Hardy Nickerson looks to out-do his NFL father as Cal prepares to defend the triple option

FORT WORTH, Tex. -- We go in-depth with the nuts and bolts of the veer option, and how California has been preparing to defend it in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force.

FORT WORTH, Tex. – Hardy Nickerson, Jr.'s father never played in a bowl game while he was at Cal.

“The best he finished was 5-5-1,” Nickerson says, while Bears junior quarterback Jared Goff looks on, with a quizzical expression painted on his unshaven face.

“Really?” Goff asks.

“They weren’t very good,” Nickerson replies. “It was always a goal of his to get to a bowl game, and it never happened. I’m happy that one of us – a 47 Nickerson – can make it in.”

The two are shooting the breeze before the Armed Forces Bowl press conference on Monday at the Omni Fort Worth. In just over 24 hours, they’ll square off against Air Force, and the Falcons’ triple option offense.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1626976-bear-republic-podc... Goff has never faced a team that’s run the veer option. He never played Concord (Calif.) De La Salle while he was at Kentfield (Calif.) Marin Catholic. Nickerson, likewise, never faced the Spartans, but did face the veer-option once in high school, which is a good thing for the Bears, since he’ll be the one having to defend it, while Goff watches and waits for his turn on the field.

The closest Nickerson has come to facing the veer option was Hayward (Calif.)’s Wing T, with a sprinkling of option. Nickerson says, though, that he did see it a lot in Pop Warner and Little League. Senior outside linebacker Nathan Broussard says he hasn’t seen one since his sophomore or year of high school. It’s like a foreign language to many of the Bears defenders, says defensive coordinator Art Kaufman.

“Option offense is all about assignment football,” Kaufman says. “The hardest thing is to get everybody to do what they’re supposed to do, as far as keeping their eyes in the right places. That’s the main focus.”

“When a play comes to you, make it,” Nickerson says. “The biggest thing coach Chachere was telling us was, make sure we play slow, and, as they say: Slow until you know.’ Once you know, then you can play fast.”

Defending the veer or triple option comes down to discipline, because that’s what’s required to run it, in the first place. It’s not about size or speed, but precision.

“The thing that concerns me the most is that they do this all the time,” says Bears linebackers coach Garret Chachere, who faced service academies – which typically run a variation of the veer option because of limited practice time and smaller personnel – 11 times during his days with Tulane, the last time in 2006. “They major in this, and we’re trying to get prepared to do something that many of the kids, if they’ve seen it, haven’t seen it in a long time. It’s just about changing mindsets.”

Kaufman hasn’t seen a veer option in much longer than Chachere.

“Last time I saw a service academy team was about 20 years ago, and it was this team,” he says. “They had a young man by the name of Dee Dowis, I believe, was the quarterback. I’ve seen this option stuff several years through my career, but the last time I’ve seen a service academy was 20 years ago.”

Preparation

Notmuch has changed about the veer option in the past two decades, so Kaufman has reached into the vault to find as many film clips of the veer option against his type of defense as he can find.

“One of the things that we try to do is we go back and get schemes that are very similar to ours, and try to show the views that they’re going to see in the ballgame, and that’s the biggest thing, and try to break it down to them, so that it’s in a language that they can understand,” Kaufman says. “We go back and do stuff that was five, six, seven, eight years ago. The whole thing we try to do is we try to get pictures of the film clips that match what we do, and what we’re going to do, to try to show them that view, and that’s the biggest thing that we try to do.”

Cal has practiced with no footballs on the offensive scout team for much of their bowl preparation practices.

“Everybody’s got the ball in this game, and everybody makes sure they do their assignment,” Kaufman says. “They don’t get to say, ‘Well, I saw that he pulled it.’ You won’t see that in this game. Everybody has the ball. You’ve got your assignments, and you’ve got to make sure that you take care of your responsibility.”

Coaches have been stressing that their charges tackle their assigned man – whether it’s the quarterback, the dive back or the fullback – no matter what.

“Tackle whoever’s in front of you, because if they see somebody, they might not even give them the ball, but if they see them running free, I’ll bet they give him the ball the next play,” Nickerson says. “We just have to make sure we take care of our jobs and get off the field.”

Personnel

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1584980-honey-mustard-the-... Air Force's fullbacks carry the load of the Falcons' rushing attack. Air Force is 7-1 this year when the fullback position rushes for 100 or more yards in a game. Early on, juniors D.J. Johnson (5-foot-10, 235 pounds) and Shayne Davern (6-foot, 240) held sway, but after injuries to both Johnson and Davern, tailback Jacobi Owens (6-foot, 202) has taken over. In fact, over the last three games, he's the only one who's taken the ball at the position, rushing for 340 yards on 48 carries. He rushed for 156 yards on 17 carries in the Mountain West title game against San Diego State.

