December 28, 2009

Teaching Formations

There’s very little in football that’s original anymore. Half of the innovation that we see is mostly just old stuff packaged in new ways or extra-ordinary physical specimens doing things that most of us can’t. Most of what I learn these days is just stuff that’s been around and hasn’t been known to me, rather than anything terribly unique or special. I suppose that’s kind of a massive understatement, but we’ll just ignore my linguistic talents.

Something that I was introduced to in the last year was TCU’s concept of formation recognition that they install with their boys. To quote Gary Patterson, HC and former DC of the Frogs, “We don’t worry about formations any more. When you divide the formation down the middle, to each side there are only three formations the offense can give the secondary.” It didn’t take long for the logic of Patterson’s statement to hit me and make me reconsider how I’ve always done formations. I’d say most defensive coaches have a system for naming formations that’s some combination of arbitrary, logical, and unique. Me, I’ve more or less stuck with my system we used in college, which varied from such logical formation names like Pro and Trips to arbitrary terms like Bombers and Lucky. In our defensive terminology, there were approximately 40 different terms you needed to learn in order to accurately describe the entirety of offensive formations. With Patterson’s system, there’s about 6, plus backfields, which makes maybe twelve or so.

How It Works

There are six combinations you need to think about: Tight end-flanker, split end-slot, nub tight end, single split end, tight end-slot-flanker, split end-slot-flanker. Typical 21 personnel (2 back, 1 tight end, 2 receivers) formations boil down to these options: TE-FL with a single SE, nub TE with SE-Slot, and SE-Slot with Single SE. Naming these formation halves (because you gotta name them SOMETHING at the end of the day) went like this for me:

o “Pro”: Tight End-Flanker

o “Twins”: Split End-Slot

o “Nub”: Solo TE

o “Single”: Solo SE

o “Trey”: TE-Slot-Flanker

o “Trips”: SE-Slot-Flanker

So, as the offense breaks the huddle, our two safeties (we’re a 2-high defense) recognize their receiving threats in front of them and call out the corresponding term to themselves, the corners, and OLBs (we’re a 3-4 so about 90% of our adjusting happens with safeties and OLBs). Hypothetically as you’re installing and teaching the defense, you teach your guys how to line up to each possibility and then it’s done. The hope is that in the span of maybe two days you teach your guys how to line up to pretty much everything they’re going to see and then you’re done with it, move on to more pressing matters.

This isn’t rocket science by any means and I don’t claim to have any special wisdom to it, but it is VERY good info and a superb approach to packaging and relating to formations in a way that is cheap, efficient, and flexible. Put the work in regarding your coverages and how you want to relate to the formation components and you’ll eventually have a very easy to teach, very package-able scheme that really works for your players and your coaches.


Not necessarily football related, but there's some pretty epic stuff on and their "Best of 2009" series they've been doing. For those of you who don't know, Lifehacker's a blog that is dedicated to DIY, minimalist, simplistic, thrifty, and tech oriented people. It covers all manner of things, it's really hard to nail it to just one thing, but if you've got a few minutes, head over and check out some of the workspace designs, the DIY projects, and the tech write-ups. Some of my favorites include a laptop turned into a framed, wall-mounted computer, a handful of ways to deal with messy computer cords (I know I suffer from these kinds of issues), and a whole bunch of efficiency tips on using Vista/Windows 7/XP via keyboard shortcuts, etc. Oh, and a whole post dedicated to building your own pizza oven for the back yard. I really think that I may make that my summer project.

December 27, 2009

Simplicity Vs Detail

Something that’s been on my mind a lot recently has been the idea of keeping things simple vs allowing complexity. Part of it is the conflict between my two defensive backgrounds: in high school I played in an Under Front 4-3 that was 100% quarters, 100% of the time, whereas in college I played in the 4-3 version of the TCU 4-2-5 (No 3-spoke secondary, but A LOT of conceptual carryover) which was a “scheme for smart kids” as our DC phrased it. There’s something to be said for both approaches, which is what I want to examine in this post.


A common phrase you’ll hear around sports and football in particular is that “You can’t teach speed”. Another that I’ve heard and used is “Luck follows speed”. Either way, when playing defense the importance of playing fast, in addition to being fast, cannot be underestimated. Some of the best collegiate defenses over the last few decades have been predicated on speed and the ability to run to the football, thereby constricting the playing field and making breakaway plays occur less frequently. One of the best examples of a speed defense wrecking absolute havoc on an offense would be Miami’s woodshed beating of Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Miami’s defense, loaded with future first rounders and oozing speed, athleticism and quickness, swarmed all over Nebraska’s I-Option.

The reason I mention all this is that one of the best ways to get your boys to play fast (which is almost as good as BEING fast) is to simplify and remove thought. The more thought that happens, the slower the boys will play and the worse your defense will perform. When all 11 guys KNOW their assignment, KNOW what they’re supposed to be doing, and aren’t processing, but are just reacting, you’re doing something right. The idea is to have kids entering a zen-like state of play where conscious thought doesn’t exist anymore. For my high school team, we had 1 front, 1 coverage, and very few adjustments. I learned almost everything I would need to know as a middle backer by the end of my sophomore year. By the time I was a senior, I was helping our HC with the gameplan.

By simplifying your scheme, you allow for this kind of automatic play which should minimize ‘busts’ in coverage, incorrect run fit reads, and mis-alignments. You’ll have an easier time identifying your problems because the number of things that can go wrong are significantly less.

The main problem I have with this approach is simple: when you’re good, it’s good and when you’re bad, it’s bad. I don’t mean to suggest that less talented teams simply MUST have more complexity to their schemes, but I do think that if you’re less talented you will have problems if you take the simplicity route. When you have 5 future college athletes on the same D, such as my senior season, you’ll do special things against most teams.


