The Player Driven Culture System: Introduction

“Every time you’re in front of your team everything you say matters and it has to be intentional.”
-Dabo Sweeney, head football coach, Clemson University

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

This wasn’t the introductory team meeting that players were expecting. It was 2004 and Louisiana native Ed Orgeron has just been hired to lead the program at Ole Miss, one of the gems of southern college football. In his deep Cajun-like drawl, instead of projecting how physical his team was going to be, he pontificated on how tough he was. Before players knew it, “Coach O” was ripping off his shirt and challenging some of them to a fistfight. Luckily, no one obliged. “It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” a former player said. “I mean, we had plenty of guys on that team from some really bad places. He would’ve been jumped or shot or both. I still can’t figure out if he knew that, that no one would try and fight their new head coach.”

Turns out his coaching staff wasn’t spared this brunt of tirades either. During that first season in Oxford, he’d wear them down both emotionally and physically, treating each as if they were defensive linemen—the only position he coached before getting the promotion. Ultimately, he strangled the life out of the program, finishing 10-25 over three seasons from 2005 to 2007. In hindsight, he says going 100 mph, on and off the field, “broke people, it broke the team.” He was using the wrong messaging and it had a catastrophic consequence on the progression of the program.

Now the 2020 version of “Coach O” has made a 180-degree transformation, thanks in part to the experiences he had in that first go around. Coming off a national championship campaign at Louisiana State University, Coach Orgeron told me it took him over a decade to learn two very important lessons: number one, don’t have kickers and quarterbacks compete in the Oklahoma Drill (seriously) and two, never take for granted an opportunity to message the core values of the program.

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The Player Driven Culture System: Case 1: Collaboration

The Pathway: Teaming

 

“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”
– Confucius

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

“Nobody washes a rented car.” If you spend enough time around North Forney High School (TX) head coach Randy Jackson, you’ll probably hear that gem on more than one occasion. A layman’s translation: if something isn’t owned, what responsibility do people have to take care of it? A football program’s culture must be owned, not rented, and it must be owned by every player and every staffer that associates with it. And if the landing is ownership, then the launch must be a collaboration, where players are given the opportunity to work with coaches in protecting the culture. For those like Coach Jackson, this competency is more about accommodating a lifestyle inherent in this generation more than any generation that came before it. “Kids have information available to them now everywhere,” he says. “They don’t need us for information. Their voice is heard by liking and sharing things all day on social media. How can we not give them a voice, but they are getting it everywhere else?” How players are given this stake will be the focus of this competency. So, for many reasons, I felt impelled to begin my research with this collaboration. Without collaboration, there is no ownership. And without ownership, there is no player-driven culture.

 

Collaboration as a Competency

One of the base foundations of establishing a player-driven culture system is generating ownership through collaboration. While the head coach and his staff are responsible for building the program’s culture- which I elaborated on in the Prologue- in order for players to feel as if they have an investment in the culture, they need to be entrusted with the process of defending it. The behavior of collaboration is without question more relevant now than it has ever been. The players that coaches are working with now are used to having a voice. It’s the social media generation, where every “like” is quantified and every voice, regardless of source, is equitable.

 

Why Collaboration is Essential to Creating Player-Driven Culture

Coaches are now using collaboration to empower players with various ways in which they can have ownership in the program, all of which I present in this study. The science behind the positive effects of collaboration is overwhelming, and perhaps too lengthy to go into detail here. Quite simply, collaboration is one of the prime behaviors that lead to ownership, and this collaborative effort between a coaching staff and its players is developed through an act known as “teaming.” The Harvard Business Review defined teaming as the process of identifying and briefing essential collaborators to work together in accomplishing a goal. Consider the “goal” as the core values described in the Prologue. While this competency of “teaming” may be a mainstay in the business world among adult professionals, it has only started garnering traction in football programs. It’s the goal of any player-driven model to build a culture where teaming expected and begins to feel like a natural part of the developmental culture.

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The Player Driven Culture System Case 2: Connectivity

The Pathway: Vulnerability

 

“Culture, by definition, is connecting people.”
– PJ Fleck, Head Football Coach, University of Minnesota

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

Back in 2014, longtime assistant football coach Brent Myers sat with his hands clenched into fists under the table, finding it hard to control his true feelings. It was nighttime, mid-way through a late July training camp and he was exhausted. While every player and coach in the Weber State University program got up to address the entire group about what the program means to them, Coach Myers kept wondering when this was all going to be over. “I kept asking how this crap is going to help us win?” he recalled. “I just wanted to go out and practice.” The exercise was called “testimony and commitment,” and had become a staple in head coach Jay Hill’s pre-season routine. A former assistant at the University of Utah under coach Urban Meyer, Coach Hill put his spin on the activity by having both players and coaches tell their life stories in front of the entire program each night in pre-season camp. Flash forward five years later and Myers, the old grinder of a football coach of 30+ years has been transformed. Perhaps uncoincidentally, this personal transformation runs parallel with the program’s success. After going 2-10 in 2014, the Wildcats finished with 11 wins in 2019, one win shy from playing for the FCS national championship. While the tangible proof of the transformation results in wins, the intangible and perhaps more important factor lies in the connection the team and coaches created in that mountainous terrain in Utah.

