Check The Tape - Spring Game (Part II)

Apr 26, 2021

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I'm going to have to find a way to streamline this process in the fall. I get rolling with gifs and screencaps and the next thing I know I've spent nearly my entire week on two posts. I have a massive to-do list right now, and I know that I'll have an even bigger to-do list once the season starts, so I need to find a way to put boundaries around me. "Robert, you can only watch this film and screencap for 3 hours. After that, you're cut off."

If you missed Part I, it's here. There's no order here, so it's not like that's the first half and this is the second half. I'm just... checkin' the tape.

Show The Love

One thing I don't look for when watching film on running backs: "wow, he ran for a lot of yards untouched on that play and scored a touchdown".

Two things I do look for when watching film on running backs: "wow, he saw a hole that wasn't there" and "wow, they hit him but he didn't fall over".

That second one always gets confused. Most people think I'm talking about some run where a tailback drags the pile 10 yards. That's great, but that's not what I'm referencing. I'm talking about absorbing the first hit. This innate ability to take a thump but not go down yet.

Like this Reggie Love touchdown:

Now, he gets a lot of assistance there. Jaden Jones-Watkins (the cornerback on that side) gets the first hit, but then his momentum in that direction is met by Dylan Rosiek coming over from the linebacker spot, and his blow is met on the opposite side by safety Ben Schultz.

Still, a lot of tailbacks start tumbling forward after the Jones-Watkins hit and never make it to the endzone, let alone absorb all three hits, step out of the arm-tackle, and walk into the endzone. This is just the second-string defense (which is more like the fourth-string linebackers and safeties with all of the players who are currently rehabbing injuries), so no, Love won't be so lucky against Iowa's defense, but still, this is why Reggie Love got my highest rating the last two recruiting classes (4.25 Cruises). Shifty, fast, finds the hole... and doesn't go down the first time he's hit.

More Love

Here's another Reggie Love run from the second quarter. Remember, just like every play we're mentioning here, it's the first string offense (orange) against the second (more like third) string defense. So I'm not going with any "why didn't this 4th-string walkon do this instead of that?" observations here.

This set of screencaps is mostly to point out the blocking on the offensive line, but let's start by charting out this defense. Again, until we know more, I'm using very generic terms like "left inside linebacker" and "right inside linebacker" to describe the positions. The main thing to notice, as I've said in my depth chart posts: there are four linebackers on the field at all times - two outside linebackers (more like two stand-up defensive ends) and two inside linebackers. You can call it a 3-4, I'm calling it a 5-2 (for now).

In this set, there's two tight ends and two receivers, so the strong safety is walked up and the free safety is playing centerfield. The corners are in press coverage on each receiver and then there's eight guys in the box: "5" linemen, a strong safety in the box, and then two linebackers.

Note that I'm coming back up here to add: After embedding the gif below I realized I actually have this mislabeled. But I already closed the photo editor so I'm going to just explain it. For this play, the guy I have labeled as "SS" for strong safety is actually one of the two linebackers. Eight man box, the left inside linebacker goes and lines up across from the in-line tight end (between the LOLB and the LDE) and then the strong safety walks up to the linebacker spot (aligned across from Daniel Barker in the H-Back spot). So really, it's linebacker across from TE, Mike linebacker right on the hash, and then strong safety matching the H-Back (Barker is 4.5 yards behind the LOS, Bobak matches him 4.5 yards behind the LOS). Doesn't really matter, I guess. Those three guys (inside linebackers and the strong safety) are basically interchangeable in this scenario. Eight man box, they're the three "linebackers".

OK, let's get to the play, on the snap, everyone on offense is headed left:

So (and I'm generalizing here), the two "linebackers" have gap responsibilities. These two arrows below are basically "if he comes through here, he's my guy; if he comes through here, he's your guy". It's a lot more complicated than that, but in general terms, here's how a play like that is developing:

And keep in mind, we have five guys up on the LOS. So on a play like this, you're going to see a lot of unblocked OLB's. The offensive line just leaves this guy alone on the snap hoping that the tailback can get to the hole before the OLB (Mondesir below, #54) can get to him from the edge.

There's a lot to look for in the screencap above and the sceencap below. First, on the snap, both the center (Kramer) and the right guard (Pihlstrom) have been combo blocking the nose tackle. But in the screencap below, you can see Kramer leaving the NT to Pihlstrom and going to get a piece of the linebacker.

You can also see Barker (coming from H-Back) picking up Bobak (SS, lined up at LB) in the hole. So now there's a hat on every hat. Screencaps above, there's two linebackers spying gaps. Screencap below, the center has peeled off the combo block to pick up one of the guys and the H-Back has picked up the other guy. Every guy in blue has a hat on him (besides the OLB who is left alone to try to crash the party but cannot).

