December 16, 2011

The ‘Jack’ Backer…

(Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Versatility)

     Discussions on Coach Huey frequently revolve the differences between a 3 man line (3-3, 3-4, whatever) and a 4 man line (4-3, 4-4, etc).  One of the points that is frequently used to tout the benefits of a 4 man line is the fact that you really only need 2 'true' DL to play the DT spots, the DEs can be OLB bodies and still have great effect.  The point is made that in a 3 man line, you need 3 'true' DL to play the DT spots.  For the record, I'm not disagreeing at all.  In fact, I think this is a very good point.
     The development of my approach to the 3-4 has been tempered by my desire to do certain things that I know requires flexibility within your scheme and athletes.  I want to be able to run what I consider to be the "standard" 3-4 fronts: Under, Okie, and Bear.  However, I want to be able to get into a 4 man line with some degree of ease without terribly complicating things for the athletes.  Problem was, I ran into issues with this because of how it conflicted with certain beliefs/preferences I have.
     I don't like using left/right personnel.  Too simple, too exploitable, too passive, any of these and more.  I just do not like the idea in my head.  Plus, it messes with teaching at times.  I don't necessarily like strong/weak personnel because I don't want to get thrown off by teams that are 'tempo to the line', such as my alma mater's current approach of being an up-tempo wing-T (not Gus Malzahn style, but hustling to the huddle, getting the play, and SPRINTING to the line).  I like field/boundary personnel as a compromise between left/right and strong/weak personnel, but there's no shortage of learning involved there.  Teaching the front 5, in particular, to run fronts, stunts, and blitzes from several fronts on both sides of the offense is a load...
     I came to this conclusion during this season after playing a team that was running a no-huddle offense that alternated between full house T and split back 20 personnel by subbing straight from the sidelines to the formation.  I couldn't match their substitutions and get a good call in for the situation.  Luckily, I had a kid playing OLB/DE who could move back to ILB in some situations and play in the interior.  He was passable there, next year he's going to be a fearsome DE if they can't teach him to play ILB better (a position that will ultimately benefit his team more).  That kid knew 2 positions and was smart enough to recognize when to bounce between the two of them.
    I realized that creating a hybrid position, a DE/OLB or warrior/ninja, offered the opportunity to do several things:

  • Play field/boundary fronts with personnel that wasn't just left/right
  • Play a complementary even front to the standard odd fronts, specifically an "Over" front variation paired with the "Under" front.
  • Focus learning into a select position, one that had athletes specifically prepared and chosen for it.

Thus, the concept of the 'Jack' backer arrived into my head.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None...