 

Connectivity as a Competency

The competency of connectivity is directly aligned with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s philosophy which revealed that once behind the satisfaction and security of basic needs—safety, food, water, shelter, warmth, comfort—people are no longer driven by purely extrinsic motivations. Instead, they turn their attention to deeper needs such as safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Deeper needs like a sense of belonging and love often supersede assumed motivations such as money, possessions, or recognition. In other words, if players and staff feel like their values are in line with the values of a football program, they will work harder in assimilating themselves to the culture of the program. And coaches who understand these desires, work harder to create a sense of connection with anyone associated in the program. The shared emotional connection between a group of people is a stronger motivator than anything else.

 

Why Connectivity is Essential to Creating Player-Driven Culture

Many coaches, like the University of Minnesota head football PJ Fleck, believe that culture, by definition, is connecting people. Coaches are in the people business and most psychologists will argue that a feeling of connection is one of the more primal desires for human beings. Ask any social worker and they will explain that the ability to feel connected is neurobiologically how we’re wired. People yearn to be connected in any way, shape, or form with one another. This behavior of connectivity answers existential questions like “why are we here?” and “what is our purpose?” Connectivity defines purpose and produces clarity in groups. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. But like culture, connectivity is always a work in progress. It’s an evolving process where individuals continually seek to find their place in a particular environment.

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The Player Driven Culture System Case 3: Self-Advocacy

The Pathway: Empowerment

 

“Once players realize that their opinion matters and it’s important, they will contribute more to the advancement of the program. And that’s how you develop educated football players.”
– Fergus Connolly, performance coach

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

“David” was the type of kid many of us have in our programs. He did everything right: never in an ounce of trouble, a meticulous student, and an extremely hard worker. He was what most coaches would call a program kid. But, there was one potential glitch in David’s personality: he wasn’t a very good communicator. Like most teenagers, it was hard to get a beat on anything that was bothering him. David internalized and suppressed his beliefs, that was up until they no longer could be controlled. And that’s where the explosion ensued. This explosion could take place in many forms, poor behavior on the field or classroom and even destructive or illegal, behavior off the field. Either way, it could have a catastrophic effect on an individual’s demeanor and in turn, a team’s development. And in most cases, coaches wouldn’t know what he was feeling until it was too late. As disruptive as it was personally for David, it was even more disruptive for the team. He knew what was bothering him, yet had trouble communicating it. It’s a scenario that plays out every season in every program. Yet what if David was placed in an environment more conducive to self-expression? An environment where players were empowered to communicate their needs? Could this have been prevented?

 

Self-Advocacy as a Competency

The story of David is the result of players not being empowered to express themselves and their self- interests. Self-advocacy is a behavior that enables players to understand their strengths and weaknesses, know what they need to succeed, and be able to communicate that to other people.

It’s a competency that gets broken down into three important elements:

  1. Understanding specific needs
  2. Knowing what help or support will address those needs
  3. Communicating those needs (both to other players and coaches in this case)

 

Why Self-Advocacy is Essential to Creating a Player-Driven Culture

Self-advocacy is the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests. But for young players who may be inherently reserved, asking for help can be intimidating. So, they need to be equipped with multiple strategies to address their needs. The development of self-advocacy is a byproduct of an educational process provided to players by coaches, that perpetuates the intent of whole-person development. I found that this competency of self-advocacy to be one of the more difficult to attain because it exists through empowering players with the opportunity to express their personal views and outside interests, which can be a struggle for many reasons. For one, young student-athletes grapple with vocalizing their needs because it contrasts with the masculine culture football is embedded in. For coaches to create an environment conducive to promoting self-advocacy, they need to not only accept self-expression but promote it. While the mantra “open door policy” may sound cliché, many of the coaches in this study live by that philosophy and spend more of their time working on off-field pursuits to develop the players in their program. Secondly, young players are still in the developmental process of learning about themselves, and may not be entirely aware of their social needs; proving the assertation that “they don’t know what they don’t know.” Often players develop an identity that links themselves directly and solely to their football prowess.

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The Player Driven Culture System Case 4: Emotional Awareness

The Pathway: Mindfulness

 

“We made a conscious decision about getting into our kids’ heads and getting into other aspects besides football. We wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem.”
– Steve Specht, Head Football Coach, St. Xavier High School (OH)

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

Mike McElroy didn’t know what to think. The twenty-something defensive coordinator transplant from Minnesota Concordia thought he was interviewing for a coaching position at Bethel University (MN), but the setting resembled more of what one would experience on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. Yet the interviewer was not the former queen of daytime talk, it was a 31-year veteran head coach Steve Johnson. Looking back, Coach McElroy remembers more about the emotional exchange between the two that day than he did about the questions being asked. “He cried in front of me three times talking about the kids in the program and his career path,” said Coach McElroy. “It was in a way that I was taken aback by it.” Coach McElroy was sold immediately; not on Coach Johnson’s football acumen but on how genuine he was. Coach Johnson’s success as a football coach is hard to ignore. Taking over his alma mater at the age of 33, he eclipsed more wins in his third season than the program did the entire decade before. Now, at 64 years of age, his authenticity as a man that has left a lasting impression among the many that he’s coached.

