Hero With a Thousand Faces, Part II: The Modern Myth

Submitted by Seth on August 14th, 2010 at 12:03 AM

Will Cameron Gordon bring balance to the force? Will Vlad the Impaler ever transition from psych to sang? Is Marvin the Marvelous Marvel just an empty OMG shirtless? Do 40-times matter at all? Will Misopogon exhaust his annual allotment of rhetorical questions before this deck is even finished? I dunno, but I was seriously freaking about about free safety, man, so I dipped into UFRs of yore and found….hope?


STOP! Have you read Part One?

We were talking about the deep safety position in GERG's 3-3-5-ish defense seen in brief previews (e.g. Ohio State, to much rejoicing) last season. We also did a recap of UFR scoring for safeties of Michigan past (here's a spreadsheet). The reason we're talking about this is because Michigan has had some pretty bad play(ers?) from/at that position, and because according to 3-3-5 experts, for the defense to be good, the deep safety should be a total motherfucking

In Part II you were expecting a rundown of candidates for 2010, and how they might stack up against the guys of years past. This is still half-written, and coming. But we hit a snag, and now it's a three-parter.

The people you can blame for this are as follows:

  1. The head of a certain federal agency who made like a bazillion major announcements that kept me at work all week
  2. Mustaches for Michigan (This Monday: Be There)
  3. A player who no longer plays for Michigan
  4. Fireaxis, who released a free iPhone version of Civilization
  5. Steve Sharik

What Sharik did was this and this (scroll down to his comments, which before Brian decided to give the comments section a Weis-ian strategic advantage, I could link to directly). Because of these people, I had to a.) Spend a lot of time on press call-ins, b.) Do an awful lot of research on mustaches, c.) Re-write an entire section that had already been completed, d.) Fight a brutal amphibious war against an Incan-British alliance for global domination, and e.) Completely re-imagine my metrics for determining what is needed from the Free Safety in Michigan's defense.

The Hero in Our Base Defense:

What I came up with: Michigan in 2006 had a good defense. This was mostly due to good players. But the scheme wasn't all that different from what we think GERG is gonna bust out in 2010:


You are probably looking at this alignment right now (look how far off Hall is playing up top) and having flashbacks of Donovan Warren sitting deep in what we called last year's failed 3-3-5 experiments. There's a good reason for that: I believe this is the same defense.

Jamison (bottom of the line) is in a hand-down version of Roh's spot; Harrison at top, the nominal "nickel" has come up on the line to blitz, not too different from Steve Brown's spot last year; Dave Harris is in the middle; Prescott Burgess (=Mouton) is set up in the flat near the bottom. Both Trent (bottom) and Hall (top) are playing 9 yards off the line. Jamar Adams (=Kovacs) is on the 1st down marker.

Just slightly out of the picture, sitting deep and probably reading Infinite Jest, because defending the deep ball when Branch and Woodley are tearing things up is useless, is Brandent Englemon.

You won't see either make a play here. On this particular play, Penn State saw the loose coverage, changed up whatever they were going to run (given the play until then, likely a run left), and sent a quick toss to the top wideout. Leon Hall came up to make a fantastic play and keep it to 2 yards.

What I want you to see is Jamar Adams, the safety behind Hall at the top of this play. With the "nickel back" Harrison blitzing, Adams came down into the box to act as another linebacker. As it turned out, he was help if Hall can't make this play, probably running Derrick Williams out of bounds after a 5- or 6-yard gain.

Now, this looks like a pass defense, but had Penn State run into it, there was paper all over the place. Ultimately, eight (!) players were in the box, with a surprise blitz coming from Harris, a not-surprising blitz from Harrison, and either Adams or Burgess busting in faster than a receiver could block them. Behind them, Englemon was in centerfield, ready to come up.

Michigan ran a similar defense last year against Penn State:


And we saw some of this too against Michigan State and Ohio State.

The way I think I can identify this is because we get the same exact reaction from Brian in UFRs and recaps each time: to paraphrase, "WTF [Star Cornerback] is playing way off the line here!"

