spoiler alert: i linked this
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This is a companion piece to last week's refresher on inside zone, Michigan's new base play. Outside Zone, also known as the Zone Stretch, is one of two very common complementary plays to IZ, because the technique for the offense isn't very different, but the way the defense has to defend it is (the other complementary play is Power-O, Michigan's extremely nominal base play the last few years).
Outside Zone Defined
The difference, as made obvious by the name, is the point of attack. Inside Zone blocks "downhill"; the running back aims for the first line defender past the center, and picks a lane to either side of the guards. In Outside Zone the back is running to a point outside the five linemen. Some coaches say run to the back of your tight end, others say run to the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS); it comes to the same thing.
Here's Alex Gibbs (from the Elway-era Broncos), via Smart Football:
This is another "base" play. If the defense plays sound against it, the success of the play comes down to execution and talent. As with IZ, if the defense gets too aggressive the reaction to that is built into the play.
This isn't a play that attacks multiple sides; it threatens outside and can come back inside if the defense overreacts to that. Since we're coming into this from a fan perspective I won't get into the footwork you can't see, but you'll recognize Outside Zone immediately because the linemen start out by moving sideways.
As you can see, reps, reps, and more reps turn this into a possibly devastating play. The more you run it, the better the team will react to various things defenders do. In the video above Gibbs talks about the guards "making the read for him [the RB]". The big breaks from OZ come when a guard or center sees a defender reacting too aggressively, let that guy run himself out of the play, and then destroy a back-filling defender.
Like inside zone, the offensive linemen have to read the defensive front to decide before the play begins who they're blocking. The "covered" rules still apply: if someone's lined up over you, you're covered; if not you're uncovered:
The general rule of coveredness still applies: if there's a guy lined up over you, you have to block him. But the whole idea of a zone stretch is it slides the line, so if you're uncovered that means you have to reach the next defender to the playside of you, and if you're covered you're looking to 1) get playside of that dude and 2) combo block him with your uncovered buddy, and 3) release and get downfield.
Combo blocking is one of the things that takes lots and lots of reps. The essential blocking rule is don't let anybody cross your visor, and block the guy in your zone. Outside Zone's strength against a base defense is it creates double-teams at the point of attack
How It's Defended
Outside Zone pairs well with Inside Zone because a defense used to IZ can get caught inside, but that should be rare with a well-coached defense because the play is quite obvious from the first step by the offensive linemen, and from what's going on in the backfield (the RB isn't coming downhill). As soon as the defense realizes this they have to get on their horses and prevent the offensive linemen from flanking them, but because of the threat of the cutback, the defense also has to maintain gap responsibility.
There's gonna be a huge temptation for the EMLOS, with the play headed right for him, to square up and end the play right there, but the most important thing (unless they've given him extraordinary safety help) for him is to keep the play inside. The offense knows this, and a good tight end who can get that EMLOS skating wide can create a big hole to run through; a bad tight end will let the EMLOS get leverage and hold him inside, squeezing the hole shut.
Keys to Success
Every little thing the offense does has a potential to make or break this play. The faster the RB makes his cut and accelerates through the decided hole, the bigger this can break.
A fleet-footed, quick-thinking, tough sumbitch of an interior lineman can really make this go. David Molk could consistently get playside of a guy lined up shaded strong on him, and could react so well to defenders that he'd often make the RB's job easy, abandoning a defender running himself out of the play to catch a chasing linebacker and create a gaping hole.
Outside Zone is where a great running back can really shine and a just-a-guy can make the play barely more than a side show. Mike Hart, with his great vision for a developing hole, his super-quick and decisive cut, his great acceleration, and his tiny stature in comparison to the mountain of flesh in front of him, was an awesome Outside Zone running back; if only he had stayed healthy the one year he got to run it consistently.
[One sample play and more coming, after the jump]
By the end of this article you should be able to make an educated guess
as to what Braden is saying to A.J. Williams [Fuller]
You may have heard Michigan has a new offensive identity, by which of course we mean Michigan now has an offensive identity. We think. We're told. Evidence for this is Michigan hired a new OC who runs inside zone, and he has even Brady Hoke talking about it being our base thing. This thing is totally happening. I mean if they hadn't sworn up and down for three years that Power was going to be their thi...