A couple of years after being hired, Coach McElroy recounts a Bethel University football Gala with former players and was floored by the lifelong connection Coach Johnson made with them. “One guy that played in the early 90’s stood up and told the story of a recent struggle he encountered and some of the difficult choices he made during that time period. Throughout his talk, he kept reflecting on Coach Johnson’s core values of being grateful, tough, and devoted. He used the same language we still use today. I was shocked by the consistency of the language and the message.”

This authenticity isn’t just saved for Coach Johnson’s closest associations. During the recruiting process, he meets with every potential student-athlete that comes into the facility. Not to persuade them to come to the school that has made him what he is today, but to educate each on the process of picking a school that best fits their needs. His purpose is strictly guidance: to make each player know that he cares about them, regardless of their choice. Coach Johnson serves as an invaluable contradiction that separates the conventional association of being “football tough” with the progressive role of being emotionally expressive with no reservations or no pretense. He’s okay with wearing his emotions on his sleeve at all times, and not afraid of complete strangers seeing it. Perhaps, he’s completely gone against the grain of what Coach McElroy and the rest of the staff playfully calls “the Tommy tough nuts,” of the coaching profession, those pumping their chest on their Twitter handles. “It’s weird, it’s different but it’s special,” said Coach McElroy. “That attracts a certain type of person. No fake tough guy stuff. We are going to hit you in the mouth on Saturdays, but we’re trying to be this type of man every day.” Oh, and Coach McElroy makes sure to prime recruits for the piece of advice that he wasn’t prepared for during his first meeting: get ready, he’s going to cry.

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The Player Driven Culture System Case 5: Responsibility

The Pathway: Accountability

 

“A player run locker room was always the ones that had the most accountability, both to themselves and to their teammates. Any successful team that I played on or coached on was a player-driven locker room.”
– Herm Edwards, head football coach, Arizona State University

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

PJ Fleck often quips about the chaos surrounding his first off-season at the helm of the University of Minnesota football program in 2016. “Only half the team showed up at the first team meeting,” he says. “There were more lawyers than there were football players.” It got to the point that first spring when graduate assistants had to line up at left tackle just to give the defense a decent look in recognition drills. And this was a major Big 10 program coming off a 9-win season. For a time, it seemed as if Coach Fleck’s ultimate desire of having a player-driven program was just a mirage, at least to outsiders. During those first two years,  all operations had to be coach-led as he rushed to mature over 80% of starters that were playing for the first time (his theme in 2017 was “Rush to Maturity”). However, by the end of a 2019 campaign, which produced 11 wins, there were only two players leaving the program that off-season. The shift in culture from coach-led to player-led transpired. Now, the next phase of his player-driven culture is teaching these veterans to learn the importance of responsibility of defending the culture, which is the focus of this competency.

 

Responsibility as a Competency

At its core, responsibility is accountability, both individually and collectively. By definition, responsibility is the moral obligation to behave correctly toward, or in respect of, the program and the foundation of a team-first dynamic. Ideally, any player-driven culture begins with guidance from the head coach and staff. But, to complete the transformation from a coach-led to a player-driven culture, players need to begin to take ownership of the program. And the quicker players trust in the culture, the more they take ownership of it.

During the course of my research, I found there to be a difference between authoritative responsibility, when a coach is telling a player what to do and assumed responsibility, where ownership of the program develops organically. While coaches do need to create the initial vision of the program, eventually they need to turn the keys over to a particular unit or group of people to hold others accountable, letting them drive the bus. “When you give players ownership, that’s when they become problem solvers,” performance coach Fergus Connolly told us. “It’s not just about the game. It has to do with culture, organization, and self-management.” Yet understanding the struggle of bestowing too much responsibility can sometimes have devastating consequences. We’ve all been in the position as coaches when we’ve given responsibilities to players that perhaps weren’t worthy of it. We get wrapped up in the potential optimism of having our best players lead when they simply are not ready. So, when is the right timing to endow this absolute leadership? Many of the sources to this study didn’t talk of a watershed moment. In fact, they believed that like most aspects of culture, responsibility eventually fermented itself over a significant period of cause and effect using the methods detailed below. Players begin to learn their path as leaders, much as coaches do.

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The Player Driven Culture System: Case 6: Resiliency

The Pathway: Adversity

 

“Allowing players to continually work through failure promotes comfortability in pressure-filled experiences.”
–Mike Norvell, Head Football Coach, Florida State University

 

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

Will Healy was only three games into his head coaching career and this was certainly not the vision he had for himself. His Austin Peay State University football team had already been outscored 154 to 59, and things weren’t getting better. As he went to seclude himself  in the corner of the Eastern Illinois University baseball team’s dugout after this last drubbing, he questioned his purpose as a head coach and mentor. “I remember just crying,” he said. “I asked myself what did I do to deserve this? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I hurt so bad. It killed me for the coaches I hired that they weren’t having a great experience. It killed me for the players that bought into what we were asking them to do that they couldn’t enjoy some semblance of success. I took it hard.”