My guess is it was Ron English's "pretty-bad-unless-you-have-Leon-Hall-to-bail-out-your-ass," and GERG's "what the hell do I do with crap safeties?" attempts at doing what Bud Foster at Virginia Tech does much better:


HT: (who'd you think?) Chris Brown of Smart Football.

This was the subject of a since-mostly unremarked article on MGoBlog suggesting that Michigan is going to V-Tech's base defense. Essentially, it's VT's old 4-4 deal with a linebacker exchanged for a safety because spread defenses were murder on it. In Brown's description:

What makes Tech's "quarters" coverage particularly interesting is that they have not actually changed their old "G" front, they have merely removed one guy from the box and lined him up at safety without changing his aggressive responsibilities against the run.

Below is how Virginia Tech lined up against Kansas's spread in the 2008 Orange Bowl. … The Hokies lined up in their base quarters look from the "G," merely moving the former "Rover" (circled) to safety, while moving the "Whip" outside, over Kansas' slot receiver; this formation gives the offense very little information, and in fact, with Jayhawks' motioning an extra blocker into the backfield for a run to the left, is inviting for a run, with six blockers in the box against six defenders:

I recommend the entire article (in case three links weren't a clue).

I leave it to the football geniuses around here to give you more and better information as to how this applies to Michigan. The salient point for the free safety is the job description is a bit different than the "Centerfielder" in a base Cover-1 or Cover-3 that I supposed we were running when I started this.

Herein lies the hope. Going for a fourth link to this brilliant article:

The free-safety then was free to play a "robber" technique -- that is, on pass plays, he read the quarterback's eyes and broke on intermediate routes, but on runs, where he truly became valuable, he was an incredible ninth run-stuffer in the box.

It's a Cover 4 defense made to stop the run. Blitzes come from all directions, positions are hybridized so attacks can come from anywhere, and the primary defense against the pass is to look like you're in pass defense pre-snap, and to not give the QB much time to throw post-snap.

For our purposes, this means the Free Safety doesn't have to be a Ryan Mundy (at West Virginia, people with long memories) with super speed (that's your cornerback). His job is to back up a safety/linebacker-type object in man, and if anything gets by the Mack linebacker, clean up the run (or if you're Brandent Englemon, bring a book).

On Archetypes

Below is as comprehensive a UFR Chart? Chart! as I can produce on Safety Play in the UFR era:


The blue line is the positives, so if the safety in question did nothing remarkable whatsoever, that will be at zero.

Years in brief:

2005 (average: 0): Safety Armageddon began in '05 and lasted through 2006. Fortunately, with the notable of 4th quarters in 2005, the safeties during this time had little work to do, good or bad. Willis Barringer, Jamar Adams (who later settled at box safety) and Brandon Harrison all got time deep. That 0 during a position-hating deity strike is the 2nd best year in recent history at deep safety is scary, but this may say less about the safety play, and more about Brian working the kinks out of the UFR scoring system.

2006 (average: –0.3): The one negative thing about the 2006 defense was the play at safety, mostly because Mundy and his great talent wouldn't cover anything. It was bad enough to be a soft spot, but not so bad that the great front 7 and CB play couldn't make up for it until Michigan met Ohio State-/USC-level passing attacks.

2007 (average: 1.1): After The Horror, Jamar Adams moved to free safety (listed as SS but I watched videos and he was the deep man in lots of 3-3-5s), and "keep me off your damn chart you hippie" Brandent Englemon of the 1/0/1 URFs took over the box safety spot. Adams was horrific against Oregon but settled in and provided the best FS play of the period.

2008 (average: –1): The year of Stevie Brown. When he was good, e.g. the Minnesota game, he was good. But when he was bad, Stevie was "lose MSU game all by himself" bad.

