FOOTBALL: Over The Line And Out Of Bounds

I'm no coach so anything I say here should be understood under the premise that I have never coached a down of football in my life. I have worked many hard and long hours for ten years for the coaching staff at the University of Florida, so I definitely know enough to be thoroughly dangerous. With that said, here are some observations through game five of the football season.

First and foremost, it is my opinion that it is ludicrous to think that this spread option offense will not work in the SEC. It's just my opinion here, but I believe that much of the problem lies in not being able to run the entire offensive package. How many times have we heard Gator Coach Urban Meyer say he is trying to make this team learn in one year what it normally takes two? The fact is the entire offense will take some time to run correctly, something proven in his first two stops prior to Florida. Meanwhile, in order to win the games at hand he's having to defer to things that the players he inherited do best rather than implement plays and schemes he knows have worked before.

Problem One: Protection and blocking from the offensive line

One major problem for the offensive line is a switch from predominately man blocking to a zone blocking scheme. Yes, the Gators were mainly a zone running team last year but the protections for the most part were a man scheme. Each lineman was designated a defender to block. Now they are blocking part of an arc and have that area. It is a huge switch in thinking and I am not saying which one is better. From looking at film of Utah last year, their zone blocking was excellent.

One major difference is the fact that the Gators are throwing the ball deeper more often than Meyer did at Utah. There, Meyer used the width of the field to spread the defense so the receivers could do the work after the catch on mostly very short routes. That scheme worked for a lot of very big plays. Spreading the field also allowed the quarterback to be a mainstay in the running game. If the linebackers and safeties spread far and drop, the quarterback seized the opportunity to run with the ball and collect 7-8 yards. Once he established the run, the safeties and linebackers stayed home and the quarterback threw over the top. At Utah, Meyer had Alex Smith running. Here, he's got Chris Leak who is not doing a great job of running the ball although he is light years ahead of where he was in the spring.

There is also the problem of so many missed assignments and the look that the offensive line is being whipped. Much of that appearance has to do with the changes in the blocking philosophy. There is no lack of talent on the offensive line. Three of the same linemen that are supposedly getting "beat" this year started on a line that allowed only 19 sacks all season for the conference's leading passer in 2004. The Gators have already allowed 18 sacks this season. Say what you want about DeShawn Wynn and I agree he "tiptoed" at the end of a few runs Saturday, but he also averaged four yards a carry against a very good defensive front. My one problem with the run offense was the fact they couldn't get one yard when they needed it at the goal line.

Again, I believe the issues arrive from a new system that is dramatically different from the old one. It has caused the staff to call games differently than they would normally and I believe they have had to leave out entire phases of the offense that they know will be successful at some point. The growing pains will continue until the players adjust and no one knows how long that will be.

Problem Two: Utilizing the whole offense

They have to eventually integrate the whole thing to make it work. Five-man protection and throwing the ball deep is only going to work so often. The Gators found that to be painfully true in the Fiesta Bowl in 1995. The coaching staff is used to blocking with five but that is with a much more integrated short passing game and running the option wide to spread the defense. They counter all of this with the inside zone running, when the entire defense is spread out. The defense won't be spread if the offense is just going vertical or running up the middle.

My Quick Opinions On What Needs To Happen:

First, let's take the protection calls out of the hands of the quarterback. Mike Degory has been calling line protections and blocking assignments for three years. Why not let him continue doing that? It is one less thing for the quarterback to think about and Degory was good at it before.

Second, run a little bit with the back-up quarterback. I know Mark Richt was blasted for doing it with D.J. Shockley at Georgia, especially when it backfired in a Gator victory in 2002, but this offense is a whole different animal and uses the wide field and many more options (pun intended) to run outside. It is easy to see that Josh Portis is more adept at doing this and that part of the game will run smoother. It also forces defenses to prepare for it, eating up practice time that could be spent on pass coverage.

