August 22, 2013

From Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee, the new FSU Defense

The "Film Breakdown" feature is back on Warchant for a second year folks, and with football so close we can taste it, you can bet it was fun to get back to hours of discussion, theory and studying of some new principles.

Before we get started on the subject at hand, let's take a second to welcome in Chris Malagon to the breakdown staff. Chris knows his stuff and will help make this feature more in-depth and thorough than ever before. Now let's get to our first case study: Jeremy Pruitt's defense.

Without a doubt, Pruitt will bring unique principles to the table, independent of his roots. Every coach does. But make no mistake, when one learns from the college game's premier mind in Nick Saban (and at Saban's position of expertise, no less), one will do a lot of mental carbon copying. So if we wish to look ahead to Florida State's defensive scheme in 2013, we must look no further than the Alabama Crimson Tide's schemes from 2012.

The screenshots are coming in just a bit, but first, let's define our terms.

Defining terms: Pruitt theory

As a student of Nick Saban's tactics, coach Pruitt took principles and terminology with him from Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee. The first theoretical hurdle to clear is discussing hybrid roles.

Hybrid roles

Perhaps this section should not be called defining terms, but rather "refining" terms. To call one player a safety, a corner or a linebacker is particularly limiting when applying traditional notions to those positions. In the Mark Stoops scheme, along with most others, the cookie cutter linebacker mold is what appears on the field at the linebacker position. Corner and safety are the same way, too. But now, forget everything about traditional position labeling.

Responsibility and assignment are king now, and whether a 5-foot-11 or 6-foot-5 body type can carry out a given role, getting it done is all that matters. One thing that recruiting sites get particularly right for our purposes is when they label a prospect an "athlete." In truth, treating a Tyler Hunter or a Karlos Williams as an athlete rather than a corner or a safety is probably the most accurate way to describe their projected roles in this Seminole defense. Williams is the best example: a linebacker body type with defensive back agility and speed? The old scheme says you have a rigid decision to make about Williams' destiny while the new one has multiple options.


The "Star" position lines up in the strongside slot. In a traditional 4-3 look, this position is your strongside (or Sam) linebacker. In a traditional nickel look, it is your nickel back. Attributed to Bill Belichick by Saban in this video from SmartFootball, the Star must carry out the versatile duties of a slot defender.

In passing packages, the player could be asked to press up and cover a slot receiver in man. The player could rush also off the edge as a field-side blitzer. And in a traditional look, the Star could function as a linebacker in a short zone or draw the tailback as an assignment. Truly, the assignments are as numerous as the offensive options across the ball.

Between Star and "Money" - which we will explain momentarily - the star has to master more different things.


Using Saban's own words in the video linked above, the Money position requires some specialties in physical stature. While the Star position requires versatility in the slot and in space, the Money requires a bigger body type, says Saban, because the player has to be able to hang with the tight end in many situations. But to be precise, the Money back is in the slot of a weakside (or Will) linebacker.

As we know from traditional defensive looks, weakside players have more freedom to make plays in the backfield and sideline to sideline. Think about Nigel Bradham's tackle totals at FSU throughout his career, or what Derrick Brooks brought to the table in the National Football League. Money players may end up in the frame more often than one would expect.

Gaps, Techniques and utilization of D-line

While plenty of you are already familiar with these definitions, before we explore what Alabama does along the defensive line, let's first look at techniques.

Rather than always attacking offensive lines head-on, defenses employ specific spots for lineman to set up and refer to these locations as techniques. Each technique is responsible for its corresponding gap.

Insert diagram of techniques and gaps in body of post somewhere here

Techniques Defined

0 - Nose Tackle

In the 3-4, lines up directly over the center and is responsible for both A gaps. Ideally, this technique is at least 320 pounds and can control the center while drawing a double-team from a guard. (think Vince Wilfork, Paul Soliai, Terrence Cody)

1 - Nose Tackle

In the 4-3, is positioned on the inside shoulder of a guard and is only responsible for the A gap on his side of the formation. The 1 technique is also expected to draw a double-team from the center and guard. This creates one-on-one matchups for the rest of the defensive line. (Haloti Ngata, Domata Peko, Shariff Floyd)

3 - Defensive Tackle

In the 4-3, lines up shaded to the guard's outside shoulder. Is responsible for shooting the B gap on his side. If the 1 technique is doing his job, the 3 should have a one-on-one matchup and the opportunity to get tackles for loss. (Ndamukong Suh, Darnell Dockett, Geno Atkins)

5 - Defensive end

In the 3-4, positioned in front of the tackle and has to account for both the B and C gaps. Defensive ends in the 3-4 need to be big and strong enough to battle tackles one-on-one. (J.J. Watt, Justin Smith, Jarvis Green)

7 - Defensive end

In a 4-3, not illustrated in the diagram but this is your traditional speed rusher in a four down set. (Julius Peppers, Terrell Suggs, John Abraham)

9 - Rush end

This technique, also not listed in the graphic, is almost always used for specialized situations. The 9 technique will line up well outside the tackle and well outside the tight end in order to spread the line thin in obvious passing situations. (Dwight Freeney, Kyle Vanden Bosch)


Alabama uses its interior lineman in each of these techniques. While they are considered a base 3-4 defense, the 3-4 is used a fraction of the time. Depending on what formation the offense is in, Alabama will use multiple players in multiple looks in order to disrupt the offense's blocking scheme. In other words, it's primarily about creating mismatches and opportunities to put the defense in the best possible position to have success.

Tim Jernigan was a 3 technique in Florida State's defense under Mark Stoops. This season, it would not be surprising to see him play on the outside as a 5 technique when in the 3-4. Jernigan himself said he's worked some in that role in fall camp. Playing Jernigan at the 5 technique would open things up for Christian Jones to rush off the edge from his outside linebacker position.

Conversely, Jernigan has proven effective as a 3 technique and Florida State could use Nile Lawrence-Stample or Eddie Goldman at the 1 technique to free up space for him to make plays in the backfield. The opposing offense will dictate how and when each player will be used.

Guiding principles

Matchup driven

In his brief media availability, one thing new Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made abundantly clear was how important it is for defenses to be versatile in today's game of college football. It would not be wise, for example, to have three linebackers on the field against a spread offense with four receivers on the field. And you certainly do not need six defensive backs when the offense has two tight ends and a fullback.

Alabama approaches this by recruiting players that can play multiple positions. There is not much difference between corners and safeties, as stated above. By the same token, defensive backs that play star and money must carry traits and characteristics of a linebacker. This grants the defense an ability to be multiple without having to constantly change personnel.

This is very similar to basketball teams that play "small ball." What you give up in size at center, you make up for with better athletes on the perimeter. The same concept applies in Pruitt's defense. While the nickel back or star is not as big as a traditional linebacker, speed and athleticism provides more opportunities for big plays.

Much like a power forward will assume the role of center even though he might be undersized, a defensive end could play along the interior of the line during passing situations in order to generate a more effective pass rush.

These principles applied on the football field are solely implemented to create mismatches and gain the advantage. This cross-training philosophy ensures that defenders know their teammates responsibilities as well as their own. You could almost say it is a "positionless" defense because the concepts are much more important than where players initially line up.

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