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 SES2173By Zach Watkins, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Washburn University

Find out how Washburn's “Auto” coverage allows them to play a Cover 3 coverage while handling certain routes with man principles and providing great help against any combination of 4 verticals.


Zach Watkins
Co-Defensive Coordinator / Special Teams Coordinator / Safeties
Washburn University
Twitter: @Zach_Watkins and @WU_Football

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 SES2173Our base scheme here at Washburn University is the 4-2-5. We believe that by playing this as our base defense we’re provided with the flexibility to defend any type of offensive scheme we will face. Up-tempo no huddle, spread, pro-style, triple option, etc. are all schemes to be soundly defended by the 4-2-5. By having 5 DBs on the field, we are able to play a variety of coverages with our base personnel. Last spring, we wanted to research and install a coverage that combined several parts of our preferred coverages. “Auto” coverage was our perfect fit as it allows us to play a Cover 3 coverage while handling certain routes with man principles. In addition, we have found Auto coverage to work very well against any combination of 4 verticals. We can eliminate this spacing problem normally felt against 4 verticals by squeezing the verticals into our help. Auto is by no means our own original idea, but we have modified certain aspects of the check system to fit our personnel (as explained below).



In our base alignment above, Auto is drawn against a base 2x2 set which is our favorite formation to play this against. With that said, we believe this is a sound coverage against any formation. In this case, the alignment rules are as follows:

  • LBs will align in 30s (outside shoulder of guard) at normal depth (toes at 5 yards).
  • Strong safety (SS) will align 1 yard outside #2 WR at 4 yards depth.
  • Our free safety (FS) and star (weak side passing strength, $) will align 12x2.
  • The $ will cheat his alignment down during cadence (sometimes aligning there initially).
  • Corners (C) will align 5-7 yards off if they are not pressed up. We change our corners’ alignments often to give various looks. Corners align 1 yard inside leverage.

Assignments vs. Any Non 3x1 Set

The concept of our Auto coverage is very simple. It is a combination coverage of man and Cover 3 and all positions will key their run read first. The LBs key the near guard through to the backfield, or what we call the essential “triangle”. The SS and $ will key the end man on the line of scrimmage or the uncovered offensive lineman if he playing the high safety. The FS will key the uncovered OG to the OT. Lastly, the CBs will key the #1 receiver.


Editor’s Note: The Largest Study on the 4-2-5 Defense Ever Conducted. Go Here.

Auto is best explained from the outside in. The way we teach it, corners and safeties (SS/$) have essentially the same rule; “anything up or out.” Anything “up or out” by the #2 receiver is to be played as outside leverage man to man for the safeties. Anything “up or out” by the #1 receiver is to be played as inside leverage man to man for the corners. We use the term “Man on Deep” (M.O.D.) as well as “up or out” for the CBs. “Up or out” is anything vertical past 6-7 yards. Our depth for this can change week to week based on opponent. 


From the safeties perspective, a #2 receiver can be a WR, TE, or if 2 backs, a RB out of the backfield. Once he makes an “up or out” read on #2, that man is his man and he must stay with him in proper leverage. We are trying to squeeze all vertical routes by the #2 receiver into the FS by being physical on the receiver’s outside hip. The FS is essentially playing the middle 1/3 of a cover 3 look. Depth and middle of formation are his main thoughts as the play develops. We want the FS to be breaking downhill on any ball, similar to how he would play Cover 3 or Cover 1.





Where we might differ from other programs that run this coverage, is how we handle certain formations and 3x1 sets. We have several ways we can defend WR trips, TE trips, Wing trips, WR trips with a backside nub TE, etc. This past season, we were creative in our game planning with different formations to Auto and found what worked best for our players. 3x1 sets present another set of key terms we use to make responsibilities easy. These terms include “Take 2 back”, “3 through to the flat”, “3 up is 3” and “4 or first crosser.” As long as the player can count to 4, he should know what his responsibility is in our 3x1 checks. Below I will detail two of our main checks; Bounce and Ride.

NOTE: We can play any of our checks to any 3x1 set, but we could also stay with our normal Auto rules (where LB would have to leverage displaced #3 to the flat).


What You’re Missing…

Join X&O Labs’ exclusive membership website, Insiders, and get instant access to the full-length version of Coach Watkins’ clinic report. Here’s just a short list of what you’re missing without an Insiders membership…

  • The “up or out” and “M.O.D.” rule played by corners and safeties in Auto coverage.
  • How a shallow route changes the coverage.
  • The “push” call used against offenses that get backs out in routes.
  • The “bounce” check in 3x1 formations which changes the rules of the linebackers and strong safety.
  • The “ride” check, which is an adjustment against offenses that put their speed receiver at the number three spot in 3x1 formations.
  • Plus game film on these concepts.

Join the Insiders. Go Here.



Playing Auto coverage allows us to blend our preferred Cover 3 zone and man principle coverages. While the rules may seem complex initially, we have found that offenses have a hard time both diagnosing and attacking this coverage. Perhaps most importantly, we have found this concept to be very flexible allowing us to tweak it to fit our players and for maximum success.

I would like to thank X&O Labs for allowing me to share in the great service they provide to the coaching community. I would also like to thank our great staff at Washburn University. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the Insiders comments area.


Meet Coach Watkins: In 2014, Zach Watkins completed his first season as Washburn’s Co-Defensive Coordinator/Special Teams Coordinator/Safeties coach. He spent the 2011-2013 seasons as an assistant coach at Fort Hays State where he was the Defensive Line/Special Teams Coordinator for two seasons and the Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator for one season. Watkins spent one season as a graduate assistant at Northwest Missouri State prior to joining the Fort Hays coaching staff.

Watkins was a four-year starter at linebacker for Washburn from 2006-09 under current Fort Hays State Head Coach Chris Brown and Defensive Coordinator Cooper Harris. He put together a historic career for the Ichabods, registering 100 or more tackles in each season, compiling a school record 473 for his career. That mark also placed him third all-time in NCAA Division II history at the end of his career.




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