Neck Sharpies: Uche and the Weakside Shuffle Comment Count

Seth May 24th, 2016 at 10:00 AM

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.


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]


The Doc's got his own version of these three base concepts. Here's what he says in the playbook on pg. 64:

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.



May 24th, 2016 at 11:51 AM ^

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Hugh White

May 24th, 2016 at 10:12 AM ^

I thought the "zone" portion of this name comes from the style of line-blocking and the running-back action in the "give" portion of the play -- not the blue "zone" shown in the first graphic. The name itself embodies the dual nature of the play. It's outside-zonish on the one hand combined with a QB read on the other.


May 24th, 2016 at 12:07 PM ^

Zone is an overloaded term.  It is used to describe a blocking scheme, zone-blocking (as opposed to gap-blocking).  It is also used as a play name, the zone read.  Note that a zone read doesn't necessarily have to employ zone-blocking on the play, though it typically will.

Space Coyote

May 24th, 2016 at 12:25 PM ^

Rich Rod used it as a way to define the actual "zone" that is being read. But Rich Rod used almost exclusively zone blocking, so there was no reason for him to differentiate zone and something else in terms of blocking schemes. It was "Tight" zone read, or "wide" zone read or whatever he used to differentiate outside and inside zone blocking.

But other teams will use "tight zone" and "wide zone" and "veer" and "power" read, because that defines the blocking. The play defines where you read. I actually prefer this method, because in Rich Rod's way of thinking, "zone" is completely unnecessary for defining the play. "Read" already defines you are reading a zone, so the addition of "zone" is just extra wording. "Tight Zone read" defines the blocking scheme and that there is a read attached. "Power read" defines that you are running a power O blocking scheme with a read. Then you can add tags to define different zones or people you want to read. And this is the way it has typically evolved.

But this goes back to everyone having different terminology. Both RIch Rod and Hoke ran "QB power" as the base play of their offense with Denard Robinson, but they were two different plays. Rich Rod's was essentially an outside zone sweep, where as Borges was a man/gap Power O blocking scheme with the QB running the football instead of the RB. 


May 24th, 2016 at 10:17 AM ^

I like this level of detail, but can't help but feel a little weird when parts of our DC's actual playbook and terminology are quoted/published online.

Surely our opponents will do their own research, but could this small insight into the mentality and verbiage used in the defense hurt Michigan at all?

kevin holt

May 24th, 2016 at 11:12 AM ^

I've thought this before too, but Brown's playbook is already published online. And he surely adds things every year or tweaks things. Brown could publish his playbook just so another team studies it, then throw something entirely new in that they didn't prepare for. Who knows if the published material is actually the whole thing?

Maybe this makes it easy for a grad assistant to find out Brown's bread and butter and tell the coach to counter it, but Brown can throw the counter-to-the-counter play in.


May 24th, 2016 at 11:38 AM ^

The kinds of things you point out to lay folk in an article like this are not at all helpful to an opponent. This is all elementary. The coaches go into way more detail at coaching clinics that everyone goes to.

That is especially true for this article. Brown defends this about the same way Dantonio and most everybody does. I even showed you how the three basic things defenses do are the same exact things he wrote in his playbook. You tell Urban Meyer that Michigan recruited a high-acceleration, highly intelligent future WDE as a spread beater and he'll be like "Uh, well darn, I guess we have to play football." Might as well point out to the political campaigns that this ad or that is trying to excite the base. It's like Duh.

Space Coyote

May 24th, 2016 at 12:31 PM ^

But it's for implementation of a system or plays, it doesn't define every little thing. I have four Nick Saban playbooks, from his time at MSU, LSU, and Bama. I have four Urban Meyer playbooks, from his time at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida. You can find that information online. That information hasn't helped any opponent defeat those teams more than watching film essentially does.

These are merely installation guides. It's the ingrediatants on the back of a can of Coke. But it doesn't tell someone how to recreate Coke, or that Coke will bring back "Crystal Coke" or whatever the "clear" pop was in the future. It just gives you the ingrediants in the barest form. Is there some value to that information? Sure, there can be. But someone would probably learn as much watching Coke being made than they would reading the ingrediants on the back of the can.