    Not necessarily. Most offenses will have a certain position that is an essential position to their success. That position will almost always need to be multi-talented and/or cross trained in order to perform that position. Common examples can be H-Back, Tight End, and, most of all these days, Quarterback. Quarterbacks are asked to run, throw, think, and lead. Tight Ends must block and catch, H-Backs must motion, block, catch, all sorts of niches to be filled. Do smart offensive coaches throw inexperienced sophomores into these positions? Not willingly, no.
     A relative of mine is a very successful coach at a school about an hour away and is known for producing 1 outstanding receiver and 1 outstanding QB just about every year. Is he lucky to have some amazing athletes playing for him? Oh brother, you better believe it! But they are also developed well, particularly the receivers. At least one reason why is that there is an unofficial 'apprentice' program within the receiver ranks. As juniors, they play to the QB's blind side and learn the position at the varsity level, develop the skills, and hopefully punish the coverage. As seniors, they line up to the QB's throwing arm and catch lots and lots of passes.
    A friend was successful using a similar philosophy when coaching defensive backs. Juniors typically played corner, seniors typically played safety. For what he was asking the safeties to do in their cover 4 scheme, he needed players who saw the game 'slow down', players who made great reads and understood the checks and adjustments within the defense. Conversely, he joked that his corners started out as 'trained monkeys'. He drilled them and drilled them and drilled them to remove thought or confusion, which helped them slow things down and then allowed them to learn beyond their roles. Because they had played corner as juniors, they moved inside to safety as seniors with an understanding of how the corner position worked within the scheme and therefore had a more thorough understanding of how it all fit together. This 'apprenticeship' wasn't 100% consistent, but it worked out well for him.
     With the concept of the Jack player, the apprentice method can apply in two ways: 1-A player starts at another position and switches to Jack later, or 2-A player develops behind an existing Jack. For the first method, you must have an understanding of what you are looking for in a position. What kind of skill set is necessary to play there, or at the very least what kind of production must you get from that position? For me, this position needs to be able to do 3 things well: 1-Drop into coverage from the 50 front, 2-Pressure from the edge, 3-Play the edge vs the run. #1 and #2 ask for a degree of athleticism and agility, #3 seems to ask for strength and size.
     I would love to have a kid every year who measured in at 6'1, 205 and played like his momma had been insulted by the opposing running backs, but that's not the reality of our profession. Our players change shape and size every year. You can find someone to perform #1-2 fairly easily by looking to your LB and safety positions. But having such a player hold up against the run may be an issue if you don't have a body that is developed enough to take the constant banging on them from offensive tackles. This is where the Jack back and Sam backer tie into one another so well.
     The requirements for each position are close to the same, but the truth is that the Jack requires a more physical player vs an often physically greater opponent. In the Under front and the Over front, he is playing vs an offensive tackle, who will often be larger and more physical than a tight end or fullback (if he's worth a damn, that is).

     The OLB opposite him, the 'Sam' backer, is a position to use to develop players for the 'Jack' spot. More often than not, the Sam will be playing in space against athletes that are more comparable to him. Taking an athletic junior OLB with room to grow and develop and playing him at the Sam spot allows you to prepare someone to move to the Jack spot the next season. With a year of practice under his belt, another year in the weight room, and relevant game experience, he will be ready to move into a position that requires him to play coverage, rush the pass, and play in the trenches.
     By creating such a versatile player, you are then able to create opportunities within your defense to increase variety without necessarily increasing difficulty for MOST of your defense. By installing the Jack Open (Under), Jack Closed (Over), Jack Field/Boundary (Under or Over depending on formation) fronts, you create a lot of variable looks without changing much because of the pre-established versatility of your Jack backer. Consider the following diagram of Jack Field:

     In both diagrams, the Jack is next to a 3 technique and opposite a shaded nose and a 5 technique. In both diagrams the W is reading a guard covered by a 3 technique, the M is reading a guard with a shaded nose, and the S is paired with a 5 technique. The R is on the same side as the J and the W in both and the F is to the TE side in both, reading the same person in both. The run fits are consistent for just about every single position and there was minimal adjustment after the call is made. As soon as the huddle call is made, every player knows where he needs to be and can start to get aligned already, with or without the offense, eliminating problems usually associated with both no-huddle teams and tempo to the line teams.
    While this is delightfully consistent for the defense, for the offense it presents a problem. Is the defense going to align in what appears to be a 4 man front or a 3 man front? Are they going to be set to the field or to the formation? Will they be playing cover 4 from 2 high or 1 high 'robber'? You can be multiple and variable within a scheme like this. But the real benefit is that by taking one position and asking a lot of that single position, you are allowing other positions to have a simpler life. Simple keys, simple assignments = better, faster, more aggressive play.

So… What Should I Do?
    More than anything else, I'm hoping this makes you think a bit. Consider ways to take what you do and what you ask of your players and see if you can't find one position that would better your defense and better your scheme by demanding MORE of them. Maybe it's an ILB that plays as a flexed DL some times, maybe it's a safety that alternates between up high and down low, I don't know. But think about what you could do by taking that player and asking more from them and think about how you can prepare them for that assignment. We all have a 'best player' on our defense, someone that makes things click. What I'm proposing is that perhaps we should be guiding our 'best players' to a specific position, a specific role that can maximize what we want to do.