By Garrett McLaughlin
Buffalo State College
Perhaps the single biggest storyline from this past NFL postseason was the emergence of the spread, zone read offense. Players like Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson proved what many of us already knew – that no matter the level, an option based offense that forces the defense to cover the entire field horizontally and vertically puts the defense at a distinct numbers disadvantage.
In addition to the schematic problem defenses face, the spread offense also utilizes fast, hybrid type players that pose numerous issues for defenses to scheme against. The modern trend has become to use a quarterback that is dangerous not only with his arm, but also with his legs, in conjunction with ultra-fast running backs who are not only skilled at finding seams through the defense on the ground, but can also run precise routes and be a threat to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. Additionally, gone are the days of bulky tight ends that function more like an additional offensive lineman. Now, tight ends are longer, lankier athletes who are asked to not only block, but also be a threat to catch the ball and make a defender miss. Indeed, the spread has gone from a “gimmick” offense run by few teams in an era when pro-style, two-back traditional offenses dominated the football landscape, to an offense that seems to be more the norm than the gimmicky exception.
The onus now falls onto us as defensive coaches to find the best way to combat this disadvantage. At Buffalo State, our answer to the offense’s fast, hybrid players is our own fast, hybrid players. Thus, the Big Kat position was born. These Linebacker/Safety hybrids (named the Tiger and Bengal) play at a position that would be generally identified as an “overhang” player to offenses, normally lining up five yards by five yards from the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL). As coaches, we’ve found that use of these players is the best way to control the zone read and jet sweep running game, bubble/tunnel screens, and the slot driven passing game that are hallmarks of the modern spread offense. Our staff believes that because that area is so critical, our defense needs to have players that just specialize in dominating that space.
When attempting to recruit a player to fit these positions, the first thing our staff looks for is flat out playing speed. As mentioned previously, spread offenses are trying to stretch the field and create extra space for themselves by formation and putting a bunch of little fast guys in the game, so our defense must try to constrict this space by spreading our formation out and putting faster guys on the field as well.
The next two critical traits that we look for in recruiting Big Kat’s is physicality and change of direction ability. It is absolutely critical that our Big Kats are able take on blocks from tight ends and fullbacks, rush the passer, and tackle in the open field. In addition, Big Kats must be quick-twitch athletes who can change direction and reach full speed in an instant to react to the plethora of plays they will get thrown at them. If you possess those three qualities, you can play Big Kat for us.
The first thing we focus on is developing a great stance and read steps. When in his stance, the Big Kat’s shoulders must be square to the line of scrimmage, feet pointed in toward the offense’s EMOL, with a good athletic bend in his knees. All his weight must be loaded on his front leg, and on the snap of the football, he will take short six inch read steps in towards the EMOL as he diagnoses the play. THE MOST CRITICAL THING is that our Big Kat keeps his weight loaded on his front foot so he can either push off it forward to play the run or push off it backwards to get into his pass drop. Alignment wise, we want our Big Kat lining up five by five off the EMOL. The only thing that changes his alignment is a formation that has receivers split to out wide to one side only (in our terminology identify this as single width). In this case, our Big Kat to the side with no split receivers must line up with a two by two alignment. We want him cutting his split down in this case because he now has no one outside of him that is an immediate threat in the pass game and we want him to be quicker to the party vs. the run. Our coaching staff will also generally have some kind of coverage check for the week in response to this kind of look as well.