He originally believed that his identity as a football coach was not based on results but on the process of developing young men. So, why was losing a game hurting this much? He questioned what was really important. Call it a watershed moment, call it what you want, but it was at that moment where he made a conscious decision to teach the value of appreciating wins rather than lamenting about losses. Although he would have to wait an entire season to put this new philosophy in order, the Governors finished 0-11 that season, this shift in mindset started to produce tangible results. He led Austin Peay to an 8-4 record in 2017 and five wins in 2018, the first back to back five-win seasons since 1984-85.

Now as the head coach at UNC Charlotte, he built upon the mentality of celebrating wins by incorporating what is known as “Club Lit,” a fictional club-style party dynamic hosted in both home and visiting locker rooms alike. The lighting is dimmed, illuminated solely strobe lights as the bass pumps from a local DJ’s digital turntables. It’s a reward for winning but more importantly a lesson in the hard-fought world of Power 5 football.

 


Photo Courtesy of UNC Charlotte Football

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The Player Driven Culture System: Epilogue: Sustaining A Player-Driven Culture: Surmounting the 6 Main Constraints

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

 

During the course of my research, I found that sustainability of culture may be even more difficult to obtain than creating it. As Clemson University head coach Dabo Sweeney told us after his initial success, he had to train players how to fight complacency. So, I wanted to make sure I addressed all the obstacles that coaches may encounter when working to sustain a player-driven culture. Player-driven culture is without question the healthiest form of culture, yet it has its risks and may not always be attainable due to the various circumstances presented in this section. There can be several obstacles, I refer to them as constraints, that may prevent complete establishment of these competencies. How coaches navigate these waters of uncertainty is at the crux of developing sustainability in culture and as one of my sources told me, “the soil needs to be ripe to build your culture.” Quite simply, he meant that all components, time, resources, support, etc., must be completely aligned to create your culture.

This Epilogue is about the six roadblocks or constraints, I found coaches were having in building and sustaining a player-driven culture. Of course, these constraints can vary based on the level you are coaching. For example, many coaches at larger collegiate programs may not have to work through financial issues, while high school programs may not need to be concerned too much with recruiting. What makes creating player-driven culture so difficult is that all parts of the program must be on board, or aligned, with the cultural initiatives. High school coaches have the liberty of time to establish this—many can stay at their current post for several years. But at the collegiate level, the administration is not as patient. There are no more five-year plans, so to speak.

Remember, the end game in a player-driven culture is always ownership, where players and coaches are given some form of autonomy to defend the core values of the program. Some coaches, like Tim Rulo, the head coach at Chillicothe High School (MO), refers to this progression as impact teaching, while others refer to it as “whole person” development, as I explained in Competency 4, Emotional Awareness. Impact teaching comes in the form of developing players in every aspect of their lives—athletically, academically, and socially. It’s a need that many feel this younger generation is thirsting for. “I see young men struggle,” Coach Rulo said. “I see grown men struggle. The struggle in dealing with conflict, how to lead, and how to get people to get on board. I feel like a lot of times I see men being passive in areas of their life as they get older because honestly, they’ve been spoon-fed how to do things.”

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Communication System Protocols for Odd Pressures

By Steve Erxleben
Defensive Coordinator
South River High School (MD)
Twitter: @CoachErxleben

 

In today’s modern challenge of defending offenses that feature multiple formations made up of multiple personnel groupings with multiple forms of tempo, Defensive schemes have to be sophisticated enough to challenge the run, pass, and protection schemes while also be simple enough to allow players to play fast. As a defensive staff here at South River High School, we decided years ago to transition from more of a base front and coverage team to a scheme rooted in zone pressure and match-carry-deliver principles on the backend. Within our culture defensively and as a staff, we believe with the personnel we have and the style of offenses within our league, hanging our hat on zone pressure allows our scheme to be balanced, have the specific force and alley rules, has a reduced amount of checks, is highly adjustable, and allows us to prevent explosive plays, all allowing our players to play fast.

This past season in 2019, out of 666 plays in 11 games, we zone pressured 72.8% of the time in multiple down and distance, personnel, and +/- situations out of multiple fronts, pre-snap movements, and coverages. Specifically, in what we refer to as heavy run down and distances, we were a 56% blitz team, but these percentages could vary based upon the personnel on the field. “Run Heavy” can also be very comparatively speaking based upon the opponent but for the sake of argument we refer to heavy run downs as 1st and 10, 2nd and 3-1, and 3rd and 3-1.

With these situations being more run-heavy, we expected and intended to see a variance in personnel, formations, blocking surfaces, splits, and schemes designed to create as many double teams as possible. To eliminate some of these threats and to increase the probability of our run pressures getting vertical penetration, create 1 on 1 matchups, and eventually make the ball spill to unblocked defenders we committed to incorporate pre-snap movement in the form of stemming from head to shaded fronts and stemming back to a base front to our already established blitz patterns and pressure terminology. In the end, can we make the OL think twice before the ball is snapped?