I believe it is just that simple. If these two changes work, the offense as a whole can increase production while they learn the finer intricacies of the rest of the offense. With each addition of the offense to the field, each phase of the offense becomes easier and production increases for each phase.

TWO ISSUES WITH THE DEFENSE:

Problem One: Have to have more pass rush from the starting four

I will be the first one to agree that the defensive line is much more active and making plays than it was last year. For the most part, I like the play of the defensive line. The cold hard facts are the defense has 12 sacks total on the year so far and is almost halfway through the season. Last year the defense finished with 23 sacks for the year. Most will remember, the Gators faced a lot of mobile quarterbacks last year. That isn't the case this year. Maybe an even more surprising statistic is the fact the starting defensive line last year accounted for nine sacks on the season. So far, the players that started the games on the defensive line have accounted for three total sacks. In the 2004 season the defensive line starters accounted for nine batted passes while so far in 2005 they have two. In 2004, the defensive line had 13 total quarterback hurries but in 2005, almost halfway through the season, the starting defensive line has accounted for four quarterback hurries. The starting defensive line finished with 157 tackles last year. So far in 2005, almost halfway home, the Gator defensive line starters have 54 tackles. There aren't many if any stats that favor a group that seemingly plays better than a year ago.

Now one caveat, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention this fact. The Gators are on par to have 200 or so fewer defensive plays in 2005 than 2004. In essence they have many fewer chances to make all these plays and garner the statistics. Still, given the difference the numbers defy logic for a defense that has played somewhat spectacular for most of the season compared to one that struggled a lot in 2004.

Problem Two: The Alabama Anomaly and lack of good safety play

This is only an issue if it persists. The fact is, the safeties have been strong all year for the Gators up until the Alabama game. In that game however, the free safety could probably be attributed the cause of all three receptions for touchdowns. When first watching the game and seeing the first play from scrimmage for Alabama, I wondered where the safety help was in the cover-1 defense. Meyer pointed out it was a cover-3 and all three passing touchdowns were thrown against a zone defense, pointing the finger squarely at the free safety who was supposed to be the deepest man in the middle of the field. In this case, the wily veteran quarterback sucked in the safety and made him bite on other routes while throwing near perfect passes. But, if that deep safety was there, those passes, as perfect as they were, would not have been completed.

My ideas on "fixing" the defense:

Except for about four plays in the Alabama game, the defense has played very well as a whole. Up front however, there has to be more to it. The Gators are getting pressure from bringing linebackers and defensive backs. The juniors and seniors that make up the defensive line are not getting many of the stats normally associated with a defense playing this well. I couldn't recommend any style changes but maybe more pure pass rushers on the outside. Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss are itching to get in and maybe the Gators need to give them a chance to see what they can do. In limited time, the two have looked good and actually have as many tackles, Moss (4) and Harvey (5) as Joe Cohen (4). Both have played significantly less but of course have been in a lot against the backups of the opponents.

As for the safety play, Kyle Jackson had a bad day. He has been super so far this season and at the end of last season. His bad day was compounded by many mistakes but doesn't equal the many bad days by the player he replaced last year. I believe Jackson is a future superstar that will learn from his mistakes. He was schooled by a damn good quarterback who got him to bite on the fakes. I believe this defense is aggressive enough with the strong safety play at the line of scrimmage that the free safety should roam the middle of the deep field. That is what got abused on Saturday. Take those plays away and the Gators make a game of it.

In Closing…

I would like to add that I am coming around on something that I really didn't like when the new staff arrived, which is the funk punt formation. I still think it's scary and in the spring it produced a bunch of blocked punts. It has been my only consistent bone of contention since the new staff took over. So how has it done? It has been blocked once, but it has accounted for two fumbles on the punt returner as he was catching the ball, both in big games. The Gators are also tied with Utah (of all schools in Division I) for number 21 in the country in punt return yards allowed which isn't bad.


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