Everyone's got their recruit they're over-excited about, but I've fallen hard for the first Don Brown potential dude, Joshua Uche. I figure I should explain why.
So we all remember this, right?
This is now run 100 different ways, with all sorts of guys to read and all sorts of places to attack. The idea is usually the same: leave an edge defender unblocked and read him off while the QB is holding the ball in the RB's breadbasket. It's "zone" because you're watching that blue circle, not the guy in it, since defenses will screw with you otherwise by having the end dive in and a linebacker appear or something. It's "read" because once you've ID'ed the unblocked defender, you watch to see if he's going to take the RB or the QB, then make him wrong.
Now that it's approaching 30 years old, defenses have had a long time to adjust to it. But like the option, or Power, or the Veer, or west coast passing route combinations, it's a good enough base play to remain a standard feature in most college offenses. That means every college team has to spend practice time learning multiple methods to stop it, and probably will as long as the sport lasts.
Don Brown's BC playbook was no exception, devoting over a tenth of the document to beating spread things. Today I'd like to introduce Brown's particular version of zone read defense, then zoom in on the vanilla zone read stopper play and what it means for the kind of player he wants at "End", i.e. the weakside defensive end. I don't want to get into all of the run fits and stuff, but since we just ran Josh Uche's recruiting profile I thought it would be cool to go over exactly what he was recruited to do.
ZONE READ STOPPERS
Every coach has his own tweaks, but strategies for defending the mesh (that handoff decision) usually follow along a few similar ideas:
1. Delay the mesh for so long that the rest of the defense can react, beat their blocks, and corral the ballcarrier.
- Pros: Doesn't use an extra defender/vanilla response.
- Cons: Hard to do, requires the rest of the defense to win blocks, extra time for play develop can also work against you.
2. Scrape exchange. Attack one or the other to force a fast decision and bring another defender (usually from somewhere he's not expected) to bring down the other guy.
- Pros: The paper to this particular rock.
- Cons: You're using two defenders, opening up scissors.
3. Blow it up. Send that unblocked guy right at the mesh point itself.
- Pros: Aggressive. Against college quarterbacks this may trigger all sorts of bad reactions. May give you a few extra opportunities to hit the quarterback.
- Cons: A good ZR team will calmly hand it off.
A lot of teams will have one they feature more than the others, depending on the abilities of their personnel and what kind of team they're facing that week. Like, if you're more worried about the QB running than throwing you may scrape them all day. If you're facing a true freshman 3rd stringer they just ripped the redshirt off of maybe blow it up. If the zone read is just a sideshow and the real threat is the RB you may go in with just the delay. If you're facing a team that uses the zone read as a big part of its offense you really ought to have all three, and different variations of them perhaps, so the offense won't know what's coming.
Of these, the delay is good ol' rock-on-rock.*
[After the JUMP: why Uche looks like he will excel at rock]
DON BROWN'S DELAY
The Doc's got his own version of these three base concepts. Here's what he says in the playbook on pg. 64:
ZONE READ COMMUNICATION:
READ – Communication between LB and A/E. This tells LB’er to play appropriate gap with DE reading the mesh with QB responsibility to help on the zones crease. DE always chases QB when he has kept the ball, from the inside out
BEND- Communication between LB and A/E. This tells the DE to bend on the zone with LB’er playing the QB right now. LB’er and DE must switch jobs if the OT bumps or fans the DE.
SPEED/RACE – Communication between LB and A/E. This tells the DE to attack the MESH. Speed/Race calls are made to change the DE's mentality from passive to aggressive!
Notice the subtle message of his punctuation, or in the case of "Read" the lack thereof. The scrap exchange is a decision, a complete thought. Speed/race is an exclamatory act. But read is unfinished.
Let's unpack read.
I think you've seen it defended this way a zillion times by now, and in case it wasn't clear already this is the base defense against a zone read. All edge defenders, be they linebackers, overhang (slot) defenders, or down linemen will have to learn this technique to some degree, but the weakside end is the guy who'll have to do this most often.
There are plenty of examples online but I pulled this one from Clemson-BC because it really shows why you want your Ojemudia/RJS/Uche to be smart, controlled, and really athletic.
The end gives us a textbook shuffle. He keeps his shoulders square, stays near the line of scrimmage to give himself room, and shuffles with the flow of the play, keeping his butt close enough to the guard to make sure nobody's going to get him that way. Really he's staying on the quarterback, but cheating just far enough inside to make the read hard. If the RB does end up with the ball and goes to a frontside gap, he's got a DE right on his heels and any delay means a tackle from behind. If the RB cuts back, it will be into this unblocked defender.
But Deshaun Watson (the quarterback, in case you don't recognize the likely 1st overall pick of the 2017 draft) keeps and now we see the big difference between guys you can get to Boston College and the kind of player Michigan can recruit. The BC defensive end is playing this as well as he can be expected to, attacking the QB from the inside while funneling to the overhang defender, who should be in position to keep this down. But the DE isn't fast enough to close the gap with a Heisman-caliber quarterback, and that gives said QB time to pump fake the overhang guy and STILL turn the edge on this DE.
So think about what you need at that position. You want a guy over 250, probably 270ish to be worth not blocking, otherwise you can just pop him out of the hole. And he's got to be worth keeping on the field all the time as a pass rusher and whatnot. Then too you need him coached up on this little dance, because ducking in too far inside means you don't have anyone on the QB, and not shuffling down enough to delay the read means a running back heading quickly toward a gap where the OL outnumber the defenders. If that's all you have, you're already a good zone read defending team. Michigan State had this for four years with Marcus Rush. Northwestern had a guy last year who was excellent at this, despite not being much of an athlete.
The last bit—the kind of quick-twitch explosion to turn a QB keeper into a TFL—is a luxury, but a very nice one to have, especially since this guy is going to be a pass rusher. Remember Jake Ryan chasing down a Virginia Tech QB on the sideline like 20 yards in the backfield? How about in last year's championship game when Clemson's Vic Beasley shot a million miles per hour into a ZR keeper that looked like it would go for yards?
Now watch Uche's Hudl reel:
His team used him as a wide-9 WDE or a Jake Ryan-style SAM, and the opponents usually blocked him. But play after play in that reel you see Uche closing down a ton of space from a shoulder-square, stopped position.
That's what Don Brown was going after in his pursuit of Uche, who's got some of the best acceleration from square of any Michigan DE prospect in recent memory, and at least in his highlight reel, seems to know not to unleash it until the offense can't back out. Once the QB keeps in this scheme, both he and the DE are in a race for the edge. A DE in pursuit can chase the QB into help, but a DE who can outflank the QB is going to own that edge all by himself.
And once he's been at it awhile, the DE will start to cheat inside on the RB pretty far, while still knowing he can explode back to get the QB. Once you have a guy who can play both sides of a zone read like that, you've nullified the offense's numbers advantage, and can win rock-on-rock.
Uche's doubtful to be on the field this year, and probably needs a few years to strengthen up and get up to speed. But if he maintains 80% of the burst in that video while getting to the playing weight that Ojemudia did…man I've been waiting for a guy who can do this to spreads for a long time.
* There are of course "paper" options to throw at a team doing the shuffle all the time. One that's been particularly nasty against Don Brown's D at Boston College is a play-action veer then throw to the RB on a swing pass. The DEs in his scheme have to chase down the backside of that if it happens, and his guys weren't fast enough to catch up before the back got downfield. Now think about Uche's coverage ability and how he attacked that screen play from the SAM position in the video above. So so so excited about this guy.