final, uncertain year of the Zook era and the transitional class that Urban Meyer had to throw together at the last minute in 2005. Only five players who we’ll see take the field from that time remain: Dorian Munroe, Jonathan Phillips, David Nelson, and Ryan Stamper in the two-deep plus Cade Holliday on special teams.

Next year is when Meyer’s monster 2006 recruiting class (minus Percy, of course) finally hits the draft. But before that, there is the matter of the fall when those seniors lead Florida to its third title in four years.


Orange and Blue Game Wrapup

April 20, 2009

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go to the Orange and Blue Game. That’s one of the few sucky things about living in Charlotte (besides all the ACC fans): I can’t just go to Gainesville whenever I want.

Anyway, my parents and brother did make the game. Rather than give a rundown of all the media coverage of the game, I’ll instead tell you what they told me.

My brother was very disappointed that Tim Tebow didn’t do any downfield throwing. He said Timmy mostly was tossing swing passes, though he did run around a bit. That is, of course, until he got tagged by a defender. Ultimately though, this day wasn’t really about him.

It was John Brantley’s day. Urban Meyer has raved about Brantley’s performance in recent weeks, and for the most part he came through. My parents said his favorite target was Frankie Hammond, who had no trouble getting behind the reserve DBs according to my brother.

They also said that Tebow was conversing with Meyer the whole time while Brantley was playing, almost as though he was an assistant coach. That wouldn’t surprise me at all, and there’s precendent for it. Meyer made Chris Leak a big part of game planning in 2006, even letting Leak script the first 10 or 15 plays of the national title game himself.

My brother said one thing that stood out to him that few of the media reports mentioned was that there were some issues with shotgun snaps. Redshirt freshman Sam Robey is said to have won the starting center role not so much because he outplayed Maurkice Pouncey (because he didn’t), but because he played well enough to move Maurkice back to guard where the coaches want him. Robey apparently had issues with snapping it right into Tebow’s hands, but theoretically an off season’s worth of practice ought to straighten that out by the fall.

Walk on RB Christopher Scott ran hard and was productive, they said. Whether he’ll play much in the fall remains to be seen, but think about this for a second. The Gators now have a walk on who is behind three or four (depending on incoming freshman Mike Gillislee) other guys who is able to be a productive back against the defense. Compare that to the situation in 2005-06 (run it Wynnside!) and be grateful. Oh, and Chris Rainey still has the best moves on the team.

With all of the defensive starters injured or taking the day off, the offense was able to move nicely. Even so, there were still starter-caliber guys like Dorian Munroe available and playing. My guess is the backups are probably still a top-50 defense in the country, so it does at least give an indication that the offense progressed through the spring.

My parents are going to Meyer’s upcoming speaking engagement in Orlando, so if he says anything interesting I’ll pass it along.


Clarifying What a “Spread Offense” Entails

April 15, 2009

While reading the excellent interview Bruins Nation had with Rick Neuheisel, I came upon the final question of part one. It basically was, “Hey Rick, what do you think of the spread offense?”

Neuheisel ends up giving a fairly long and winding explanation of why he chooses a pro style offense rather than a spread scheme. I’m going to chop it up into mincemeat for a second to illustrate a point:

“The key to the spread offense, and the reason why its successful, is that it adds an extra player. It diminishes the need for great offensive linemen, because you’ve got a little longer because you are always in the gun…

“The problem at UCLA is that you have to beat the Trojans. And it’s also the benefit at UCLA, because when you beat them, you’re going to be among the nation’s elite. So you have to be a physical offense...

“I was the benefactor of a type of spread offense, even though it was an option offense, it’s the same math in terms of the quarterback’s [being] a runner…

There were some components of the spread offense in what we did last year. We got into the old wildcat stuff…”

The picture of the spread offense that Neuheisel paints is one that involves a running quarterback, the shotgun as the exclusive setup, an offense that isn’t physical, and the wildcat formation.

Basically what he described is the Rich Rodriguez/Urban Meyer style offense (except for the part about the spread not being physical). However, that’s not necessarily what a spread offense is.

I know Neuheisel is a bright guy, and I wasn’t there when the interview was conducted. Maybe something about the session led him to think of the spread in those terms. However, that’s an awfully narrow definition of a very broad concept.

The term “spread” dates back at least to 1952, and I’m sure it’s been around longer than that. The spread isn’t an offense; it’s a formation and a philosophy.

For the record, this is a spread formation:

Spread_medium

This is not:

Notspread_medium

That’s all there is to it. There is no other distinction between spread and non-spread. A spread formation uses most of the horizontal space on the field and a non-spread formation does not. Nearly every offense uses some spread formations, and many spread-based offenses use some non-spread formations.

The idea behind a spread-based offense is to make the defense cover the entire field. Contrary to what Neuheisel may have made it sound like, a spread formation is an excellent choice for physical running up the middle. That’s because with the defense spread out, there are fewer guys in the middle of the field to try to stop the ball carrier.

That fact is also why many spread teams prefer to have a mobile quarterback. Fewer guys near the line of scrimmage makes for fewer people hanging around to stop a runner behind center. Having a running triggerman is not a requirement though.