 

Base front terminology and how it relates to pressure

Since this report is about effecting runs and run fits in blitz patterns with pre-snap movement, it is warranted to first touch on our Base verbiage and what the Blitz and non-pressure sides are doing (DIAGRAM #1). In our base defense, we will set our front either to the field or the boundary, to or away from the multiple receiver side, to or away from the TE, or to or away from the back in the shotgun. Where we are setting the front is a weekly game plan decision. Every snap we make either a “Roger” or “Louie” call which dictates where the 4th rusher is coming from and if we are in a 3-deep situation, where safety support is spinning. Our Interior linemen always slant away from the front call (Roger/Louie) as the 4th rusher (our call side OLB) becomes the C gap player/5 technique call side. The reduction side call correlates with a coverage call to establish who the force player is to the reduction side as well as who the seam player will be. All of our same-side ILB/OLB or “edge” blitzes correlate with a Roger or Louie call, which we feel makes it easier for our players to identify and gives them a chance to focus more on a disguise and triggering the blitz from a proper depth and angle.

 

DIAGRAM #1

Diagram 1

 

In our terminology, any front that begins with the letter “S” determines the pressure side is to our “SAM” backer. Our SAM backer is our hybrid OLB/DB kind of player and is the adjustor to the field and formation. If our front call is an “S” front the SAM now is the 4th rusher and the reduction is to that side as well (DIAGRAM 2)

 

DIAGRAM #2

Diagram 2

 

Conversely, if the front begins with an “A” we are setting the pressure and reduction AWAY from the SAM, so now our WILL OLB is the 4th Rusher and the pressure side is set away from the SAM. (DIAGRAM #3)

 

DIAGRAM #3

Diagram 3

 

 

 

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RSOs (Run/Screen Options) and PSOs (Pass/Screen Options) From 10/11 Personnel

By Jeff Fischer
Offensive Coordinator/QBs Coach/Recruiting Coordinator
Ventura College (CA)
Twitter: @coachfischer7

 

At Ventura College, we want to stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally on any given play. These concepts are meant to widen the field and use all 53 and 1/3rd, with simple quick “Candy” screens. We use these quick screens as a part of our run game, giving our athletes the most space possible with the ball. We all want an honest box for our run game, or we are going to “Take the Candy” on our quick screen game. The great thing is it is an easy concept for our players to understand and it forces the back end of defenses to either play tighter in coverage or must make a lot of tackles in space.

We run the quick screen game to both sides of the field if the run is intended to be between the tackles. Anything that is designed to be run outside we will stalk block to that side and we can run the quick screen backside.

We try to make the reads as simple as possible for the QB (counting). Including the QB read to run rules, do we have numbers to block the box? Or do we have numbers in the Quick Screen Game? The only time the QB needs to alert and possibly change the play is vs Cover 0 and pressed across the board.

 

10 Personnel:

5 or 5 ½ in the box = Run the ball!

6 in the box = Run or Throw depending on the depth of secondary or apex defender. (If they give you the candy, take the candy)

6 ½ or 7 in the box = (Depending on Run Scheme) Have to throw!  Press Cover 0 Quick Screens aren’t great (likely to change play).

 

11 Personnel (TE in Run Scheme):

6 or 6 ½ in the box = Run the ball!

7 in the box = Run or Throw depending on the depth of secondary or apex defender. (If they give you the candy, take the candy)

7 ½ or 8 in the box = (Depending on Run Scheme) Have to throw!  Press Cover 0 Quick Screens aren’t great (likely change play).

 

We do not play fake and we make the decisions pre-snap, giving us the ability to get the ball outside as quickly as possible. We want to play fast and not let the defense move around after we have made our decision, so we do not tell the RB if we are throwing when in the gun (RB takes regular run tracks). QB must take one clear step by throwing foot backward, so we do not hit the RB while throwing. From pistol, QB must tell RB if we are going to throw the ball (usually with hand signal right before the ball is snapped).

 

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“RB First” Isolation Progressions in Pass Game

By Mike Kuchar with Greg Stevens
Offensive Coordinator
Southeastern Louisiana University
Twitter: @GregStevensSLU

 

It starts during the recruiting process with Greg Stevens. He wants backs that can not only run but be good receivers too. Makes sense, but at the high school level where many backs are groomed to be downhill runners in tight zone and gap schemes, this becomes easier said than done. So, there is an evaluation and training process that he will orchestrate to develop the backs in his system to be pass catchers. “Once they get here, we figure out what they can do,” he said. “Then we have a system to adjust to their skill set.” This system is built around having the back be the primary target in the pass game. The benefits are simple: it forces defense to cover the entire field and makes defensive coordinators think twice about front loading pressure. “We got pressure early in year, but if your back is an option you wind up getting advantages,” he said. “It forced teams to have to cover our back with peel techniques. Eventually they get away from it, particularly if you’re efficient throwing the ball. We saw less and less as the season went along.”