Let's just not go into that and focus on inside zone and how to watch inside zone, and how to be correctly disappointed with the correct person when inside zone isn't run very well. Since this is a new thing, and the offensive line are all relatively new things themselves, and the recent history of Michigan football has given you no reason to believe otherwise, and there are some really good defensive linemen Michigan has to go against this year, let's concede right now that Michigan isn't going to be running inside zone very well this season, especially early. Let's pretend like the coaches are going to stick it out anyway and let it play out.
IZ Resources: As well as the above-linked articles, I drew from Chris Brown at Smart Football, and this article that quotes Chris Brown on a Philly Eagles website. And Space Coyote wrote an entire article on IZ and some plays that stem from it in this year's HTTV; I'm sure he'll pipe in as soon as I mess something up here.
|Every blocker is responsible for whatever defender appears in the "zone" he's responsible for blocking.|
A Temperate Zone
What's inside zone? Maybe it's best to start with what it's not: man. In MANBALL, most linemen have an assigned guy to block; a lead blocker (sometimes a puller) is the only dude who has to make a tough, mid-play decision, and the running back just has to follow that guy.
Inside zone is a base running play where all the blockers are reacting to the defense, not just a lead guy, and the running back has to choose from among various holes that could open up. It takes a different set of skills, mastery of a different set of blocks, and most of all: reps reps and more reps so that everybody can make split-second decisions and those decisions will be correct.
That's not to say all decisions are made after the snap. In fact most blocking assignments are determined by how the defense is lined up. In many cases it won't be all that discernible from man-blocking.
yellow is uncovered. click bigginates.
The read OL have to make is whether they're "covered" or not. Covered means there's a DL lined up across from you. If there isn't, you are "uncovered" and most likely you'll get to go hunting linebackers. But first you look next to you and see if there's a defender shaded to the playside of your buddy; he may need help with that lineman before you release downfield. If that defender is a beast your buddy may need all the help he can get. You deal with the first level defenders before you worry about stopping linebackers.
Almost always, more than one defender will arrive in a blocker's zone. So zone blocking means lots of shared blocking. Ultimately the blocking ends up being 2-on-2 instead of 1-on-1. For example in captioned illustration above-right, the center and right guard are together responsible for blocking the nose tackle and the middle linebacker.
Offensive linemen in high school seldom get the right footwork down. Zone-blocking footwork isn't the same as pile-driving some dude, for one; and two it's not something many high school coaches know how to teach; and three if you're a 6'6"/300 future Big Ten OL and your job is to block a 6'0"/180 future Big Ten economics major, your greatest motivation to pay attention to your feet is probably the preservation of your prom date's.
In this moment it matters greatly. You need to get off the snap, get playside of your defender, get downfield, and get your feet set beneath you, your hands inside, and your pads beneath his so you can ride him out of the play, stonewall him, or shove him downfield; you let him dictate his fate.
On inside zone, an uncovered guy's first step is always to the play-side, not directly toward the guy you're going to block (the OL taking this step is a good indicator it's a zone-blocked rather than man-blocked play). This is because the DL don't always come straight upfield; you don't want them running by you.
Your job is to block the guy trying to cross you. If someone lined up inside you and ran further inside you, he's not yours. Your head stays downfield until you lock on a target, and any object that attempts to cross your field of vision must be stopped.
That Rabbit's Dynamite
Interesting example of a 1) a cutback and 2) the U starting on the strongside of the formation then executing his backside block almost like a lead blocker
Mastering the combo blocks and footwork to respond to all the things defenses throw at you takes a bazillion reps. The upside: inside zone, like option offenses, is a multi-attack threat that can go where the defense doesn't. A called IZ play could end up going outside, or inside, or cut to the backside depending on how your opponent defends it. A well-run IZ offense doesn't let defensive fronts play aggressively; if they want to stop you they'll have to activate the safeties in the run game, opening up the pass. It's not wimpy; it's smashmouth football that—as you'll see—relies mostly on crushing blocks to break things big.
