A-Gap Distortion: Man Blocking the Tight Zone Concept

By Mike Kuchar with Brian Gabriel
Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach
Monmouth University (NJ)
Twitter: @CoachGabeMU



As a high school coach in New Jersey, I’ve been well versed in the success that Monmouth University has had running the football the last several years. Guided by perhaps the longest tenured coach at the FCS level in head coach (29 years) in Kevin Callahan, the Hawks continually are at or the near the top in several offensive categories. And the last couple seasons were no different. The Hawks tight zone concept- the top run scheme in its menu- averaged 7.8 yards per carry in 2019 and 7.6 yards per carry in 2020.

But how they’ve built their tight zone scheme is what makes it so efficient. Back in 2019, the offensive staff under the direction of coordinator Jeff Gallo made a conscience choice to separate the scheme into two separate concepts:

  • Front side exchange (“Atlanta”) which is a wider exchange where the aiming point is the inside leg of the play side Guard. Here the read is defined for the running back with the intention of tracking second level defenders. It’s a zone scheme until leverage (on the point) takes you back.
  • Backside exchange (“Arkansas”) where the Center’s leg is the target in a much tighter exchange. The ball carrier gets the ball in the backside A gap but must get to Center’s play side foot as an aiming point until they get a clear read. It’s a man scheme unless the point takes you to a zone scheme.



They’ve made a conscience chose to major in the latter and it’s helped in displacing A gap defenders, which need to be handled in tight zone runs. I spoke at length with offensive line coach/run game coordinator Brian Gabriel about why he’s decided to make the shift. He told me that now he doesn’t ask his linemen to cover defenders up. Instead he defines the gaps for ball carriers. “We’ve gone away from the old school mentality of just covering people up and letting the back run,” he said. “Instead it’s become more of an iso mentality now because it’s all about protecting the A gap and displacing that defender. We don’t emphasize looking at LB’s, those downs (lineman) will get you first. So, now we try to just open gaps.”  He says it’s helped in providing accountability in making the play efficient. “It becomes a missed assignment for the offensive line and not the back,” he said. “We never want to say the back read it wrong. We have to define it for him.”

This report focuses on the identification system Monmouth uses to block various fronts in the Arkansas concept and the specific techniques that Coach Gabriel uses to help define those gaps for the ball carrier in its tight zone concept.

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The Making of the Modern Quarterback

By Bruce Feldman

Editor’s Note: The following is a transcribed interview between XandOLabs.com Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar and Fox Sports college football analyst Bruce Feldman. Feldman just completed his fourth book The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks which can be found by clicking here.




After reading Bruce’s fourth book (after previously reading the first three), I found this one to be a telling narrative on the process the more prominent quarterback trainers use to develop their clients to get them NFL ready. Bruce is known for getting all-access availability to tell his stories, so I wasn’t surprised that he was given cart blanche into Trent Dilfer’s Elite 11 Organization and how the most well known quarterback gurus develop their clients and prepare them for the scouting combine and the NFL draft. Bruce’s piece was centered around five specific personalities that work with these quarterbacks:

The Gurus:


Trent Dilfer– Head Coach of the Elite 11 quarterback camp and ESPN analyst. Former Super Bowl champion quarterback with the Baltimore Ravens.

George Whitfield Jr– Founder and owner of Whitfield Athletix who has worked with Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton and who is currently working with Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty for this spring’s NFL Draft.

Yogi Roth– Host and analyst for the ‘Elite 11’ quarterback show on ESPN, college football analyst for the Pac-12 Network who also co-authored his first book with Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll titled Win Forever.

Tom House– Former pitching coach at the University of Southern California who also played–and coached in the Majors, later helping Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, among others. He also trains NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees. He was also portrayed in the movie “Million Dollar Arm” which released in 2014.

Steve Clarkson– Ex CFL QB who is the founder and owner of Dreammaker Academy and has tutored the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley and Jimmy Clausen.


The Interview:

Mike Kuchar (MK): Dilfer makes a lot of references to “dude qualities” citing the intangibles that makes quarterbacks special. He refers to his four intangibles: competitive temperament, functional football intelligence, passing proficiency and trainability. He talks about thermostat vs. thermometer, being able to feel pressure and respond to it. He mentions specifically that this is not and inherent trait, but can be developed over time. How does Dilfer develop it? What can coaches at lower levels do to facilitate this trait?