In college I played in a scheme that was darn near impossible for freshman to start in at some positions because you just couldn’t learn everything you needed to learn. Obviously, you have this kind of luxury at the collegiate level because you are drawing from 4 classes of athletes, whereas in high school you really only have juniors and seniors.

At heart I’m a pretty simple guy and that generally gets reflected in most aspects of my life. If I could get away with it, I’d wear a white collared shirt and blue jeans with sandals every day. I’d eat cereal, sandwich, and steak & veggies for my 3 meals a day if I didn’t think I’d end up looking like Mark Mangino. Any girl I’ve dated can tell you that it’s a great thing for them because I only spend money on food, gas, and them.

Football-wise, I’m not much different. I want a defense that protects it’s LBs, stops the run, forces turnovers, and suffocates the offenses. I don’t really care in what form that comes in, I just want good defense. Offensively, I wish I could coach a flexbone or split back veer offense. Run the same basic stuff over and over and over and have the defense be wrong and wrong and wrong. Don’t get so complicated that you have nothing to hang your hat on, nothing vanilla to fall back to.

Our 4-3 Under with Quarters coverage lasted a long, long time under my HC before he left to take another job and stayed around under our former HC. Our former HC was over matched for the position and lacked long-term goals. Our athlete development suffered, the talent well dried up, and the scheme suffered. In order to compensate, the defense had to add complexity. In adding complexity, the scheme became more compromised. Eventually our former HC decided to burn it down and start over, enter me.

The irony of the situation is that I’m now running a fairly complex 3-4 defense for my alma mater. We were left trying to compensate for our sub-par athletes with a scheme that was predicated on simplicity, so we embraced the horror. Our guys had to learn not one, but TWO coverages. They had to learn to slant AND to play shades. They had to learn a 3-man front, a four-man front, and a bear front. They had to make their own adjustments on the field based off of film study and intuition. They had to learn SIX blitzes after having three for most of their career.

The dangers of complexity are several. One, mis-alignments are bound to happen and will frequently happen in moments of stress, confusion, or importance. It’s been my experience that those moments usually are some kind of horrible combination of the three. Two, limited practice time means limited experience at each new thing. Practicing our 3-man front, four-man front, bear front, different coverages, blitzes, and whatever else might come up over the course of our weekly practice is almost impossible. A lot of times we’d go into a game only having seen or repped certain things once, if at all. I frequently had to tell my guys “We knew they ran it, but we just didn’t have time to practice it all”. Three, THINKING. I dunno about you, but just hearing what my guys are thinking on a day to day, moment to moment basis is frightening. Considering that, the idea of them thinking about what they’re doing on the field is just horrifying.

The benefits? We were unpredictable, adaptable, flexible, and, at times, dominant. We finished the season with the second best defense in the league, fifth best defense in the area (3 counties), and best season in at least 4 years. Our guys had fun running a defense that was very similar to what they would watch on Saturday and thought they could see on Sundays. The troubles of complexity and ensuing stress created a lot of issues, but it never got boring for our guys when they were constantly being challenged to do something different than the play before and the one before that. At one point in a game this year we ran a different front, stunt, and coverage on 3 consecutive plays, something unheard of in prior seasons. For us, considering where our program is at and where we want it to be going, we wanted to run a defense the kids found fun and exciting, which this was.

Where I Stand

If I had my druthers, I’d run my defense very similarly to how TCU runs their 4-2-5 with a 3-spoke secondary that is divorced from the front 6. But, at this point in my career I’m married to the 3-4 scheme that I’ve created. So, I’m torn between my own natural desire for simplicity and the complexity that I’ve created for myself. I love my 3-4 that I’ve created, but it is learning intensive and there are some instances where we’re just hoping everything goes well. I love simple defense, but I worry over what would happen when we face a team who’s categorically better than us or has us figured out. Right now, I’m a complexity guy, but I’m looking to get back to what makes me feel comfortable, which is simplicity and execution.

December 26, 2009

Book Review: Coaching Pattern Read Coverage by Tom Olivadotti

A few weeks back I picked up the very cheap book Coaching Pattern Read Coverage by Tom Olivadotti off of Amazon. Found HERE

For me it was a quick read, probably finished it in about 5 hours on the first time through, cover to cover. The terminology is understandable, the diagrams make sense and correspond to the stuff happening on the page (not always a given, in my experience).

The second time through I did what I usually do, highlight and/or circle things with my red pen while tabbing various things with multi-colored post-it tabs. The three things I focused on were: technique or coaching oriented comments or passages I liked, good examples of playing specific pass plays from various coverages, and individual free-standing morsels. There were lots of things I liked which provided me with a few phrases and 'buzz words' to use while coaching up the guys. What I realized while going through the book the second time through was that this book would be fantastic for my JV DC, who is a great, great guy but never played the game at a high level and doesn't have a large knowledge base yet, as well as the guy we're grooming to become frosh DC. It's not terribly complex or complicated, it won't revolutionize the way someone coaches (I hope), but it's easy to understand and gives a very good base that will help to catch up lower level coaches who may not 'be there' yet.

New Beginnings...

Mission: Do my best to articulate what's going through my head as I make my way through this weird 'profession' of football coach. Ideally posts will include reviews of stuff I've read, analysis, philosophizing, minimal gossip, the occasional 'Fire Joe Morgan' style abuse of talking heads, and hopefully plenty of me.

To that end, I'm going to start off with some book reviews over the next few days while I do some write ups on various topics that interest me.