[After the jump I'll show some sample executions versus various defensive alignments so you can get a sense of how it attacks and what factors lead to its success.]
Question: Did you notice any appreciable difference in the Spring Game between the Borges offense and Nussmeier's? What are hoping to see by fall, and do you think they appeared to be heading in that direction?
I might not be very useful in this roundtable.
Brian: Well... it wasn't much different in person.
And the stuff they did show was the usual vanilla business that is designed to be as basic as possible, so I'm not sure there's a whole lot to glean. It looked a lot more compact than last year's offense, sure. All spring games look compact as the bells and whistles are stowed away for use on a two-point conversion in the bowl game after you're down one billion points.
Michigan did seem to have a dedication to the inside zone with a side of power, and the linemen seemed more focused on making sure the defensive tackle was good and beat up before trying to get to the second level. That led to a lot of runs that made it to the line of scrimmage (hooray!) and didn't get much further. And that's fine. You don't dig out of a hole as big as the one Michigan's in quickly. Michigan looks like it's going to be mostly an IZ team that mixes in power to keep opponents honest, and as long as they look like that through the nonconference season and don't start flipping people about all willy-nilly, that is the first step towards competence.
So that's what I think we'll see: a boring-ass offense that tries to keep errors to a minimum and punts a lot. People will complain about its predictability and simplicity and they'll be right. Michigan doesn't have much choice, unfortunately.
Seth: It's impossible to compare Borges's Michigan offense to anything, because Michigan's offense wasn't anything under Borges for more than a few games. The three things I was looking for were 1) personnel, 2) a concept, and 3) how well those things could complement each other.
|If you flup this up, Doug, so help me Bo…|
Personnel was heavy, which was discouraging. For one Michigan has little in the way of tight ends. I didn't see anything from A.J. Williams, who was behind Heitzman, or Khalid Hill, who was behind Houma, and that was discouraging for hope of TE production before Butt's back. Houma is a fullback who lined up at the U only to motion back to fullback.
The operating theory on the OC hire was that Nussmeier at Bama was forced to use heavier formations than he wanted, however that compromise came down to 65% of snaps with three or more receivers:
|Team||Big||2 WR||3 WR||4 WR|
|Bama (Sugar Bowl)||3%||31%||58%||7%|
Eyeballing it, the spring game was closer to Michigan in 2013. If there was a difference it was more Ace as opposed to I-form, but that's less relevant because those second TEs were usually Houma and Kerridge, i.e. the fullbacks. There's a fear shared by every Michigan fan with a functional nervous system that the run-and-shoot-yourself-in-the-face offense under Borges was, despite protestations to the contrary, a mandate from the top. If Nussmeier compromises for Hoke more than he would for Saban, well, that would be insane. If that was all just a bunch of spring practice hooey, well, why are they spending spring practice on hooey when every countable hour is precious?
|Great scott Doc, this is too heavy. [Fuller]|
On the upside, there was a concept. The running was mostly zone, with some power mixed in only because you need to pull somebody to sell play-action. The passing game was a slight departure from Borges, who used a lot of 5-step patterns last year. These were 7-step patterns with an outlet, matching what we saw from Nussmeier at Alabama. The difference here can be overstated; Borges used lots of longer routes with Denard but went to the quicker stuff in 2013 because he couldn't get protection to last longer than that.
How do I feel about that? Well it fits the receivers' abilities. There's no Gallon to turn every 7-yard cushion into an easy 5 yards, but there's Canteen and the Funchise and lots of leapy things who can reel in a desperation heave. I have serious doubts the offensive line can hold up that long, but that's why there's an outlet. On the play I drew up it was Funchess running what appeared to be an option route; with Alabama it was usually an RB.
Zone is good. It's what Funk knows, it's easier to teach to young linemen, and we've already established his charges' total inability to pull correctly. My guess is the tight ends are in there because the OTs need help, though any time you have Heitzman/Williams/Houma in there instead of Chesson that's a talent downgrade.
