Zone-read blues

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Some of the worst moments in recent Tennessee football history can be summed up in two words ... zone read.

Basically, a shotgun quarterback takes the snap, "reads" the backside defensive end or linebacker, then either hands off to the running back or fakes the handoff and finds a crease in the defense.

It's a fiendishly simple play, yet it has given Tennessee defenders fits the past few years. In Saturday's 37-20 upset loss to Florida, for instance, Trey Burton burned the Vols for two touchdowns on zone-read plays. He scored untouched from 14 yards out after taking a zone-read handoff in the first quarter. In the third quarter, lined up as a shotgun quarterback, he faked the zone-read handoff, then sped 80 yards for a TD that tied the score at 20 and sucked the life right out of the Big Orange.

Burton's burst was the longest run surrendered by the Vols since LSU's Jordan Jefferson bolted 83 yards against them on Oct. 2, 2010. Essentially, that was a zone-read quarterback keeper, too.

Remember Tim Tebow? He ran the zone-read like he invented it in helping Florida go 4-0 against Tennessee from 2006-09.

Remember Dexter McCluster? The Ole Miss running back set a program record on Nov. 14, 2009 by shredding Tennessee for 282 rushing yards — most of those coming on zone-read plays as a shotgun quarterback.

Remember Matt Roark? He's the Kentucky receiver pressed into service at quarterback when the top two QBs were unable to face Tennessee in Lexington last November. Running virtually nothing but zone-read plays, he rushed for 124 yards in guiding the Big Blue to a 10-7 shocker that snapped a 26-game Vol winning streak in the series.

"Maintaining your gap allows the guy next to you to make a play."

Prentiss Waggner

The obvious question: What makes the zone-read so difficult for the Big Orange to stop?

"They spread you out, and you've got to get guys in certain positions," fifth-year senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "Some guys have got to tackle the dive and some have to be responsible for the quarterback."

Basically, a few Vols abandoned their responsibilities on Burton's two TD runs.

"It was people just out of place. That's about it," junior safety Brent Brewer said. "There were communication breakdowns. Possibly some guys missed their assignments or got blocked. Everybody on this defense has to do their jobs for this defense to be successful."

Junior linebacker Channing Fugate also touched on the communication issues.

"On different plays people have got different assignments, and sometimes the communication might not be there," he said. "That's when it breaks down and becomes a big play."

Senior safety Prentiss Waggner suggests that the key to stopping the zone-read play couldn't be more basic: Each player fills his lane and executes his assignment.

"Just playing your own keys, one-gap football," Waggner said. "Sometimes guys get a little bored with their gaps and their techniques, so it's about trusting the guy next to you. Maintaining your gap allows the guy next to you to make a play."

Especially frustrating for Vol fans is the fact Tennessee's players seemed surprised when Burton ran a keeper after replacing Jeff Driskel at quarterback. Didn't they notice the Gators had switched to a wildcat package?

"We have checks for a wildcat quarterback but we've got to get our checks better than we did last week and get in our formation," Lathers conceded. "Some guys just didn't get the call and didn't get lined up."

Some of the guys who were lined up correctly still seemed surprised when Burton tucked the ball, bounced outside and raced 80 yards down the East sidelines. Didn't they realize that wildcat QBs never throw the ball?

"That's mostly true," Fugate said. "But Florida's wildcat quarterback played quarterback (in 2011) a little bit, too. We knew he could throw it, so we had to be aware of that."

The Vols used the Wildcat formation to score a touchdown against Florida on this run by A.J. Johnson.


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