“They had some big backs earlier, and they’ve gone to a smaller fullback, and that’s really the only guy that we’re worried about, taking care of that dive back," Kaufman says. "If he’s 200 pounds or 240 pounds, that is a difference. It’s kind of like tackling a big tailback that’s 240 pounds, or a 190-pound scatback – that’ll depend on who they put in there over the course of the game, and we have to adjust.”

Cal's depth chart for the Armed Forces Bowl has only Jake Kearney listed at the SAM position, with the MIKE listed as Nickerson, then Nathan Broussard, and the WILL being Ray Davison, with no backups listed. At nickel, Cameron WalkerEvan RamboTrey Turner and Caleb Coleman are listed.

With Griffin Piatt injured, JuCo transfer Derron Brown is listed as the No. 2 boundary safety behind Stefan McClure, while field safety Damariay Drew is backed up by Luke Rubenzer and Khari Vanderbilt.

The starting defensive line, from left to right, is Kyle KragenJames LooneyTony Mekari and DeVante Wilson . FreshmanCameron Saffle will back up Kragen, while sophomore Noah Westerfield, who had fallen down the depth chart after the first three games, is back, as the third option at the left defensive end spot.

"Honey Mustard" David Davis will be the first to back up Looney, followed by senior Trevor Kelly. Mekari will be backed by senior Mustafa Jalil -- the only Cal player to have played in a bowl game -- and Marcus Manley. Wilson will be backed up by redshirt senior Todd Barr.

Possession Football

Air Force is 21st in the nation in time of possession, in part due to the run-heavy veer option that keeps the clock running, but the Falcons are more like a fleet of tanks than a squadron of jets.

“It’s rhythm. It’s very deliberate, and the kids just have to get used to it," Chachere says. "When you’re playing people that snap it every 17 seconds, running the fly sweep, I told my guys that [Air Force] may crawl from the huddle to get to the line, just to eat up more clock.”

Cal has played three other teams in the top 25 in time of possession -- Stanford (1), San Diego State (18) and Utah (19) -- this season, going 1-2. The Aztecs -- who the Bears defeated in the second week of the season -- defeated Air Force in the Mountain West championship game, 27-24, running the ball 44 times and passing 31. As you can see from the chart below, giving up possessions against ball-control offenses like Air Force's has not been a recipe for success, as not only do they burn clock, but they narrow the margin for error. Cal turned the ball over just once on 13 drives against the Aztecs, finished four of their five trips into the red zone with touchdowns and came away with a 35-7 win. 

What the Utah row doesn't show is that Goff's throw on the Bears' final play of the game was from the 21-yard line -- a pass intended for Darius Powe, but broken up -- right on the doorstep of the red zone. Add in that play, and the Bears are 2-for-4 on red zone trips. Against Stanford, Cal was 1-of-5 on scoring touchdowns on red zone trips.

"If we would have played like we normally do in the red zone against Stanford, we're in it down to the last second, or probably win it," Goff said on Monday.

While USC is in the middle of the pack in time of possession, the Trojans' style of offense is still very much rooted in the run game, and against Cal, the Trojans rushed the ball on 50 of 73 snaps and dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for over 35 minutes.

The fewer chances Goff and the Bears have on offense, the fewer points they're going to score, so in that sense, Air Force's offense could be as important to stopping Cal as their defense.

Team Cal Off. Plays # of Drives Drives Ended in Turnovers TDs on Red Zone Trips Result Final Opp. TOP Ranking
Grambling 88 18 3 7-of-10 W, 73-14 N/A
San Diego State 61 13 1 4-of-5 W, 35-7 18
Texas 78 15 2 5-of-7 W, 45-44 113
Washington 92 14 2 2-of-6 W, 30-24 64
Washington State 75 14 2 2-of-2 W, 34-28 56
Utah 92 14 6 2-of-3 L, 24-30 19
UCLA 88 12 0 3-of-4 L, 40-24 125
USC 61 11 3 3-of-3 L, 27-21 70
Oregon 66 13 2 2-of-5 L, 44-28 111
Oregon State 83 14 1 5-of-6 W, 54-24 122
Stanford 78 10 0 1-of-5 L, 35-22 1
Arizona State 73 14 1 3-of-4 W, 48-46 31

Let’s Get Technical

Much of the option is predicated on the quarterback, in this case, Air Force’s Karson Roberts. He’s got the most on his plate.

In the veer triple option, the offense does not block two defenders. These are the option keys that the quarterback reads.

On an inside veer, those are the first two defenders outside of the play-side guard, generally a defensive tackle and a defensive end, or a defensive end and an outside linebacker.

Going after the quarterback – in the case of the defensive linemen, trying swim moves and rips to get through the line – or jumping for the chance at a tackle for loss are both losing propositions. Both of those actions tend to be indicated by the shouldes of the defenders, and that's oen of the main keys-within-the-keys that Roberts will be reading.