For instance, the first neo-spread team in the SEC was Hal Mumme’s Kentucky, and we never saw Tim Couch take off and run much. That branch of spread offense is continued today by Mumme’s former assistant Mike Leach at Texas Tech. You also have teams like Ohio State’s 2006 team which ran a fair bit of spread with Troy Smith rarely participating in designed runs.

The shotgun isn’t even a requirement as Neuheisel made it sound like. Sam Bradford operated from under center a fair bit in Oklahoma’s spread last season. In addition, Paul Johnson’s offense keeps the quarterback under center almost exclusively even though his base flexbone set is is a spread formation.

Finally, the wildcat is a formation and offensive package but it doesn’t have to be run from a spread set or spread offense. Not all spread teams use it either.

No two teams run the exact same spread offense, as every coach has his own take on it. It also must be tailored to personnel. If you want details, there’s a wealth of information on many spread topics at the blog Smart Football (start here, here, and here).

If I wasn’t clear before, let me be so now: I don’t think Rick Neuheisel is unaware of all this. He knows far more about offensive football than I do and he could probably explain it a lot better than I can.

It just disappointed me about the way he used “spread” to mean a lot fo specific things when it doesn’t necessarily. It’s like saying that having a quarterback under center in the I-formation means you’re in a pro style offense, except that the heyday of the Nebraska option was largely done from the I.

In short, just remember that there is no one “spread offense.” There are as many spread offenses as there are teams that run them, and every one has something that makes it unique.


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.


The Florida-Era Steve Spurrier is Officially Gone

March 24, 2009

The Florida-era Steve Spurrier is completely gone.

I don’t say that lightly, especially because of how big a part of my childhood he was. My first time at the Swamp was the ’89 Florida-Kentucky game when I was four. I’ve been to at least one game there every year since.

On fall Sundays while I was growing up, my family had a custom of eating lunch while watching the Steve Spurrier Show with lunch after church. It was jarring to go from that to Ron Zook’s show, and it never did quite feel right.

I inherited a lot of my attitudes about football from that Steve Spurrier: it’s okay to throw for the endzone late in a blowout if it’s the backup doing it, there’s a certain elegance about getting receivers wide open over and over, he who’s on top gets to talk, etc.

When I saw that he is going to implement a Wildcat formation, I realized that the Spurrier I once knew is gone. I should have known this moment was coming given the state of the South Carolina offense the past couple years, but I figured it was what would happen if he got stuck with only quarterbacks at Noah Brindise-level and below.

I simply cannot fathom the Florida-era Spurrier ever deciding to run many plays without a quarterback on the field. He was a quarterback, loved to teach quarterbacks, and acted like a quarterback from the sideline as he still could read defenses better than most collegiate signal callers. That Spurrier would never have considered the Wildcat because he could get just as many yards on a fade route.

What started in Washington has completed in South Carolina. I am with those who think he thought he could walk into Columbia and win almost as quickly as he did at Florida. It worked before, why can’t it work now?

For one thing, the situations are completely different. Bear Bryant famously called Florida a sleeping giant of a program. Charley Pell and Galen Hall built it up to the point where it could take off, and they brought on the same probation that other big time programs had in the ‘80s while doing it. The cupboards were stocked, and Spurrier was the right guy in the right place at the right time for UF.

The talent level at South Carolina in 2005 was not comparable to that of Florida in 1990. It was comparable to that of Florida in 2005 though, and the Gamecocks’ win that year (in a game that Spurrier outcoached Urban Meyer, no less) showed it.

Three seasons later, the gap between Spurrier’s old program and his current one seems like it could scarcely be wider. Florida has added two more SEC and national titles, and it handed him his worst defeat ever last season to the tune of 56-6. Whatever he’s doing has caused him to fall behind the conference leaders, the opposite direction he wants to go.

Now to help catch up, Spurrier, a guy with six SEC titles, is essentially taking a page out of the playbook of Houston Nutt, a guy with no SEC titles. I can tell you that I would never have expected to see that happen when he took the job four years ago.

I have no doubt that his competitive fire is still burning; I doubt anything will ever extinguish that. The witticisms will still come, as they have periodically through his time in Columbia.

The trend-setting Spurrier though is gone, replaced by a more pragmatic and, yes, trend-following Spurrier. It’s time for all of us to stop expecting to see anything different.


Looks Like Phillips Will Be Back

March 10, 2009

In a case of the rich getting richer, it looks like Florida’s place kicker Jonathan Phillips will be back for another year.

The SEC granted him a medical hardship for missing nearly all of the 2007 season, clearing the way for his return for a sixth season. He wasn’t even going to return for last year if it wasn’t for Urban Meyer convincing him to postpone law school. It looks like the head coach is getting two years for his efforts.

Phillips was 12-of-13 on field goals last season, though his longest was just 40 yards. He made all of his 79 extra point attempts except the fateful one that was blocked against Ole Miss (and the Swiss cheese line was at fault for that one).

I would expect to see him work on his range to become a threat from beyond 40 yards. His backup is true sophomore Caleb Sturgis, a guy with a big leg who at least last season didn’t have adequate accuracy yet.


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.