 

Installation/Game Planning:

According to Coach Stevens one of the first biases you have to overcome is teaching the QB that the back is a viable option in the pass game. “It’s all about completions in our drop back pass game because obviously that is what moves the sticks,” he told me. “But you find that backs are usually wide open and QB’s are forcing the ball downfield into double coverage. So, we stress throwing the ball to the back with space.” This mindset is universal. That means even in long yardage situations when receivers are taught to get to the sticks, the back has to be a viable option underneath. “If the coverage dictates the throw then throw it to him,” he said. “We have a better chance of throwing a two yard route to him and having him break a tackle for a first down then trying to push the ball downfield. Most of our third and long conversions have been completed before the chains and getting the first down.”

But with new running backs having to divide teach time with learning run concepts as well, I was curious to hear how many indi routes he will build into their toolbox without overloading their learning curve. For Coach Stevens, it starts by studying the coverages of his opponents. “We run a lot of the same concepts with different personnel and formations,” he told me. “For example, we ran 18 variations of the flood alone last year. So, when use 12 personnel you’ll often get Cover 3 pictures that dictates routes like Floods and boots. If you know that by formation and personnel you are going to get them in different coverages, you need to decide what you want to run against that.”

During the installation process, Coach Stevens will build in the route first and then the back is taught his route based on if he’s to the two-receiver side or three-receivers side. This correlates with what his route is, which is explained by the concept below. When he puts the game plan together, Coach Stevens will highlight the back in each of these concepts and track his touches.
“While touches vary depending on how explosive he is, we wanted to get him at least 15 touches out of 90 plays a game,” he said. This clinic report emphasizes how he’s able to get the back on mismatches in coverage or personnel based on the following core pass concepts:

  • Flare (Swing) Concepts
  • Flood Concepts
  • Spacing Concepts
  • Mesh Concepts
  • Isolations

 

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Teaching Play Side Tackle to ID for Tackle Wrap/Tackle Trap

By Justin Trahan
Offensive Line/Run Game Coordinator
West Orange-Stark High School (TX)
Twitter: @coach_trahan

 

The Dart is a great scheme to use when you can variate at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive alignment. Our play-side (PS) tackle will make this pre-snap read for us and echo his call down the line of scrimmage (deciding whether we will wrap or trap). It is a physical run play in which we coach the Tackle Wrap variation as we would one back power, and our Tackle Trap variation we coach just as we would a physical trap play at the point of attack. This play has been a huge part of our success in recent years. We mirror the Dart with our sprint out game as well as our jet sweep game, which allows us to slow down the second level or get flow at the 2nd-level away from the play using misdirection in the backfield. The backfield action we are showing is a sprint draw look. We use this as misdirection because we sprint out so often it’s just a natural fit to use something that we do well to create smoke and mirrors to make the Dart a better play. We coach a 3-step sprint out fake for the QB and RB, hoping to create that 2nd level flow.

 

Tackle Wrap

In the Wrap variation of our Dart game, we are showing the Sprint Draw in the backfield, this is something we don’t change regardless of how we variate upfront. We coach a 3-step sprint out fake for the QB and RB, hoping to create some 2nd level flow. This could be the biggest reason for our success with this play because we get that 2nd level flow which makes LB’s easier to handle. When facing a 3-man front or a 3-4 defense we can climb to the BS LB using a combo with the center and PS guard. However, against a 4-man front, we are unable to climb to that BS LB which is why the misdirection in the backfield is so key to help us remove that BS LB threat with the flow. We coach a 3-step sprint out fake for the QB and RB, hoping to create that 2nd level flow.

 

Vs. 3-4 or Odd Stack

Coaching points when facing a 3-4 or a 3-3 stack when running the wrap variation of our Dart game. We treat these two fronts differently if a force player is present. If we are facing a 3-3 stack with a force player, we will use the wrap variation and try and hit it under the force player. Whereas against a 3-4 we would only use the wrap variation if there is no force player.

  • PS Tackle is either going to block a 5- technique inside out or down block on a 4-technique.
  • Center and PS Guard will always combo the nose guard to the BS LB, or if it’s a 3-3 stack their combo will be to the Mike LB.
  • The BS guard never changes regardless of the front he always replaces the pulling tackle by blocking back.
  • BS tackle which is the pulling tackle in the wrap variation will use a skip pull technique to create space from the line of scrimmage as well as maintain square shoulders throughout his pull, so when he gets to the whole he can attack LB with square shoulders. Versus a 3-4 defense, he is attacking PS LB which is normally a “20” backer by alignment, or versus a 3-3 stack, he would be pulling for the stacked backer on the PS tackle.