I think the great hope for an offense that can finish in the top half of the conference is Gardner. I think Nussmeier is building an offense that is simple for everybody but him.
Michigan's not the only Big Ten East power program holding introductory press conferences this month. PSU has a mostly new staff, and Ohio State poached a legendary assistant from them while also adding what appears to be one of the more competent guys from the Bielema group. How does this change things?
Nussmeier to Michigan, Franklin to Penn State, Ash and Johnson to Ohio State, Pat Narduzzi to...dammit all to hell, how can a guy mentioned in every coaching search not go somewhere?!?
How will these recent coaching changes affect the balance of power in the Big Ten East, and the Big Ten in general? Who'll still be coaching at the same place, and who will be the happiest with their guy three years hence?
Ace: If nothing else, recruiting in the Big Ten East is going to be an absolute war. We've discussed the recruiting upgrade Nussmeier provides over Al Borges in this space. Now Penn State lands James Franklin, who managed to reel in the #26 (247 Composite) class at Vanderbilt in 2013 and was on his way to repeating that feat this year before his departure; given the foundation laid by Bill O'Brien and the ever-receding shadow of the sanctions, he should be very successful as an energetic, big-name recruiter in a relatively talent-rich area. Franklin's already had three prospects commit (or flip their commit from Vandy) to Penn State since he took over; he's a coach who players commit to over a program, and now he's got a big-name program to pitch, as well.
Meanwhile, Ohio State gets the Nittany Lions' longtime ace recruiter in Johnson, who should pick up any slack lost when Mike Vrabel bolted for O'Brien's Houston staff—coaching musical chairs! It can be weird!—and Ash also carries the reputation of a solid recruiter.
|Those who've witnessed a James Franklin press conference admit Penn State won this round. [Justin Aller/Black Shoe Diaries]|
All in all, I think Michigan benefits the most right away from their recent hire, though I can also see the argument for Ohio State. The upgrade from Borges to Nussmeier should pay immediate dividends on and off the field; while OSU is very much the team to beat in the division, U-M's recent recruiting success and strengthened coaching staff should start closing the (for now, relatively wide) gap between the two programs.
The Buckeyes, for their part, landed a quality co-DC in Ash whose specialty—coaching defensive backs—is exactly what they need to patch up a porous secondary playing well below its talent level. He improved Wisconsin's pass efficiency defense from 53rd in his first season there (as the defensive backs coach) to 22nd in his third year (his second as DC and DBs coach) before moving on to Arkansas; how much he's to blame for the Razorbacks' #105 ranking in that regard in his lone season there is unclear.
[After the jump: the stuff after the jump. Also: tautology]
How much can Devin Gardner benefit from the change in OCs? Quite a bit, it appears.
Before new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier entered the coaching ranks, he was a Walter Payton Award winner (best I-AA player) as a quarterback for Idaho under the tutelage of John L. Smith and Scott Linehan before playing five seasons in the NFL and one in the CFL. After retiring as a player following the 2000 season, he spent two years as a quarterbacks coach in the CFL before taking the same position at Michigan State for his old coach, Smith.
Ever since, Nussmeier's coaching responsibilities have included working with quarterbacks, and like Al Borges he'll serve as his own QB coach at Michigan. While that arrangement didn't work out so well for Borges—who, notably, didn't have the playing pedigree of Nussmeier—there's a lot of evidence to suggest it'll go a lot better this time around. Here's a look at each of Nussmeier's coaching stops, starting with MSU, and how his quarterbacks fared under his tutelage.
Michigan State (QB Coach, 2003-2005)
John L. Smith hired Nussmeier in 2003, Jeff Smoker's senior year following a junior campaign in which he was suspended the final five games for substance abuse-related issues.