If an option key’s shoulders are perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, it’s tougher for the option key to play the quarterback, meaning Roberts could pull the ball himself and run on his first read. If he sees the next option key – usually a defensive end – with his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, he can pitch the ball to the pitch back. If the defensive end bites on the running back, the quarterback can cut inside and take it for a large gain, as his line uses leverage to wall off the inside.

Given that Cal has featured nickel personnel for much of the year, and, Nickerson says, will do so again against the Falcons, that may sometimes mean that Nickerson will be one of the option keys.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1626027-cal-armed-forces-b... “I don’t know if there will be much disguising going on, because we have to make sure we’re lined up and doing exactly what we need to do,” Nickerson says. “We’ll be playing a lot of nickel, too, so they’ll be reading our nickels, our D-ends, and they also run some schemes where they read our D-tackles. There are a few plays where they read me. They’ll widen the line and run a fullback right at me, see what I do.”

Given the nickel and dime formations we’re likely to see, head coach Sonny Dykes says, those nickel and dime backs like Rambo and Turner will also have to step up, as well.

“More the nickel and dime guys, like Rambo and Turner, and those guys, and getting Jake back healthy – Kearney’s been kind of banged up for a good part of the year -- between all of them, it’s going to be a good opportunity for them to get on the field and make some plays,” Dykes says.

Reading the option keys, and not blocking them, allows for the front-side blockers to double-team or block down field, which is why the offense sees so many big plays in the run game – the Falcons average 321.8 yards per game on the ground – but while Air Force won’t pass much, it’s still something to watch out for.

Roberts was a drop-back pro-style quarterback in high school, and this season, he’s been fairly efficient, completing 70 of 134 passing attempts (52.2%) for 1,446 yards and nine touchdowns, but he’s also thrown 10 interceptions.

Having one or no safeties in the box – a single-high or two-high look -- is a poor strategy against the veer; yes, they’ll make stops, but if the Falcons hit a crease, it can result in a big play or a touchdown, and it opens up the play-action passing game.

The hardest defenses for the veer to play against are those with two safeties in the box.

“We’re going to have to play assignment-sound football, [they’re going to make] a lot of cut blocks, so we’ve got to be physical and use your eyes,” said senior safety Stefan McClure. “It’s not something you see regularly in the Pac-12, but we’ll be ready.”

Perhaps the most difficult proposition for a team that’s had to face a Pac-12 schedule – one that includes the brutal physicality of Stanford, the breakneck speed of Oregon and the Air Raid of Washington State – is not relying on superior athleticism, being a Power 5 team playing against a Mountain West division champion.

"Oregon runs all the variations of it, so yes, in a sense, there are certain plays [that are similar], yes, but, the difference is that, Oregon, if you’re late on everything, their speed will out-run you," Chachere says. "Here, if you’re early on everything, they’ll hit a seam and get vertical on you, so you have to reverse.

“You play a lot of tempo, fast teams, where you have to react fast, get going fast, run, and this one, you really have to dissect it, read it, and then react. Don’t assume.

Hence, the ‘everybody has the ball’ philosophy in practice.

“That’s the whole thing: People want to say, ‘Well, I saw him hand it off,’ but you won’t know that on an option team, with the quarterback underneath,” Kaufman says. “It’s a totally different game. You’re talking about a second and a half quicker than when he’s in the gun.”

Notice: Quicker, not faster. That’s the trap that Cal can fall into, and even Nickerson does, when describing Air Force.

“You see some option when you play against Oregon and spread teams that like to run the ball a lot, but this is different,” says Nickerson. “Things are moving way faster.”

The key, Chachere says, is to slow everybody down. Being methodical and keeping shoulders squared muddies option reads. After that, defenders have to rally to the ball (something the Bears have done well this season) and try to make plays in the first two yards from scrimmage. 

“We have to slow everybody down,” Chachere says. “It’s not only key, but my key, then my fit, and there’s a lot of different things. From your point of view, when you’re just talking concepts, yes, it is the same general idea [as Oregon], or even like an Arizona. Certain people run a part of this scheme, so when you get ready to play the Arizonas of the world, the Oregons of the world, they’re giving you that kind of option, dive, dive, power.”

But, Chachere says, those other schools only use pieces of the option. This is the whole quesadilla, which is a whole different enchilada. 

“What we have to do is take those guys and really put a harness on them," Chachere says of his linebackers, who will be without perhaps their best sideline-to-sideline players in Devante Downs (knee) and Michael Barton, who is injured, and has announced his intention to become a graduate transfer after this spring. "We slow them down, slow them down, slow them down, slow them down, and then – then – as we get closer to the game, let off the harness a little bit, let them run a little bit. Right now, we have to see deliberate movements, deliberate eyes, deliberate steps.”


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