May 24th, 2016 at 10:23 AM ^

Enjoyed this, especially after rewatching Uche's highlight tape. Why not just tell him to level the qb every time no matter what he does with the ball. Qb will turn into Hackenberg and want to give up playing

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May 24th, 2016 at 10:41 AM ^

I think that's essentially the Blow it up option, The drawback being that it puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the defense to deal with a handoff on their own (and makes Roughing the Quarterback penalties more probable)...   I'm curious to see whether Brown is more of the "One lone man making a play" or "Let's string it out and get a gang of bodies to the ball" style that Durkin and Mattison seemed to prefer. 


May 24th, 2016 at 10:49 AM ^

It's the blow it up option with an emphasis on laying the smack down on the QB. It only takes so many hits for a QB to get hit in the wrong way that affects how he plays. I'd rather take the chance that our defense can swallow the RB and hit the QB hard.

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May 24th, 2016 at 1:17 PM ^

This pretty essentially how the Ravens killed the zone read in the NFL a few years ago  Nobody wants their QB hit 15-20 times in a game by an unblocked defender.  Yes it puts pressure on the rest of your defense but it also means nobody else has to make a decision.  The safeties don't have to worry about a pass if the QB is getting hit so they can run fill and negate the numbers advantage pretty aggresively.  It really just require a good interior dline.  Ngata could do it for the ravens, hopefully mone and glasgow could do it for us.

On the other hand I think there are times you'd force the ball into the QB's hands everytime.  I would have rather had jt barrett in space against our secondary then ezekiel elliot and their oline against our depleted dline and linebacking core.


May 24th, 2016 at 1:18 PM ^

Its my preffered method of attacking the zone read, allows the defense to be aggressive rather than passive, you have to trust your guys to win their blocks but its easier to do that when you can just pin your ears back and go and at the end of the day most of football is about execution over scheme anyways.

micheal honcho

May 24th, 2016 at 11:00 AM ^

When did the rules changes in college FB that created the situation whereby the QB can be "roughed" when he is a runner?

The reason I ask is because this is the absolute ROOT of the success of the spread to run/zone read offense success over the past 25 yrs.

Take an old school wishbone/option offense. In that offense the QB could be CLOBBERED same/same as a RB because, he essentially becomes one once he makes a step towards the LOS & outside the pocket established traditionally by the tackle/tackle box.

Same for the even older "winged T" or "full house T" offenses. The QB is treated as a RB and attacked as such.

My defensive coach in HS when we faced a T offense instructed us to ignore the fakes for which a T offense is built and tackle everyone. This was a relatively effective method for getting defenders to attack vs. option offenses rather than trying to read, which is what THEY want you to do.

Why/When did the rules change? I never understood this. It was never announced or published yet somehow at the advent ot the ZR based offense rules were reinterpreted to specifically BENEFIT teams that run this. If Pat White or Denard Robinson or Braxton Miller or ..... were picking themselves up off the turf after EVERY play(every ZR play) they would not last a game(in the case of "slight" guys like PW or DR) or 1/2 a season in the case of Tebow/Braxton/Juice types.  

That along with the relaxation of offensive holding rules for recievers and loose/non enforcement of the ineligable man downfield rule propogated the rise of the spread offense as we know it in HS/college football IMHO.


May 24th, 2016 at 11:57 AM ^

The risk is about officials being sensitive to contact on the QB. You're allowed to hit the QB on the ZR but the potential downside of being aggressive is getting targeting and unnecessary roughness calls. In the NFL it's extra touchy; RGIII got injured and the league reacted in how they call those hits.

Definitely helps offenses (along with the other rule changes) but it's not "roughing" on a run.

Space Coyote

May 24th, 2016 at 12:37 PM ^

He can be tackled like any other ball carrier. He isn't protected by the rules, or by the officials, or by anything. Certainly, you can't destroy him 5 seconds after he hands the ball off and he's clearly not the ball carrier, just like you can't hit any "unprotected player", but that's not what you're saying.

