Coach's Look: What It Takes to Play DB

I don’t want you to think that this is going to be DB 101. Actually, I guess it will be to an extent, but there will be some film analysis and look at Michael Huff and the Longhorns' coverage thrown in, too.

Playing cornerback, which all of UT's defensive backs are essentially asked to do most of the time in Carl Reese's defense, is the third hardest job on a football field (behind playing center and quarterback). You have to have quick feet, quick reflexes, good range of motion in your hips, speed, acceleration, and a short memory to boot. It really can be a tough position and it is very rare to see someone new to a college campus step in and play it well. Playing cornerback in high school is a whole different world. The receivers are slower, they don’t get off the line as well, the quarterbacks are more inaccurate, the routes aren’t as complicated, and the majority of high school teams run more than pass. High school cornerbacks are asked to come up and play force on the edge a lot more than their counterparts in college and the pros.

The University of Texas is blessed to have so many able bodies to choose from. Aside from Nathan Vasher, however, the Longhorn cornerbacks are a fairly young group (mainly sophomores and freshmen). During the heat of the competition, it’s sometimes tough to keep in mind that many of these players are still in a learning phase, and still prone to make several mistakes. I have been overly critical of some of these young guys in the past two weeks, perhaps, so I decided I would concentrate on Huff in the Iowa State game to really see what he was doing well and some areas that needed work.

Michael Huff has great talent. Does he do everything well? Not even close. Does he do everything poorly? No. The redshirt sophomore should be given some leeway because he is still young and learning. At some times, he flashes brilliance. Other times he seems tarnished. Will he be another of the Texas greats? I’m not sure, but I will revisit this later to gauge his progress. I will say this…if Texas is going to play for the National Championship in the next two years, Huff will have to be a major player. Even if Tarell Brown and Aaron Ross take over the starting cornerback spots next year, Huff will still be needed to play substantially at the safety/corner spot or play in the nickel package. The next few weeks will be important for him to really improve and show the coaches what he's capable of bringing to the table.

I’m going to start my film breakdown now, but I will stop occasionally to talk about cornerback play in general and also the Longhorns' coverage schemes. So, without further ado, let the breakdown begin:

Drive 1 — Play 1

Huff appears to be too flat-footed and straight-legged. Ideally, you want a cornerback's stance to be feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent, with the shoulders directly over the toes. Even if the DB is playing off the receiver (think lining up over the slot or backed off the line), his hands and arms should be poised to perform an incline press or bench press. On this play, it appears that Huff has too much weight on his heels and his legs are too straight. This is a common problem on a lot of plays for Huff. It slows his reaction time and his hip turn, making him more susceptible to quick moves (shakes) put on by a receiver trying to create space at the pivot point of a route. On this play, the Longhorns are playing a man/zone hybrid (even though Spike Dykes says they are playing straight man). Derrick Johnson appears to be playing a short safety, protecting against crossing routes. Huff knows he has help inside on the short crossing route, so he really only needs to worry about the out move or a deeper in route. Once the receiver crosses short, Huff trails the play a few yards deeper than the route, and DJ jumps the short crossing route. The receiver makes the catch, but DJ pounces on him for a three-yard gain.

Drive 2 — Play 1

I fast-forwarded to this point, because the other plays didn’t give a good look of Huff or coverage play in general. Huff is once again too flat-footed. He should be on the balls of his feet more. His arms aren’t in a position to shuck the receiver as he makes his way into Huff’s body. Consequently, the receiver gets into his body too much, and takes away any chance Huff has of adversely affecting the route. Let me pause for a minute and talk about how receivers are coached to run routes. Some of you may have heard WR Coach Darryl Drake talk about stepping on the cornerback’s toes. The point he is trying to make is that if you can get a cornerback on his heels or leaning back, you limit his hip range of motion. (Try this in your living room: stand with your weight on your heels and try to step your left foot to your right heel. Now, try the same thing with more weight on your toes. You move much quicker and have more hip flexibility the second way. Imagine then if you actually had cleats on your heels that were digging in the turf.) Therefore, he can’t turn as quickly and can’t react as quickly to the moves the receiver makes. Huff really does the receiver's job for him by his stance. He already has too much weight on his heels.

Drive 2 — Play 2

See above.

Drive 2 — Play 4

The Longhorns are playing a zone/man combo with the zone to the blitzing side. The corner comes, leaving Huff to play a deep third on that side of the field. Huff covers the deep third well, but no receiver is really threatening deep. He plays too far off the only receiver in his zone, allowing him to catch the ball. In a best-case scenario, the blitzer should reach the quarterback before he has a chance to attack the vacated area. However, that doesn’t happen, and many times it doesn’t. The zone coverage on that side by Huff could have negated the play if he hadn't been playing so deep. (The blitzer can really help this situation by disguising the blitz more. This Texas team is not very good at disguising blitzes from the corner.)

