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Washington State football: Examining why a Cougar defensive back doesn't always turn his head back to the ball

PULLMAN–It’s a hot discussion topic on the forums this season; ‘Someone tell me why the defensive back DOESN’T turn his head back to the ball?!’ Covering deep balls isn’t as easy as it seems on TV. There’s a lot of thinking and reacting going on at the same time. In the midst of it all, you have to focus on specific techniques to put you in the right position to make a play. Let me explain.

As a defensive back the previous two seasons at Washington State, I can tell you when a deep ball is thrown there are several scenarios that you can find yourself in. Depending on your positioning when the ball is in the air, you may need to recall from a few different coaching points in just a split second.

First things first: as a corner or safety you always want to be on top of the route. But everyone who has ever played the position gets beat, it's the nature of the beast. So what do you do when you find yourself separated from a receiver going deep?

Here’s one example where second-year sophomore corner Darrien Molton (pictured above) finds himself underneath a deep route, recovers, and makes a big play (click on the GIF to pause/play if you want to look at still frame shots).

Above, you see Boise State QB Brett Rypien trying to attack Molton deep. But a great play by Molton ended in an incompletion with no flags.

As you can see, BSU tried to hit Molton with an out-and-up double move in 1-on-1 coverage.

As Molton sits on the out route, he does a great job of keeping his eyes on the receiver. What the offense is looking for here is to get Molton to turn his head after the WR breaks on the out. They want Molton to look for the ball being thrown, or in some cases bite on a pump fake. If Molton were to have turned his head towards the QB for just a split second, he would have been left in the dust and the play might have gone for six.

Instead, Molton kept his eyes on the receiver and picked up on the double move. But after a couple steps, Molton found himself in a “trail position.”  That means that he was underneath the receiver by one or more strides. This is not an ideal position to be in, but there are still coaching points that can help you recover.

THE No. 1 RULE when a defensive back finds himself trailing a receiver is to not look back, put his head down, and sprint as fast as he can -- or as defensive backs coach and Cougar defensive coordinator Alex Grinch says, “TURN AND RUN!”

The logic here is simple: The second you turn your head around is the second you start to slow down. Imagine lining up to run a 40-yard dash. If you wanted to record your fastest time possible, you wouldn’t want to run with your head turned the other way. The same concept holds true out on the football field.

The receiver already has his head turned looking for the ball in the air, so technically he’s not running at full speed. And so as a defensive back, you can recover that distance (as you see Molton do above) by keeping your head forward when the WR’s is turned around.

You can see in the GIF – right when Molton realizes he’s trailing, he puts his head down and pumps his arms. He doesn’t panic, and he doesn’t look back.

Once Molton closes the gap and is no longer in a trail position there are still a few more decisions that he has to make in the blink of an eye.

Depending on the receiver’s eye placement and body language, Molton has to decide whether or not he has the right positioning and enough time to now look back and locate the football.

In this case, Molton realizes that he cannot risk looking back for the ball. Once that decision is made, there is only one option left.

You have to keep your eyes on the receiver and play your hands through his hands (exactly what Molton does here). Using this technique is very difficult because it’s all about timing and reacting. Molton is one of the best on the Cougar team at doing this, so he sticks to his coaching and technique on this play where he decides to play through the hands.

Too early and you’ll get called for pass interference. Too late and the ball is caught right in front of you.

The above happened just after the play where Molton was called for pass interference. So let's look at that too.

Here, I believe Molton could have turned his head around on this one instead of grabbing the shoulder.

All of this is much harder to do than it reads on your computer monitor. And many players in this situation default to the most destructive habit possible: “panic mode.”  They get overwhelmed, they look for the ball, they lose balance, trip on their own feet, and give up a big play.

The first gif isn't a perfect rep from Molton by any means, but what he does do well there is that he uses good eyes, good discipline, good technique, and he reacts violently with his hands at the end.

And what we see in the first gif is a product of great coaching and a great athlete who listens well to instructions. It is also the kind of play that will keep a defensive back on the field on Saturdays, and help the Cougs win.

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