Teams don't just "clobber" every option any more because of how the spread works. In the Wing T, you clobbered someone and caused a pile up at that spot, and the play was congested and contained within 10 yards laterally on the field. In the spread, you tackle the QB regardless of anything, and you've only made it so you are playing 10 v 10 on the same size field (the entire field). You've reduced your ability to defend the play on a play-by-play basis. That's why teams attack the mesh point selectively. It's intended to force the QB into a very quick decision when he isn't prepared to make that decision, it messes with the read/timing of the play. But if you do it all the time, you are just reducing your numbers to defend the play.

Your last paragraph has a lot of truth, though I think WRs have always been holding. Illegal man down field doesn't get called nearly enough. There are more rules against chop blocking that have helped the defense at the point of attack. So the success of the spread scheme isn't soley due to a change in rules. The spread would have been successful in older eras as well (assuming that the players on offense would be capable of executing it consistently).


May 24th, 2016 at 1:31 PM ^

Eh the Ravens sort of did.  You can do it if you trust your guys to win 10 v10.  The ravens trusted that because one of their 10 in the middle was ngata, so running inside became 9 v10 since you had to always double him.  

Harbaugh (the ravens) even acknowledged in a press conference that they planned to hit Kaepernick every time he ran the zone read.  Its an option and I'd like to think Mone or Glasgow could be that guy in college who demands a double on the inside and gives back the numbers advantage to the D

Space Coyote

May 24th, 2016 at 2:31 PM ^

If the offense is prepared to make a quick read, they can make the quick read and hand it off and you are playing 10 v 10 (if you can win elsewhere, great, but it still makes it more difficult; it's a strategy, but not one everyone can successfully run). You also set yourself up for a variety of other plays. Traps become easier because you are taking yourself out of the play. Flare screens take advantage of the DE getting too far up field. Draw plays can be successful. Roll right at the guy and break contain. There are ways to take advantage of a defense being too aggressive, and that is a very aggressive way to play it every time. 

And it becomes more difficult in college, where players aren't as fast, they don't close on the QB as quick, they don't play sideline-to-sideline as fast, they have wider hash marks, etc. If someone is going to attack me in that way, I'll tell you right now I'll do 3 things with great success: 1) trap him; 2) throw around him (PA throw to the TE or screen game); 3) run right at him (either block him at the point of attack and force him to play that first or speed option right at him).


May 24th, 2016 at 4:59 PM ^

That's all great if you are willing to let your qb get hit every time you leave him unblocked. Part of the strategy is to give up a play or two to break the other team from what they want to do as their base.  If they stop running zone read and its their base play you have forced them into something else.  I grew up watching the ravens play defense and what made them great wasn't reading and reacting, it was making the offense react to them and then capitalazing when the offense reacted poorly.  Its obviously more difficult and involves more risk but its how a defence can go from good to elite.  If you are reading and reacting you are mostly just trying to contain plays, its a bend but don't break style.  Great defenses don't generally play bend but don't break.


Edit to add the rules are designed to favor the offense.  If everything plays equal the offense wins. If you are constantly reading and reacting against a team of equal talent you are going to give up points.  Uche might be a great athlete, he isn't beating jt barrett to the edge or zeke to the hole.  Michigan should beat most teams on the schedule, tis the elite ones you worry about.  There probably isn't a DE in the country who could beat Deshaun Watson to the edge.  So you have to do things that cause havoc.  Havoc causes turnovers and you win gams 40-30 against elite teams.  When OSU is clicking you don't hold them to 17 points, its about whether you can get 3 turnovers in addition to the 4td's you give up.

Blue Balls Afire

May 24th, 2016 at 8:05 PM ^

This right here is why I think OSU is so successful.  They run ZR but can and do run power out of the same spread formation, always keeping the defense guessing and adjusting to the defense's tendencies (unless they're playing MSU for some reason).  The backside DE cheats on the QB too often and they'll run a counter to that side with a trapping guard opening a hole the size of a Kansas budget deficit for the RB.  Not to mention OSU recruits the biggest, fastest athletes available to run their spread instead of insisting on small quick dudes.  They out-man and out-scheme a lot of defenses.  I hate them.