Bruce Feldman (BF): What I found so interesting about Dilfer is not only is he consumed by the world of the QB, but he’s savvy enough and connected enough to have taken his passion and devised a 3-dimensional game plan that he’s put in effect to leverage his big ESPN platform and seed it down to the grass roots level. In regard to something like the thermostat vs. thermometer leader and how Dilfer believes that can be developed, I think back to something David Blough, now the QB at Purdue told me about how he had studied previous Elite 11 shows on ESPN. This is what Blough said:

“I learned it’s about a lot more ‘mental,’ the leadership and being able to adapt and make plays work,” Blough later told me. “It’s a lot more than just being able to throw the ball. It’s all about how you’re wired, how you work. A thousand kids can throw the ball, but it’s the intangibles that separate you. They (the good ones) really stress it. That was something I had to focus on if I wanted to be noticed. I was slapping people’s hands when they caught a pass for me; I tried to bring high energy, and it seemed to work. So it’s stuck with me.”

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Interview with Jim McNally


By Mike Kuchar

Senior Reseach Manager

X&O Labs



Editor’s Note:  Jim McNally has been alluded to as the “grandfather of offensive line play” during his 41-year tenure as an OL coach.  Continually known for being on the cutting edge of blocking techniques and fundamentals, currently McNally serves as an offensive line consultant for the Cleveland Browns, after having the same position with the New York Jets.  Much of McNally’s resources- including information on his yearly clinic- could be found at coachmcnally.com Mike Kuchar, X&O Labs Senior Research Manager, spent some time talking with McNally this off-season on the newest trends in offensive line play.    Coach McNally and the drill film included in this interview come to us courtesy of SOTL/FBU.  Check out more from them at:  http://www.sotl.com . 


MK:  Coach, you always preach that Offensive Line play always starts with the stance.  How have you found lineman to be more effective based on their stance?

JM:  You should get into a stance in which you can get the job done, as it refers to the stagger in the feet.  The Right Tackle in a right handed stance and has to go to his inside and his right stagger is too deep for whatever reason.  I think you need to get more parallel or get in a right handed stance and drop your left foot back because you can’t get to where you have to get to because a coach mandates that you have to have a stance that is a certain way.  Who cares who sees what you’re doing if you have to shift your inside leg a little bit?  I feel that too many coaches worry about giving things away.  Who cares?  They don’t know which scheme you’re running.  In the NFL the guys have so many assignments and responsibilities that I’m not so sure if they can tell if a guy is going left or right.  Whether it could be a reverse, counter, etc.  If it’s third and long and you’re a right tackle, stay up and put your right foot back as deep as you can.  I do know that it’s easier from the left side to put your left hand down and your left foot back in pass pro because it’s easier to get the kick slide on pass protection.  On the left side it’s tough to pass block someone who is wider so the left hand and foot is back.  You don’t want to cross over your body with your right hand. There isn’t many colleges or pro guys right now that are not left handed on the left side.  I think you can play the whole game in a two-point stance.  When you’re in a two-point stance you take that first step you can lower your center of gravity.  Except on third and one or on the goal line- I wouldn’t use the two point in that situation.  The reason I like it is because you can vary your splits pre-snap when a defense shifts.  As soon as you lock yourself down with your hand you can’t make any adjustments.   

MK:  How can offensive lineman gain an advantage by using their splits?

JM:  Unless the defensive team does a lot of stemming, I’m not sure that you should vary your splits.  If two guys have to work together I don’t care if they get foot to foot.  So much of offenses now are double teams and combo blocks.  Well, get foot to foot so that you can execute the block.  The guard sets the integrity of the split.  The defense may know something is up, but they don’t necessarily know that you’re on the backside of a zone play or the front side of a double team play.  If my backside guard is pulling on the power play I don’t care where he lines up.  Just get off the ball.  You may have a bootleg, reverse or naked where that guard pulls.  Do what you have to do to get the job done.  Conversely, if the backside is off the line of scrimmage, the front side should be on.  They need to be able to maneuver their blocks or the pulling guard may not be able to see his assignment if the front side gets knocked off the ball.  The pulling guard has more time and space to see his assignment.

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