 

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Auxiliary Gap Run Schemes in the Flex Bone Offense

By Derick Heflin
Head Coach
Washington High School (MO)
Twitter: @bluejayfootball or @hef_58

 

We are a Flexbone team that majors in Inside Veer, Outside Veer, and Midline. In 2019, we made the switch to the Flexbone from the Pistol Spread (we were 9-22 in three seasons in the spread, 9-2 this past season in the flexbone). We are a little different in our Flexbone system. We use a TE almost every play, use lots of different formations/backfield sets, and utilize some gap schemes to get our slots involved in the run game. Our top concept in 2019 was Outside Veer, but in our transition process, we were able to incorporate several gap schemes to complement our option scheme. This made the transition easier for our players. We found that less is more with our gap scheme plays. We want to keep things simple and similar. We want to carry over in all our schemes, so it’s easier for us to teach and our players to execute. Our top three gap scheme plays were a combination power/iso play we call Blast, Blast Counter play off of rocket motion using the same blocking as our Blast play, and Trap.

 

Blast

Blast has been our top play for the last 4 years. We kept the play in our scheme as we moved to the flexbone. While Inside/Outside Veer is our bread and butter play(s), Blast is our attitude play. It gives us a play where we can come off the ball and play smash-mouth football. This play is a combination of iso and power. We don’t have huge B Backs (fullbacks) that can kick out big defensive lineman consistently. By blocking the play the way, we do, we can get a favorable matchup of our fullback on a linebacker. Our offensive linemen are also not huge kids. We average about 220 upfront and usually are smaller than the teams we play. This scheme gives us the ability to use the defender’s alignment against him.

We categorize our run game blocking rules. For our gap scheme, our playside linemen rule is to work Gap- On – Down. We will fan or turn out on an outside shade. This gives our undersized lineman an advantage because they can use the defensive lineman alignment against them. We just want them to get off the ball and take the defensive lineman where they want to go. We have our lineman step with their inside foot first, to prevent defensive linemen slanting across our face. Our center will block the first defensive lineman On – Back. He will replace the pulling guard. Backside our guard will pull around working for the first open hole. He blocks the first linebacker head up to his inside. Our backside tackle and tight end will scoop their inside gap. Our offensive linemen make line calls every play and communicates defensive alignment. We always give our backside guard and center the freedom to make an Ice call. This call tells the backside guard not to pull. We do this when we don’t feel comfortable with the look we are getting. In this case, the play becomes Iso.  We also can make a call where all the linemen block down, making the play basically Power. By using the blocking scheme and using tags we can get more bang for the buck. This is what we want out of our complimentary plays.

Our fullback will run his inside veer path and block the first linebacker head up to the outside. The playside slot’s rule is fan or fold. We give him the option to choose the best path for him to get the outside linebacker or force player blocked. Both of these players in our offense are usually 160 to 175 pounds. They rely on angles and quickness to make these blocks more than sure power.

For our mesh on Blast, our backside slot takes 3 motion steps, drives off his outside foot and dives at the crack of the playside guard. We tell him to run to green grass. We don’t want to over coach this point. Our quarterback will reverse out, take two steps at 6 o’clock, and put the ball in the belly of the slot. He is supposed to boot after the handoff. Our WR rule is to block the near deep defender or TD Alley.

This past season we averaged 4.2 yards a carry on this play. It was a great compliment to our Veer scheme and gave us an easy way to get the slots the ball. Also, it gives our quarterback a play off from having to make reads or decisions.

 

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Outside Cage vs. Interior Pressure Angles in 3-Deep, 2-Under Fire Zones

By Garrett McLaughlin
Special Teams Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach
Bates College, Lewiston Maine
Twitter: @_CoachG_

 

On every defensive staff, I’ve been a part of, there has always been a conversation about blitz game. The best way to bring extra heat against the run and pass while also mitigating risk and keeping things as simple as possible for the players. One of the best answers we’ve found to that is ‘Hot Pressures’ – 3 Deep, 2 Under-fire zone coverage while rushing six. There are some very distinct advantages to this pressure structure:

  • It’s simple. You can easily mirror it, make one-word calls to help your defense line up, and it requires very few checks
  • It’s vision-based. For any of the non-blitzers, it is a pure spot drop, eyes on the ball operation
  • It’s easy to disguise
  • Great vs the run
  • If you run Cover 4 as a base, the strengths and weaknesses of the coverage are quite different

 

Most importantly, it has a demonstrated track record of success. Running these types of pressures in 2015 at SUNY Buffalo State over 200 times, we allowed 1.4 yards per carry, along with 4 INTs, 10 sacks, and numerous TFLs. We were a four-down, press quarters operation, but I’m convinced (and have seen it done on film) that this scheme can be successful within any structure. As a staff we didn’t have any situation we would call these pressures in – Whenever we felt it was right, we would let it rip.

 

BASIC CONCEPT / RULES

Before going into specific teaching, there are some important general points to review. The first is how critical disguise is to this pressure structure working. Part of the benefit of running your pressures in this manner is that it is easy to be deceptive within how you do it. So with whatever your base defense is, make sure you’re giving the same look pre-snap when you have a hot pressure called.

Within that, from a front standpoint, at Buffalo State, we always played it from our base rules. It was most important for the defensive line to understand where they had to get to within each pressure concept. For example, if ‘Fire’ was called (See Diagram below), the left defensive tackle knew that he had to get into the opposite A Gap, regardless if he were lined up in a 3 tech, a 2i, or a 1.