When you watch the gif at the end of this section, watch for this pass-off with Pihlstrom and Kramer. It ends exactly how it's supposed to end, with Pihlstrom (blue arrow below) taking one ILB out of the play and Kramer (orange arrow below) taking the other. Had Ford and Pearl spun their guys out a little more, Love would have been shot out of a cannon towards the endzone right here. (Tough block for both, of course. Both Pearl and Ford had a guy to their left and they needed to come off the line at the snap and get to the right shoulder of the guy to their left.)

Here's where I wanted to point out Reggie Love. Bobak dives for his feet. Deon Pate (left end) has shed Julian Pearl's block and is there to make the tackle. Dylan Rosiek (LB, mislabeled as SS above) has shed Ford's block and is there to make the tackle. Reggie Love should go down at the 14 here.

But he spins, drives his legs, and dives forward to the 11.

Look at where Pate is (#98) at the 15 yard line below. Then look at where Love ended up. Yes, that's the second (third) string defense. But still, those 3-4 yards right there are how you win or lose football games. Second and five becomes second and one, and now you can try all kinds of fun things.

Here's the gif of the play. You'll probably need to watch it around 15 times. A list:

  • First few times watch Love. stacked up at the 14, stays on his feet, gets to the 11.
  • Next few times watch Kramer and Pihlstrom. Kramer helps Pihlstrom get the nose tackle (Anthony Shipton) moving backwards, then he peels off to take the linebacker (Darkangelo, #38). Pihlstrom keeps driving and driving and Shipton ends up 8 yards down the field.
  • Now watch Mondesir come off the edge at the top. He has edge responsibilities in case there's a cutback (or in case Peters keeps and bootlegs around Texas Bowl-style) but if the ball is handed off he needs to crash down the line as fast as he can. If the play has moved far enough left, he can't get there.
  • And then maybe watch one part I didn't even mention: 55 on 55. Senior Blake Jeresaty (LG) blocking freshman Sed McConnell (RDE). It goes how a senior vs. freshman matchup should go.

I Stan Spann From The Stan Span

We are driving to St. Louis today (Sunday) for a birthday party. The party is in a park in Bridgeton. My wife is driving right now while I write this post in the passenger seat. We get to the 270/70 split in Troy, Illinois a little bit ago and she follows the GPS onto 70 towards downtown. I raise my head, expecting that we would have gone across the Chain Of Rocks Bridge and then maybe 270 to Lindbergh, but the GPS says that going downtown and then towards the airport on 70 is faster. I smile because the timing is impeccable. I can now be writing this section from the literal Stan Span.

For you non-St. Louis people, seven years ago they opened a new bridge across the Mississippi River. Interstate 70 no longer crosses the river on the overcrowded Poplar Street Bridge before turning north. Now, in Illinois, you peel off onto I-70 near the Gateway race track and cross the river north of downtown. And The Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge is too long of a name, so it has a nickname: the Stan Span.

All of this means I can make good (kind of) on my tweet from last fall:

I probably need to explain that whole thing a little bit.

Kids These Days use the phrase "stan" to refer to someone obsessing about some celebrity. I believe - but don't quote me on this - it comes from an Eminem song about an obsessive fan named Stan. If you're on Twitter, you've likely seen someone say the phrase "we have no choice but to stan". Or maybe you haven't. Pretty sure my sister wouldn't follow anyone who would say that.

ANYWAY, I stan Deuce Spann. I've had this decades-long obsession with an Illini offense being led with the best dual-threat QB in the universe. I've tossed out the "if you're not utilizing a dual-threat QB in modern college football, you're playing 10 on 11" quote dozens of times. I wanted Aaron Bailey to be the guy, and now I want Deuce Spann to be the guy. I'll never give up on having that guy in Champaign.

I'm also fully aware that it probably won't happen. This offense won't be the Denard-Robinson-At-Michigan offense I've wanted to see, so Deuce will probably have to run a pocket-centric offense (which I think he can do!). But I'll probably never get my dream of 250 rushing yards/250 passing yards because I'm not sure the Deuce will ever be loose. The most likely scenario, if I'm being honest: he goes looking for an offense where he can do this...

...and also this:

Yes, he's doing both of those things in this offense, which means he could do those things in this offense. I'm simply saying that the run is a pocket-breakdown scramble, and I've been dreaming of the Juice Williams offense in Champaign again for an entire decade, and this just isn't going to be a "the QB's legs are the most important part of this offense" kind of thing.

So I'm guessing he'll eventually transfer elsewhere and be this superstar dual-threat QB in an offense that fits him. And when that happens, well, always remember who loved him first.

More Like Blake Glitterati

I was a big fan of signing Blake Jeresaty. I'd love to do this every year: go find FCS stars who are starting to find their way onto NFL radars and give them a shot at P5 football. Offensive line is "let's see what we have once they're 21 years old" recruiting position, and I'm sure you'll see some lineman drafted this weekend from Lake Superior State or whatever, so let's use the portal to recruit Lake Superior State every now and then.