Below are the numbers for Nussmeier's starting QBs at MSU, including the years immediately prior to and following his time there. What we see from his time at East Lansing will come up again at future stops:
|2002 (Smoker, Jr.)||114||203||56.2||1593||7.8||13||10||133.4|
|2003 (Smoker, Sr.)||302||488||61.9||3395||7.0||21||14||128.8|
|2004 (Stanton, So.)||141||220||64.1||1601||7.3||8||6||131.8|
|2005 (Stanton, Jr.)||236||354||66.7||3077||8.7||22||12||153.4|
|2006 (Stanton, Sr.)||164||269||61.0||1807||6.7||12||10||124.7|
Smoker's senior-year numbers don't leap off the page, but they do exhibit one trend in Nussmeier's quarterback coaching: when he takes charge, interception rates fall. While Smoker threw 14 picks in 2003, he did so on 226 more attempts than he had in any other season, and his 2.9% interception rate was a career best.
Drew Stanton's numbers are muddled by injuries in each of his three seasons as the starter; even so, the huge strides he made under Nussmeier from his sophomore to junior seasons are apparent—his completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and overall efficiency all improved even with a significant uptick in attempts. Perhaps even more indicative of Nussmeier's skill with QBs is Stanton's huge dropoff when his coach moved on—not the last time this would happen after Nussmeier left a job. Stanton's quote to Angelique Chengelis after Michigan hired Nussmeier really stands out after looking at the numbers:
“Doug Nussmeier is everything as advertised and more,” Stanton told The News Wednesday night. “He has an unbelievable approach to the game that demands a lot out of his players but also has a way of making every day fun. He represents what college football should be all about. He’s going to make a great head coach some day, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. I was literally in tears when he left my junior year at Michigan State.”
Are there mitigating factors here? Absolutely. Smoker's lost 2002 season makes it difficult to parse out how much of his senior-year resurgence was due to coaching, while Stanton's injuries in his sophomore and senior seasons (remember LaMarr Woodley?) impacted his performance in those years. Stanton's outstanding junior year is still hard to ignore, however, especially once it's put in the context of Nussmeier's other coaching stops.
[Hit THE JUMP for Nussmeier's other stops, including Marc Bulger's Last Stand and the transformations of Keith Price and AJ McCarron.]
The firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges obviously shook things up among Michigan fans as Twitter and MGoBlog almost exploded once the news dropped. Then all that happened was a pluck-job of Alabama’s offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Again, the Michigan universe went into a frenzy. How is all of this affecting recruits? I was able to touch base with a few just to get an idea of how the decision is sitting with people who will and might wear the Maize and Blue.
2014 TE commit Ian Bunting
The Fire: Coach Borges did help recruit me so it’s obviously not the ideal situation but I trust that the staff is only making decisions that are in the best interest of the team. I’m still set on Michigan though! I have no idea who the replacement could or should be. Someone who likes to pass a lot, especially to the tight ends. Maybe the New England Patriots OC? (Laughs)
The Hire: It’s awesome! The OC from Bama? It’s sweet. It’s definitely encouraging. I just hope he likes throwing to his tight ends. I do know that he likes winning.
2014 RB offeree Vic Enwere
The Fire: Coach Borges getting fired changes things for me a little bit. It’s just going to take more time now to understand the new offensive approach. Coach Borges and I had a great talk when I went up there and a little bit before that too. We haven’t really talked since my last visit. I’m not sure if the words “hurt Michigan’s chances” are accurate but it does make it a bit tougher. Uncertainty just makes it tough.
The Hire: I honestly never heard his name before but I am familiar with his style. Being the offensive coordinator from Alabama definitely means something though.
2015 OL offeree Sterling Jenkins
The Fire: I definitely respect Coach Borges as a person but I hope I get to meet the new OC and I hope no one else from the staff goes. On my visit I mostly talked to Coach Borges and Coach Funk so we for sure had a relationship. Him being fired won’t really affect me. That has been happening all over the country. Michigan won’t hire someone who’s not up for the job. I think they’ll be okay, if not better from this move.
The Hire: I am looking forward to meeting him. He definitely has a good track record coming from Bama.
2015 WR offeree Christian Kirk
The Fire: I never got a chance to talk to Coach Borges during the bowl practice so I don’t really have a thought on him being fired. It doesn’t change anything for me in regards to Michigan.