2009 (average: –3) Overall the worst safety play of the period. When Woolfolk was deep, he was tested seldom and usually finished an 'eh' 0/2/-2 or something while QBs made cornerbacks not named Warren their bitches. The bottom dropped out when Michael Williams was tried deep, and the meat of the season featured huge ugly numbers against an overmatched Kovacs until Woolfolk returned late.

In a nutshell:


The best seasons of average play from each guy at deep safety:

  • +1.10 – Jamar Adams (SR)
  • +0.71 – Brandent Englemon (RS JR)
  • +0.67 – Willis Barringer (SR)
  • +0.00 – Jamar Adams (SO)
  • -0.64 – Steve Brown (JR)
  • -0.67 – Brandon Harrison (FR)
  • -1.14 – Ryan Mundy (JR)
  • -1.30 – Charles Stewart (SR)
  • -1.92 – Troy Woolfolk (JR)
  • -4.00 – Jordan Kovacs (RS FR)
  • -6.00 – Michael Williams (RS SO)

2009 looks pretty fucking bad now, doesn't it? I think Brian was a bit ruthless with Woolfolk for missed tackles that weren't TDs, the effect of Woolfolk is not shown. Also, this isn't a "who's the best player" list since a lot of the guys at the bottom put in their bad play as underclassmen, and many are small samples against varied competition levels (e.g. lots of strong numbers versus Northwestern). It is only an average of their UFR'ed contributions while at free safety.

    And just in case it matters, here's the respective play of those who also spent time at box safety:
  • +3.00 – Brandon Harrison (SR)
  • +1.00 – Brandent Englemon (RS JR)
  • +0.83 – Jordan Kovacs (RS FR)
  • +0.75 – Brandent Englemon (RS SO)
  • +0.73 – Jamar Adams (JR)
  • +0.25 – Michael Williams (RS FR)
  • -1.33 – Jamar Adams (SO)
  • -2.93 – Michael Williams (RS SO) Lessons: 1) Kovacs is a damn good box safety for a redshirt freshman, walk-on, godsend. 2) Michael Williams wasn't good at anything.In our assessments, keep in mind what kind of player each 2010 candidate may be, and how his play might compare to any of the above candidates. 3) Our free safety prototype: rangy, heady player who can cover, tackle and avoid mistakes. Our box safety prototype: a lot of brains and solid tackler, speed and hype not a major concern.
  • This seals it.

We have a defensive set that is built to involve the safeties, more often than not, in run coverage, while the cornerbacks either play Cover-2 or man-up on the edges. Our free safety, our Hero, then, is a responsible guy who can tackle, lay a mean hit, and has enough speed to get there. Lanky cornerback-type he is not. Tiny Charles Drake-type object he is not.

And even historically, it has been just that type of player who has excelled at not drawing the ire of those paying close attention.

A safety with some linebackerish qualities: this might actually work.

In the Thrilling Conclusion…

These guys.

Cameron 'Dark Side' Gordon

Vladimir 'The Impaler' Emilien

'Marvelous' Marvin Robinson

I swear.


Blue in Seattle

August 14th, 2010 at 3:12 AM ^

But Joseph Campbell is one of my favorite authors, and "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" is my favorite books by Campbell.  And I must quote from the book to make sure everyone understands how awesome your use of this theme is for the present season.

For those you like links, link

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

But for anyone thinking that Misopogon is emphasizing one player at the expense of the team, my reply is "read up on the hero myth".  and more quoting,

" the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey."

I think it's clear from Misopogon's other post, worrying far too much about the scaring away of 5 stars, that our hero this year will not be the Achilles dipped by his heal sort, but more the heady Odysseus sort, with frequent help from favoring gods.  Who better to help than Thor and Hulk-Smash? 

So my guess as to the hero (now this is my opinion, not what I'm guessing is Misopogon's opinion) will be Cam Gordon. With upper classman level wisdom, and insight as a former offensive player, he has the heady skills required of the archetype.  But most importantly as a former offensive player he fits this last quote best.

"The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure)."

to the adventure of the Defense, land of interceptions and crushing open field tackles.

