Changes in the FSU Defense: Star and Money

The new Florida State defense features different verbiage that hints at the way the new staff approaches the teaching process. We take a look at two of the more oft-repeated terms in recent weeks, the "Star" and "Money" roles.

In the previous installment, we took a broad look at some philosophical differences between the way Mark Stoops ran the Florida State defense and the way Jeremy Pruitt's 2013 bunch will approach stopping opposing offenses. In brief, whereas Stoops—once he had outstanding athletes at his disposal—preferred simplicity, Pruitt is emphasizing multiplicity and flexibility. One place this difference is clear is in the new "Star" and "Money" roles on defense.

Enter "Star" and "Money"

Asked about these terms on Sunday, Pruitt explained, "All that is is verbiage. Everybody else may call them nickel and dime. That's all it is. In essence the star becomes the SAM [strongside linebacker] and the money becomes the WILL [weakside LB]." There is, however, a reason for the change in verbiage, and it has to do with how the defensive staff teaches these roles.

When most teams talk about the "nickel" or "dime" position, they're talking about a defensive back that replaces a linebacker or defensive lineman to put more speed on the field for better pass coverage. Essentially, a player at one position (usually linebacker) is replaced with another position, the nickel or dime back.

The reason Florida State (following the example of Saban's Alabama defense, which got the approach from Bill Belichick) uses the "Star" and "Money" terms instead of the more traditional titles is that they want to emphasize that the "Star" and "Money" are not new positions, they're roles that can be filled by several different types of player. The Sam linebacker is playing the "Star" when he's on the field; if he's replaced by a cornerback, that corner is still playing the same role the Sam was. This means that when Florida State installs a given defensive look, all the players who play the "Star" position—including several corners, safeties, and all the Sam linebackers—learn the responsibilities for that position at once.

Easier to Teach, Easier to Learn

This doesn't sound like much of a change, but it effectively simplifies the way the defense can be taught, so that each player isn't really learning a new position for each defensive package or call, they're learning conceptually what the "Star" (whether that's an extra corner, safety, or the Sam) is responsible for in a given defense. Likewise the "Money" is not taught separately to the linebackers and defensive backs but as one role that just happens to have different personnel at times. This helps simplify the learning process for more complicated defensive looks—we must always remember that although lots of people can draw up pretty plays on the white board, the real difficulty is teaching things in such a way that they can be executed quickly.

One way to think about the difference in approach is to think about how a wide receiver might learn his assignments. One approach might be to have the "X" (split end) memorize his route for each playcall, for example, "When you hear 'Python', you run a corner route." The "Z" has his own route to memorize as well, learning that "Python" means he runs a post route.

Another approach is to teach the whole play concept to each receiver and even have them take repetitions at each position to learn the entire play as a concept, understanding, that "Python" is a play that involves a front-side post route with a "broken arrow" underneath it and a backside corner route. It doesn't actually take any additional memorization to learn the concept than the route itself, and the difference is that each receiver now understands each spot—meaning they can be interchangeable and also that they understand their role in the play.

Applied to defense, this is even more important. What this means is that most defensive players are being cross-trained to understand what they would have to do if they were lined up in a different spot—so when an offense tries to use formations and motion to create mismatches, the defense can simply slide a player better suited to that role into that spot, and he should understand the responsibilities of that role. Thus a player like Karlos Williams can easily slide up to the "Money" spot, where he knows he has the same responsibilities the Will has when he's playing the "Money" spot—only Williams runs a  lot better than any Will linebacker in the country.

Characteristics of Each Role

The "Star" has to be a good coverage player while still being able to provide outside run support and solid pass rush off the corner on the blitz. In a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 look, this is the Sam's spot, and he's going to be responsible for covering the tight end most of the time. In a five-DB package, the "Star" will usually be a cornerback who will line up over the slot receiver.

That corner does not need to have great size or speed to be successful because he has more deep help than an outside corner, but he needs to be quick, instinctive, and physical. Ideally, the star is an excellent blitzer who can disguise and come quickly off the edge. Javier Arenas is probably the the best "Star" (in terms of defensive backs playing the position) Alabama has had and should serve as a decent prototype for the position. Mike Harris is a recent FSU corner who would have been well suited for the Star role.

Given the number of spread teams on the schedule, Florida State is really a base-nickel team, so the Star role is especially important. I expect the primary "Star" to be Lamarcus Joyner, who is pretty close to ideally suited for the role. Tyler Hunter is likely to be the second "Star" and will certainly play at that spot in certain packages.

The "Money" player is a weakside player and thus usually has less need for man-to-man coverage skills against a slot receiver unless you're playing a team that likes to run a lot of 4WR 2x2 formations (two receivers on each side). The Money is usually going to have a significant run-stopping role, however, and needs to be able to tackle inside the box. In 11 personnel (one back, one tight end), the "Money" is usually going to be responsible for the tight end in initial coverage, while the Star on the other side will be over the slot.

The most likely "Money" guy in FSU's six-DB packages is obviously Karlos Williams, who might as well have been designed in a lab to play the position. Williams is not ideal, however, in tight coverage against a slot receiver, so I'd expect Tyler Hunter to be the primary "Money" player against four-wide packages, as he has shown the ability to cover the slot. Terrance Brooks is also a good option at the "Money." Williams would likely have deep coverage responsibilities (a center-field role) when Hunter or Brooks were in the "Money" role against four receivers.

The beauty of having all these secondary players understanding the concepts for several positions is that offenses will have a much harder time creating mismatches against FSU personnel, as the defense will simply respond to formation or motion by sliding the best player for that responsibility into the needed spot. Instead of winding up with a linebacker covering a super-fast slot receiver, FSU has the personnel to put extra defensive backs on the field without sacrificing much against the run, and the Star and Money roles should help simplify the thought process for those players.

The downside to this multiple-personnel approach is that even if you simplify things by teaching these positions as roles with different personnel rather than as different positions, it still involves more conceptual understanding and reps taken from different spots than if one were simply lined up in the same spot with the same responsibilities every play. It goes without saying that it's easier for a player's responsibilities to become automatic if he's only ever asked to do one thing. There's no question we'll see some hesitation and a few busts from the FSU defense early in the year as a result, but the end result should be a defense that is much more flexible and can better match personnel and scheme to what an offense wants to do. This will be especially important against teams with flexible personnel and schemes like Clemson or Florida.

In the next installment, we'll talk about what exactly Pruitt and the players are talking about when they say FSU will be "more aggressive" on defense this year—and why that shouldn't result in giving up lots of big plays downfield.

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