And Wofford. Wofford is where we found Blake Jeresaty. And he would have played here last year but... he had some really bad luck. "Bad luck" probably isn't how to say it. More of a "you're kidding, right?" scenario.

The Big Ten season gets canceled in August. Jeresaty had some shoulder clean-up surgery that needed to be done (usually not a "have to have surgery before you can play again" scenario, more of a "will have to be done at some point" kind of thing). So with the season canceled, he had his chance. Have the surgery, be 100% by the time the next season rolls around. He has the surgery and then... the Big Ten reverses course and decides to play. So Jeresaty missed the entire season because of surgery right before the season. When they announced the season was going to happen, he had to have a "you're kidding, right?" moment.

So now we get him at left guard for a year. Kendrick Green went off to the draft and now Jeresaty replaces him. So let's spot shadow an early block in the spring game. Jeresaty is #55 at left guard. I zoomed in here a little so we can just watch Jeresaty finish his block.

I'm a big fan - a huge fan - of finishing your block at the 43 when the play started at the 34. He's blocking freshman Tre'Von Riggins, and Riggins identifies the play and tries to shed the block to chase Chase Brown. But Jeresaty just won't let go. This is like one of those dog training videos where the German Shepherd has the big foam arm protector in his mouth and just will not under any circumstances let go. Chases for 8 yards and then completes the block (while Brown picks up two more yards behind his block).

I've already started to think of scenarios where Jeresaty applies for a Covid-waiver waiver arguing that the Big Ten's indecision cost him a season and he deserves one more year in 2022.

Hard Crash

Mentioned above how the 9-yard Reggie Love run moved so far to the left that the OLB couldn't get there before Love got to the hole. So I thought I'd show a play where the OLB (Mondesir) does get there.

This is the advantage of "five defensive linemen" (yes, OK, it's three DL's and two OLB's). Play is headed left, a guard is pulling, so the OL has to leave Mondesir (#54) unblocked. And he easily makes the tackle:

What's the defense against that? Easy. Have the QB pull the ball. All Peters has to do there is read how hard Mondesir is crashing inside, pull the ball from Chase Hayden's belly, and run for a long way with everyone moving so quickly to the east sideline.


What do we hear underdog coaches say all the time in pregame speeches? "Win your one-on-one battles. If everyone on this team wins his specific assignment, we can beat this team."

Here's a good example of one single one-on-one battle being the difference. The battle here: two classmates: redshirt freshman Keith Randolph at left defensive end and redshirt freshman Moses Okpala at right tackle:

At the snap, this one is clear. It's a hat-on-hat battle.

H-Back is coming inside to block so it's fairly clear here where this is headed if Williams hands the ball to Norwood.

Which he does as Okpala and Randolph begin their battle.

This image here shows everything. The lines show the lane that should be set up. And, for the most part, the blocking is there. Slaughter has his guy cleared out, and the left side of the OL (Plohr, Brown, and Sparks) have basically built a wall to the east. On the west, the H-Back has come across to kick-out Gay, and Ford has a one-on-one block going with the linebacker (Hart). There's just one part of the wall that has fallen. Randolph has defeated Okpala in The Battle For The Center Of The West Wall.

Which makes this quite an easy tackle.

But you didn't really have to land on him, Keith.

"Win your one-on-one battles" is so true (soo truue). This play was an OT against a DE. If the OT wins, a lot of yards. If the DE wins, 3rd and 9.

Man, running backs are tough. That's a 275 lb. man landing on you as your chest hits the ground. How do you even get up?


One final thing. I know it makes some people uncomfortable, but I like it when a spring game gets a little chippy. I want the team playing right on the edge of a fight breaking out. Even when it's Illini vs. Illini.

Here's an example of one of those things. You might remember the Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty on the very first drive for the Blue Team offense. Michael Marchese (42 in blue) was blocking CJ Hart (5 in orange) and at the end of the play, Marchese gives him a shove over the pile. Hart takes offense, says something (and maybe shoves Marchese?) and the official throws the flag:

So then in the second quarter, with the Orange Team dominating (as they should), the Blue Team gets their biggest gain of the night (quite literally half their yards) on a pass to Michael Marchese. Who was covering him on the play? CJ Hart.

What did Marchese do after the play? Let him know.

I know these are teammates. Heck, until Marchese switched to tight end a few weeks ago, they were two of the eight guys working out at linebacker. I'm sure there were some fans at the game yelling something like "uh, scoreboard, Marchese" after a taunt down 37-6 in the second quarter.

But I liked it. I liked the edge I saw all spring. This spring game was much chippier than the last few, and I like it. This team really needs to establish an edge.

Let's carry that edge all the way through to Nebraska.


'98 on April 27, 2021 @ 06:39 PM

These 2 check the tapes are some of the best content you've produced since you made this your baby. That's no insult to other stuff, but this was incredibly insightful. Thx.

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