And for those of you who find Joseph Campbell a difficult read, just go to this link where they show you how Star Wars and the Matrix followed this mythical formula.

link 2 or "Mythology for Blondes"

good work sir, and thank you for fixing the title.

good work indeed.




August 14th, 2010 at 4:44 AM ^

is that the corners need to be fast enough to play deep halves, and we're not sure the non-woolfolk guy will be able to do that.  

I'm curious how one distinguishes between a 3-3-5 and a 4-3-4 when charting a given play like the penn state '06 example above--is it just a matter of personnel? 

steve sharik

August 14th, 2010 at 12:12 PM ^

  • Great effort.  I love your diaries.
  • The first still from PSU does resemble a 3-3-5; the easiest way to tell is that Branch is head up on the center.  However, the way you analogize personnel is slightly off.  Mouton and Roh will be on opposite sides, not the same side.  And it depends if GERG will line up the backers to pass strength or run strength.  (I personally believe in lining them up to run strength.  If you're a run-first player, line up to run strength.)  If they line up to run strength, it's to the TE b/c this is a 2x2 set; i.e., 2 receivers on each side.  That would put Roh coming off the TE edge and Mouton in Jamison's spot (although Mouton wouldn't be in a 3-point stance).  Adams = T. Gordon and Burgess = Kovacs.
  • The other stills you mentioned are somewhat similar and somewhat different.  Only the first is a possible 3-3-5 front.  The others are 40 fronts b/c there isn't a player directly over the nose.  The defense in the first still uses a 3-deep/3-under coverage, common with 5-man pressures.  The defense in the second still is either Cover 0 (straight man) or Cover 1 (man free).  (You can tell this b/c both corners are inside of the WR, especially Woolfolk, who is in press.)  The defense in the third still is Cover 3.  None of them are Cover 4 (or quarters).
  • Cover 4 would be a coverage I would use extremely rarely, or probably not at all, with our personnel.  Cover 4 is extremely weak in the flat and against PAP (play-action-pass), and that would put the weakness of the scheme in alignment with the weakness of our personnel b/c Mouton and Roh would be responsible for run-first, then making it to the flat.  More egregiously, Cover 4 is the worst possible coverage for Kovacs to execute.  It tells him to be aggressive against the run and still be able to play a deep zone.  Cover 4 requires excellent safeties, not weak ones.  If a team went PAP on us, do you expect Kovacs to be able to think run-first, then get back into his zone quickly?  This is worst-case scenario for our defense.
  • I think the best ways for us to deal with 4-verts and/or the flat are either a Saban-type coverage (like his Rip/Liz adjustment or Cover 7, neither of which I am familiar with, yet have it on very good authority it works well--unfortunately this takes a lot of learning so I wouldn't use them with this team) or Cover 2-Read.  However, 2-Read would still make Kovacs a deep zone defender.
  • It might make more sense for us to rotate the front and coverage the other way.  Drop T. Gordon back and kick Roh, Ezeh, and Mouton over to the strong side.


August 14th, 2010 at 12:44 PM ^

Steve, I always truly appreciate your input when it comes to x's and o's, although I always end up a little (more) concerned with our personnel than I was before (which was a decent amount anyway).  But I'd be very interested to know.  Looking at our guys, and taking the whole defensive roster into account (rotational players, backups, whatever), what base front and base coverage/s etc. would YOU recommend this team runs?  I really respect your opinion as an expert on things like this, and I don't know that I've ever seen you actually post what you think would be the best fit for this team.

steve sharik

August 14th, 2010 at 1:02 PM ^

I actually think the coaches have a good idea, especially GERG.