May 24th, 2016 at 12:43 PM ^

That's what Bo did when defending the option play - the DE or LB coming in to cover hit the QB whether he pitched the ball, or not.  No decision, just hit the QB.  If the RB catches it and beats the corner, so be it.  But hit the QB.  That philosophy stopped a lot of option attacks around halftime...


May 24th, 2016 at 10:24 AM ^

In the Clemson play, it looks to me like the proper read would be the handoff, but Watson ignores that and successfully blows past the DE.  The handoff is open for a big gain since the other E is pushed outside and the LB is handled.  The RB has only a CB to beat.  Seems like the two WRs should be blocking their defenders regardless.  Because they chose to stand there it appears the play was a QB keep from the get-go (much like Denard's "zone reads").

Space Coyote

May 24th, 2016 at 12:43 PM ^

The QB is reading a few things, not just the V of the neck or whatever to determine if the DE has committed to the RB or the QB on a play. Defenses have gotten too good at defending the read to rely on just that. The problem for BC here is that the DT gets crushed inside. The DE is supposed to squeeze the gap and play right off the offensive EMOL so that there is no gap to run through between himself and the offensive EMOL. Remember that Brown's theory is that the DE should always have a DB there to help bring down the QB and should not be expected to handle the QB 1 v 1 in space (in this case, it's the slot defender).

But the DT gets crushed down, and the DE is forced to slide further inside, and that's why Watson keeps. He then has the bubble option, but the slot defender freaks out and bails on the pump fake rather than maintaining his assignment and trusting the outside DB to do his job. Once he bails, Watson has a run lane right where the CB bailed on his assignment.

The WRs on the bottom of the screen are part of a pre-snap read. If BC doesn't have enough numbers to the bottom of the screen Clemson will throw the flash screen. Otherwise, they run the tight zone read that they ran (because BC had 2 for 2 on the bottom).

kevin holt

May 24th, 2016 at 11:08 AM ^

That DB could have crushed Watson if he didn't fall for the pump fake. Even if Watson threw it, his other DB had whichever guy the ball went to. That's another way I think we'd have better personnel.


May 24th, 2016 at 12:47 PM ^

I'm all in on Uche (and speedy edge players like him) - this breakdown shows why quite nicely.

But all the names listed weigh 240-255 lb. That seems like the prototypical and normal weight for WDE/RLB. Yet, conventional opinion has us using Charlton at WDE (when he weights over 270 pounds).

I have the sense that nobody knows the answer to this for sure but I'm wondering who the starting WDE is going to be:  Charlton, Winovich, or someone else.

Space Coyote

May 24th, 2016 at 12:56 PM ^

My guess is that Taco plays it nominally, but in the spring it was Winovich et al. So I think it's more or less going to depend on what defense Brown thinks puts the best guys on the field (again, my opinion is that is Taco at WDE, Wormley at Anchor, Hurst at 3-Tech, Mone/Glasgow at NT, and then start rotating Gary et al in the mix), but there will be times where Michigan will benefit from Taco at the anchor, Winovich at WDE, Wormley at 3-tech, etc.

So it's personnel based as far as who are the best players, it's also scheme dependent as far as what scheme best defends to offense. So it'll likely differ by down and distance and team to team. Nominally going forward, it looks like Brown would prefer to get lighter at WDE (Durkin was the same, so Michigan was already going that direction; and honestly, Hoke was mostly the same, it's just that Taco is so tall and kind of bulked up when Michigan switched to the Over that allowed him to play either end spot)


May 24th, 2016 at 12:59 PM ^

Feel like that first video was a give read all day. Even though the QB made lemonade by way of a fake toss that got the safety turned to the WR, the front side didn't crash and the backside was blocked beautifully.


May 24th, 2016 at 2:42 PM ^

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May 24th, 2016 at 3:37 PM ^

Thanks - helps me understand this better.  I think IF our DL stays healthy, we can do much better against the ZR this year.


May 25th, 2016 at 2:12 AM ^

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May 25th, 2016 at 11:28 AM ^

I'm also very excited about Uche. I think he's a guy who's going to create some exciting moments for us over the next four years.


May 25th, 2016 at 12:18 PM ^

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