The Hire: Interesting! We will see what he brings to Michigan! It helps Michigan’s case in my mind because I’m interested to see if he can turn it around. If he decides to come in contact with me it definitely helps Michigan’s chances.
2015 QB offeree David Sills:
The Fire: I’ve actually never talked to Coach Borges but I heard he was a great coach. He wasn’t personally involved with me and my offer. I’m not sure if I’m going to visit Michigan or not. Having two teammates up there means Michigan will always be an option. Right now though I am still with USC.
The Hire: I’m sure he will do great at Michigan. Michigan has always been attractive to me and always will be, so no real change.
2015 QB target Jimmy Fitzgerald:
The Fire: I just heard about Coach Borges being fired. I haven’t ever talked to him too much, Coach Mallory is my main contact. It doesn’t really change my view on Michigan. It’s not exactly the news I’d like to hear but Michigan is still a very attractive school both academically and athletically.
The Hire: That’s big time!
2015 QB target Kyle Kearns:
The Fire: Wow, I didn’t know anything about Coach Borges getting fired. I probably talked to him maybe 2 or more weeks ago. I’m still very interested in Michigan though, I’ll make sure to talk Coach Ferrigno about it the next time we talk.
The Hire: It’s awesome. I am really good friends with Coach Nuss. I have been in contact with him since last year.
2015 QB target Riley Neal:
The Fire: I had no idea they were thinking about firing him. I talked to Coach Borges maybe a week or two ago, but it’s crazy that he’s fired. Him getting fired doesn’t really change my view on Michigan. I liked Coach Borges but I still like the program they have at Michigan. I’m interested to see who they hire. I plan on calling one of the GA’s here soon to see if he knows anything.
The Hire: I think it’s a good hire for them. It should help Michigan in my eyes because he has won national championships and that’s always the goal so he brings that experience in with him.
2015 QB target Nick Johns:
The Fire: I heard about Coach Borges getting fired while I was at school. Now I’ll just wait and see who they hire. It doesn’t change anything for me right now. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked with Coach Borges. I kind of assumed he might be let go since he stopped talking to me. Hopefully Michigan will hire someone good.
The Hire: That’s a great move of power on Michigan’s part. It absolutely helps their cause in my eyes.
2015 QB target Alex Malzone:
The Fire: Man, I had no idea Coach Borges would be fired. I have always stayed in touch with Dan Ifft and then Coach Singletary a little bit so we’ll see who is brought in next. Obviously I’ve started to build a relationship with Coach Borges but it’s still Michigan football and they will bring in the right guy. I haven’t talked to Coach Borges since my Ohio State visit. I’m anxious to see who they hire.
The Hire: It’s a great hire, I’m excited about it. I’ve always been high on Michigan but it is a boost in my interest. I plan on calling Coach Ifft today to see what’s going on.
2015 QB target Zach Gentry
The Hire: (I didn’t hear back from Zach until news had surfaced that Nussmeier would be the replacement so we discussed only that) I think it’s a really solid hire! He balances the running and passing game well and he makes the system easy on the quarterback. I’d say it definitely helps Michigan in my eyes. I think it’s important that they have a really balanced attack. they seem to have the right players coming in that can help plus solid returning offensive guys. I’m still highly interested in Michigan. Coaching changes are going to happen everywhere. It doesn’t take anything away from Michigan and their tradition. I think I’ll probably try to reach out and get in touch with Coach Nussmeier and get established with him.
When you have success at the level that Alabama has, it carries a lot of weight and the reactions from commits and targets is clear evidence of that. The hiring of Nussmeier has already sent a shot of rejuvenation into the Michigan fanbase as well as potential Michigan players.
It is going to be really interesting to see how this hire affects recruiting as well. I’m very curious to see how the 2015 quarterback situation shakes out now, as Borges sort of ran the show on that evaluation. #1 2015 QB Ricky Town was recruited to Alabama by Nussmeier and while I don’t see him bailing on Bama, I’m sure Nuss will get in touch with him. Intrigue all around with a splash hire like this.