  • The defense is young, inexperienced, and shallow.
  • Therefore the defense should be simple and put the players we will put on the field in positions to be successful; e.g., keeping Kovacs out of deep zone coverage.
  • A 1-high (MOF safety) base defense means the other safety will play down.
  • There are a few base defenses that align with 1-high as a starting point, the best being 3-3-5 against 1-back/spread and G (Va. Tech) against 2-back.
  • Most assistants on our defensive staff are familiar with 3-3-5 concepts and terminology, and while assistants learn what the coordinator does, it makes more sense for one guy to change than several.  (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.)
  • You can't line up in 1-high all game long, you must be able to play 2-high coverages to stop passing attacks.  Even Saban's Cover 3 adjustments must take a box safety and put him in deep pass responsibility.
  • Combine the over/under packages from last year with the 3-3-5 package so you have more answers to what an offense might do.
  • I would have both Kovacs and T. Gordon play a deep safety in 2-high coverages in 7-on-7 drills to determine who is better at it.  Then when it comes time to play 2-high coverages, rotate the better player back.
  • Once players like M. Robinson, Furman, etc. get up to speed mentally, I'll be less concerned b/c they have the athletic ability to be less susceptible.  Great talent can often reduce, and sometimes neutralize, weakness of scheme.


August 14th, 2010 at 6:09 PM ^

Steve....arghhh....dammit...thanks....but arggghh.

I spend a week reading Smart Football archives trying to figure out what you're talking about, come across something that sounds exactly like what GERG has been talking about, find a front page article suggesting this is exactly what he's doing, then write a diary and you're like "Wrong wrong wrong."

I'm going to take a stab at maybe being right, and if you tell me I am nuts for pound, I am going back to the drawing board.

What I'm talking about is not a base Cover-4 defense, actually, but a mean version of quarters, where the cornerbacks, not the safeties, are the ones doing a ludicrous amount of running around. Barring something amazing like Cullen Christian being a Ty Law/Charles Woodson type who can start in bump then make it to a deep cover 2 zone, the corners generally play off and end up, base-wise, in a Cover 2. Pre-snap, Gordon and Kovacs look like they're in Cover 4, but each play one comes up to fill in for a blitzing linebacker, and the other is in centerfield, hawking the play.

I think that sounds kind of like what you're describing.

Next time, I am simply stealing your brain.


August 14th, 2010 at 2:45 PM ^

Am I crazy for thinking our potential defensive schemes seem awfully similar to the 4-2-5 playbook in the NCAA series? It's a single high safety scheme and has two box safeties playing the flats from 9 techniques. Really. it's a 3-3-5 but Roh has his hand down. Is that more or less what VT runs? Or is that closer to what TCU does?


August 17th, 2010 at 2:23 PM ^

I know everyone hit the maize n blue panic button when we heard GERG mention "3-3-5" and "new terminology" but I think the 4-2-5 from NCAA is actually closer to what we will be running... I can only pray the NCAA series allows for playbook customization to include the ability to "stand up" your Craig Rohs and increase speed and decrease something stupid. I, being the type of shameless nerd that revel in said nerdiness, would squeal with joy over this type of advancement.... Return from long-straying sidebar: You're not crazy. TCU with slightly different roles for the Spur/Bandit/DeathRoh


August 14th, 2010 at 5:17 PM ^

the analysis here is incorrect; the work of a madman.

i think MI will play the d-back off of the safety box line, and the d-linemen will play hundown tactics on i-formation. on spread, the lineman will play post, and the backers will quickly slant towards the play. while playing man, the cbs will let the zone to the safeties.

with this system, MI will lose many a game.

03 Blue 07

August 14th, 2010 at 9:14 PM ^

Huh? How does a lineman play "post," which is, at least when I played football, a route where a wide receiver runs 8-12 yards straight sprint, then breaks toward the middle of the field at a 45 degree angle...or, if it's a "skinny" post, it's more of a 60 degree (or 30 degree, depending where you're measuring as 0) angle.... Impossible for a lineman to backpedal fast enough to make this happen, unless you put a cornerback at DT/DE, and even then, would be very difficult. And asinine. Perhaps you can explain what you mean?


August 14th, 2010 at 5:56 PM ^

great diary. this stuff definitely keeps me going during the waning days of the off season.

i dont suppose you have one in the works for the offensive side, do you?