Drive 3 — Play 1

Once again, Huff is caught in a bad stance, allowing the receiver an easy, easy release. He didn’t have his arms in an explosive position to really slam the receiver and knock off his timing.

Drive 4 — Play 1

Huff is in much better position here to make a play. His stance is better, his coverage is good, but a good receiver (Danielson) makes a great catch and the quarterback (Love) throws a perfect strike. Before he catches the ball, there is no way Huff could have played it better. However, Danielson still makes 12 yards on the play. (Huff’s tackling could have been better. All of the Longhorn defensive backs have a tendency to play for the strip of the ball instead of eliminating the yards after the catch.) Overall, one of Huff’s better efforts.

Drive 4 — Play 4

You see a new wrinkle being employed on Danielson (which the Longhorns are able to do since he is ISU’s only real receiving threat), which is a bracketed coverage. Bracketing refers to playing one receiver inside/outside or a bunch or close dual-receiver set inside/outside. It’s a small zone that turns into man-to-man after the receivers make the first breaks on their routes. Huff knows that he has outside help, so he only has to take the inside move by Danielson. If Danielson breaks inside, he becomes Huff’s man; if he breaks outside, he has help from the other corner, and Danielson becomes the outside defender’s man. It is a simple move to incorporate a zone element into normal man-to-man coverage.

Drive 4 — Play 5

Good coverage by Huff, and the result of the play is an incomplete pass to Danielson.

Drive 6 — Play 1 (Incompletion by ISU to Banks)

Great, great job by Huff. He has more weight forward in his stance, allowing him to have better foot quickness and a better hip turn. If he would maintain this type of play, he would be revered in two years with the likes of Vasher, Quentin Jammer, Bryant Westbrook, et. al. For now, though, those comparisons will have to wait…

Drive 7 — Play 1 (Wagner 10 yd run — 1 minute left in the half)

Even though it is a running play, Huff doesn’t know that before the play begins. He reverts back to his poor stance. (Before anyone says that Deion Sanders played with this same stance, we ain’t talkin’ about Deion Sanders, boys.)

Drive 7 — Play 2

I just want to point out that the Horns are bracketing Danielson again if you want to take a second look.

Drive 7 — Play 4

This is another complaint I have with Huff…he appears to be too lackadaisical on big plays. ISU is trying to execute the two-minute drill. Though they don’t succeed, Huff doesn’t help the case by lazily trailing his receiver. (By the way, it’s not just Huff who seems to breathe easier when the other team is in a third-and-long situation.)

SECOND HALF (I’ll move quicker here so I don’t beat a dead horse)

Drive 1 — Play 4 (QB Draw by Flynn)

Not much effort by Huff to make the tackle. Once again, it’s not just him.

Drive 1 — Play 8 (DJ loss on Wagner)

Good hip turn by Huff.

Drive 2 — Play 3 (47-yd gain on crossing route down to UT 10)

Huff misses the tackle in man-to-man. Though you can’t see the outset of the play (Have I ever said that I hate Fox Sports? DeLoss, get us on ESPN.), I’ll bet donuts-to-dollars that Huff had a poor stance allowing the receiver the separation he needed to make the big play.

Drive 3 — Play 3 (ISU completion on the out for a first down. It’s easier to see Huff on the replay of the play than the play itself.)

Horrible job by Huff. He is too flat-footed. To compensate for his lack of preparation for the play, Huff tries to guess on the receiver’s first move. It doesn’t work, and he gets turned around when the receiver feints outside first as he runs the skinny post.

Drive 3 — Play 7

Huff seems content to remain blocked. He really needs to do a better job of getting off blocks once he recognizes run. I have a feeling that he needs to work on his upper-body strength. You see the same lack of effort on the tenth and twelfth play of this drive.

In summation, you can see that Michael Huff has the ability to play big-time college cornerback/safety. He shows that on several plays. The problem lies in the fact that you can’t just do it on a play here and a play there, you have to do it every play. Somewhere, someone has taught him the proper stance, he just doesn’t do it every play. Until he decides to do it every play, maybe the coaching staff should look at alternatives to Huff. Maybe the aforementioned Brown and Ross will play the same way. Even if they do, a few plays on the sidelines just might be the motivation needed to convince Michael Huff (and several other Longhorns) that football is an every play sport.

Mark Kissinger has coached high school football in Texas and Tennessee, coaching OL, TE, WR, DT, DE, and serving as both an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. In high school, he was coached by the legendary G.A. Moore. Mark recently retired from coaching and received his M.B.A. from Rice University and is in his second season of writing for IT. His 'Coach's Look' column appears after each game during football season on

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