 

Additionally, built into all our pressures vs a TE surface the C Gap would always be the one that would be open. That way, our second and third level fitters can always anticipate where the open game will be.

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Alcorn State’s Receiver-Based Route RPO Route Progressions

By Elliott Wratten and Jason Phillips
Offensive Coordinator, Wide Receiver Coach
Alcorn State University (MS)
Twitter: @CoachWratten @ALCORN_COACHJP

 

RPOs have become a staple of college football, and our offense at Alcorn State. The routes that we run are not unique to us, but our packaging for our RPOs is. We use this RPO package with inside zone, inside zone variations, power, and counter.

The uniqueness of our system is that we let our players call the route based on some parameters and base rules. Our system of letting the players call the pass concept is one that was built out of necessity. Our issue became that defenses would give us a throw read, but the coverage behind it was making it a bad look to throw the ball into. This was causing us to throw contested balls and putting WRs into harm’s way.

We base out of 11 personnel along with the ability to flex into some 12 personnel. Our base philosophy of this concept is that the QB is responsible for the 7th defender on both sides. If the QB feels that #7 can tackle the ball for 6 or less, the ball needs to be thrown. This allows us to have some different answers based on how the defense is playing us, and the different things we faced when teams try to dictate throws vs. runs.

 

Why?

Our No. 1 reason for using our RPO system is to get even numbers in the run game. We believe if we have 6 on 6, our guys are good enough to hand the ball off and get at least 6 yards. That’s a win for us; that means we are in a position to dictate to the defense what we want. We use our RPOs to keep the box honest and take advantage of field space when defenses cheat seven and eight guys into the box.

Diagram 1

 

We have a few reasons that we went to a system that allowed the kids to call the route based on the look. The first was most defenses have adjusted to check-with-me offenses, and this allows the players to call the look based on what the defense has presented to them. This allows us to maintain our tempo and not be a play behind and turn play-calling into a guessing game. The second is we have dramatically improved the looks that we throw into and have eliminated high-risk throws such as bubbles into cloud corners or glances into bad leverage. This has allowed us to still control the #7 defender to each side and throw the best look available.

We also have been able to marry our runs with our throws in the available field space.

Lastly, this system has allowed us to be more explosive. Our system has now allowed us to capitalize on the defense taking away our 6-yard run. Our intention is not to replace that 6 yards with a 5-yard completion but instead to catch the ball on the move for a first down and the chance of an explosive play.

 

Run Game Complements:

We are primarily an 11 personnel offense with the TE playing as a sniffer most of the time, but we will attach him as well.

Our base runs we use with these RPOs, are inside zone, split zone, zone iso, power, and counter. This allows us to pair up our best runs and the throws will be added on as an extra layer. Zone iso has proven to be the most effective and stressful for defenses, but it also is the one defenses work to take away first.

Our criteria for the inside zone is going to start with the zone iso. Once a defense works to take that away, our next progression is the split zone or same-side zone. The zone iso allows us to create extra gaps inside the box and put stress on the #7 defender to fit an internal gap quicker. Once defenses start moving the Defensive Tackles, we will use more split zone and inside zone to allow for better angles and more efficient blocking.

Diagram 2

Diagram 3

Diagram 4

 

Power and Counter are look-specific plays for us. The advantage for power and counter is like zone iso in the regard that we are creating extra gaps and forcing the #7 defender to fit quicker. The biggest issue with power is the backside hinge by the tackle; we must be comfortable with how the defense is playing it that week. If the three-technique is a bad matchup and a vertical player, it likely will not be in the game-plan that week. If we are getting a shade to the backside, or an open B-Gap, it can be in the game plan for that week. Counter, if we are playing a tight squeeze and spill team, we again can RPO. If the DE to the side we are running the ball is a mesh charge or vertical player, it will not be in the game plan.

We ask the center to point a LB in everything we do. On every run, pass, or no play we are identifying a “Point” LB. The point for our inside zone and pass protection marries up to allow us to know who we are responsible for as an OL and lets the QB know who he is responsible for in pass pro or RPO. There has been carryover for the QB knowing whether he is throwing hot off the defender or if he is a defender forcing an RPO to be thrown.

 

Identifying and Manipulating Seventh Defender:

QB’s first responsibility in our offense is to set the defense. Being that we are exclusively a shotgun football team, this always requires having our hands up prepared to catch the snap. We will also bluff, raising, and lowering our hands to get the defense to their final alignment. From there we will identify our #7 to each side — both who they are and where they are based off the center’s point. We identify frontside #7 as first past the point play side and backside #7 as 2nd behind the point. Multiple positions could qualify as #7, we define him as the defender most likely to tackle the ball if handed for six yards or less. We will work play side to backside in identifying the most dangerous #7. When either #7 is on the LOS we will abort the run and send the RB to the issue. If the play side #7 is an issue we will never make it to the backside and must handle him. Once we have cleared the #7 play side, we can work to #7 backside. At this point, we will receive the signaled routes from the tagged WRs.

Diagram 5

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