Looking North to Knoxville: UT in a Football Perspective

T.L. PellmanSenior Analyst IFebruary 9, 2009

By Terry Pellman

I’ll readily admit, it’s been a truly entertaining week.

With Lane Kiffin’s comments, intentions aside, the college football world has already started looking forward to the 2009 season with special attention to games in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.

As much fodder as there is available today (in terms of discussions of the coaching staff at Tennessee) it seems prudent to put aside the “off the field situations” and look a little more in depth at what the Volunteers will bring to the playing field in the fall of this season.

While a lot of football fans want to focus on offense, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the defense and the vaunted “Tampa 2″ scheme the Vols will utilize. But, before getting into that subject—a brief moment on the offense.

When it comes to an offensive play caller, you always want someone that isn’t caught up in the moment. You want a mentality that looks to the future, considers the proverbial “ying and yang” of every move, and makes judgments based on all those considerations.

If Kiffin’s “off the field” decision making skills are indicative of the decisions he’ll make as a head coach and offensive play-caller, the UT offense doesn’t fit the bill of “something to be feared.”

As a caveat, I have to add it may be something of interest to watch especially when given examples of 70+ yard field goal attempts that have been called in the past—but I digress.

With the senior leadership provided by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, one could assume the ‘09 Volunteer defense should be disciplined. The “Tampa 2″ and Monte Kiffin go hand in hand, but it’s also a defensive scheme that is falsely attributed to the elder Kiffin when it’s described as “his defense.”

What does this scheme bring to Tennessee? Is it a scheme that in and of itself automatically leads to a successful, NCAA leading unit?  Therein lies the question.

To define the “Tampa 2″ defense, using as generic of a description as possible, it’s a defense that isn’t difficult to learn or teach. It isn’t as complex as some defenses can be, like Saban’s over/under 3-4 scheme.

But, the principles of this defense are shared with many others: aggressive play, speed, and the players swarming the area of attack.

It typically consist of four defensive lineman, three linebackers and four defensive backs. Yes, it is the traditional 4-3 defensive look. However, there is a difference between the “Tampa 2″ and the 4-3.

The primary difference between the two is found at the middle linebacker position (MIKE) where they are not only responsible for run support but are also prone to drop back in pass coverage, sometimes deep coverage normally reserved for a safety.

The secondary isn’t a complicated scheme. It’s a “cover 2″ shell with the safeties covering “over the top” of corner backs.

The “cover 2″ essentially has the safeties dividing the field in half with each covering their respective side.  The “Tampa 2,” when the MIKE position drops into coverage, essentially changes the coverage to a “Cover 3,” or the backfield divided into thirds versus halves.

As you can see, very simple in concept.

The premium ingredient is having the right personnel in place.  A MIKE that can handle both run support and effectively cover the defensive backfield with as much speed and talent as a safety isn’t as simple as it may seem. 

In fact, it’s a safe assumption finding those type of players can be a difficult task.

Without that special player at the MIKE position, you are going to sacrifice one of two things: the run support or the pass coverage.

Almost as essential as having that type of playing at MIKE, this defense must have a superb front seven. It’s a defense that isn’t known for a lot of blitzing packages leading to the absolute need for defensive ends and tackles that can penetrate the line of scrimmage.

In terms of how Kiffins’ defense does in the SEC, I can see both sides of the spectrum; successful versus some, average versus others.

If we take teams that look for that explosive play, the proverbial “big play,” they are going to be limited if Tennessee has the talent in place.  If there is one thing that is almost a given it’s the ability of the “Tampa 2″ to take away the big play capability of teams that live and die by those plays.

If you take a team whose focus is to establish the run, a team who is satisfied with being able to gain four, five, or six yards per carry, a problem quickly develops.

Unless, you have that MIKE position manned by the right player, a player not often found even in the NFL.

I look at this UT team this fall and don’t see a team that falls into the “toss-up” category if we were to discuss wins and losses for the ‘09 edition of the Crimson Tide.  In fact, I see a team coming to Bryant Denny Stadium this fall that fits perfectly with the plans the Alabama offensive staff will have in place.

Like 2008, we’ll see this offense have the ability to use their tight ends in passing routes. If you consider that, combined with the speed Alabama will have coming out of the slot position, you can easily see how the UT defense will be forced to drop that MIKE back into the secondary.

For Lane’s benefit, I’ll be laconic: play action.

I’m sure you can see where I’m headed—and specifically who I have in mind.  It’s a simple case again, this time a choice of “picking your poison” among a very deep running back unit the Tide will field in ‘09.

By no means do I mean to sound disrespectful of Monte Kiffin or the defensive scheme he brings to the Volunteer program.

However, by all means I mean to say it isn’t something that makes me curious about it being a dominating scheme that’ll end up being a frustration to offensive coordinators, specifically ours, when we meet again this fall.

Simply put, it comes down to personnel…which in turn leads to having a good crop of recruiters in place.

Then, it comes down to those recruiters also having the ability to coach.  That’s found in one Monte Kiffin, but definitely a subject of debate when the rest of the Tennessee staff is considered.

That sounds a lot like I’m going back to Lane Kiffin again.

Read this and more Alabama commentary at RollTideBama.com


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