Ranking the Big 12's space force units: The importance of lockdown cornerbacks

Ian Boyd

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Keep up with the full 2020 space force series:
-The importance of wide receivers

-Ranking the league's receivers
-The importance of left tackles
-Ranking the league's left tackles

True lockdown cornerbacks are really rare. A guy like Derek Stingley, who shut down half the field in the 2019 playoffs and rarely required a safety’s eyes and attention, doesn’t come along often. The sort of guy that offenses simply avoid for entire games hardly ever come along. However, a guy like 2019 Jeff Gladney or A.J. Parker that can press and disrupt a top receiver is a more common and still highly useful asset to a defense. You don’t have to lock down a top receiver to win if you can reduce the efficiency of the targets he gets, particularly the most important ones.

Big 12 games are often shootouts that come down to which team is most efficient on offense. Taking a team down a peg from being 50% on third downs to 45% on third downs, or breaking up that one really good red zone back shoulder fade to force a field goal, that’s often the margin of victory in a big game.

The best cornerbacks in the Big 12 are almost always tremendous, raw athletes that have been molded into technicians by the time they are fourth or fifth year players. Adrian Frye in 2019 was the only underclassman cornerback (redshirt freshman) to make 1st team All-Big 12 at cornerback in the last decade. He was ironically then moved to safety the following year.

Not even Texas or Oklahoma have been able to field blue chips that can hold up at an All-B12 level as underclassmen. It’s a demanding job battling the highly skilled receivers of the Big 12 and most modern defensive schemes (quarters or cover 3) ask the cornerbacks to hold up without consistent help over the top. If you don’t have experienced corners you’re either going to need to devote safety attention to opposing wideouts more often than you’d like or you’re going to get torched.

Cornerback deployment

Most modern schemes favored today ask the cornerback to defend deep throws outside of the numbers without safety help. The two most prevalent schemes you’ll find are cover 3 (or cover 1, the distinctions are often blurred) or quarters schemes. After that teams will often play palms/2-read, which is closer to cover 2, and in the most extreme of situations they’ll play true cover 2.

You can almost rank order these schemes by the distance between safety help and the cornerbacks on deep vertical routes.

The single high coverages (cover 1, cover 3, cover 9) are at times the most demanding, depending on the rules for the safeties in quarters coverages.

Standard MOFC.jpg

On inside routes, if that deep safety is good, the cornerback will always have help in cover 1, 3, or 9 (cover 9 is single high fire zone coverage with five pass-rushers). How much help he has underneath depends on how the defense uses the four underneath defenders. Some teams will adjust and shade the deep safety and/or underneath coverage toward the most dangerous receiver. A great example is the 2015 game between Oklahoma and Baylor, which I mention in my book. The Sooners dropped a linebacker underneath Corey Coleman and shaded their deep safety in his direction, forcing freshman Jarrett Stidham and the Bears to try and beat them by throwing to their other receivers facing man coverage.

Quarters coverages can potentially offer more help to the cornerbacks because the safeties are in closer proximity.

Standard quarters.jpg

The only trick with quarters is those safeties are responsible for the inside receivers on vertical routes and have some assignments against the run as well. If they are triggering on crossing routes by the inside receivers or run action, the cornerbacks can potentially go from having a hash safety helping them on a post route to having NO ONE helping them on the post route. Go pull up some James Washington highlights for a good view of the consequences.

Then there’s the brands of quarters-style coverages such as 2-read/palms that try to use their safeties to help the cornerbacks over the top. In those coverages, the cornerback reads the slot. If he goes deep, then the corner stays on the outside receiver. If the slot breaks outside then the cornerback picks him in the flat and allows the outside receiver to go deep while the safety picks him up. In other words, it becomes cover 2 with safety help over the top if only one receiver is deep, but that doesn’t solve for the problem of whether or not the corner can expect help if both receivers are deep. Not unless the team is in a flyover defense with an extra deep safety.

Finally there’s the more pure forms of cover 2 in which the safety is helping over the top no matter what. Teams didn’t really play that sort coverage terribly often until flyover defense started to take hold. Now when teams play with three deep safeties they can potentially offer their cornerbacks consistent help either on the post or even over the top.

For teams to play the sort of defenses they prefer in order to get numbers in the box to stop the run, they need their safeties to have some freedom to get involved. To do that? You need a cornerback that can hold up outside by his lonesome.

Finally there’s trips coverages. If the offense has three receivers to one side of the formation and one to the other, it’s pretty difficult to bracket all of them with just two safeties. Someone is getting a 1-on-1 deep and the defense has to choose whether it’s happening to the boundary corner, the nickel, or the field corner.

The flyover defense model is proving the best for defending Big 12 teams because it can either eliminate the possibility of 1-on-1s down the field or it can more easily disguise where those matchups will occur. When you have three deep safeties before the snap it’s just harder for the quarterback and even offensive coordinator to have a good measure of how things will look after the snap. But if you want to drop safeties into the box or blitz, you still need a lockdown corner.

The 2017 Iowa State Cyclones could play tampa 2 but they also had Brian Peavy at boundary cornerback and thus could aggressively involve both the boundary and middle safety in stopping the run game.

The best lockdown cornerbacks can play man coverage, ideally press-man coverage, and throw off the timing and easy spacing that Big 12 offenses thrive in. If the quarterback can’t count on his receiver getting to his spot within the window of time he’s accustomed to, it becomes impossible to throw to spots at the snap. That’s how these deadly Big 12 passing attacks work, they allow the quarterback to throw to spots on the field with muscle memory while the receiver is trusted to get there.

If you watch Jeff Gladney in 2019 you’ll see him regularly disrupt timing and also break up passes (14 break-ups on the year) by playing tight man coverage on opposing teams’ favorite outside receiver. If a college team could employ the Bill Belichik strategy of doubling the top guy and then putting their Gladney on the no. 2 receiver (this would be difficult on standard downs) that would really be something. We’re probably getting closer to that world within the college game.

A cornerback that doesn’t need heavy safety support on standard downs and then can man up a receiver on third down is the most valuable player a modern defense can have.

Finding cornerbacks

Over the last 10 NFL drafts, the Big 12 has had seven cornerbacks selected within the first two rounds and 14 wide receivers (including Jace Amaro) chosen within the first two rounds. Obviously it’s harder to find truly special cornerbacks, or rather to convince the best athletes to opt for that path.

It’s not impossible though, and it’s perhaps easier than finding elite edge-rushers and definitely easier than finding elite tackles. The world’s supply of high level athletes who come in packages between 5-8 and 6-2 with high level quickness and speed is much greater than its supply of 250+ pound athletes.

As I noted above, the top cornerbacks have tended to be guys that were outstanding athletes (often playing other positions in high school) and had time to develop into upperclassmen. You don’t see players leaving early from the Big 12 at cornerback to pursue NFL opportunities very often.

Here’s the list of guys that were drafted in the first or second round over the last 10 years:

B12 high round draft picks.jpg

There’s a common theme to all of them. It’s not their recruiting ranking or where they’re from, nor where they attended school. The common theme is that all but two of them were very, very fast. The two exceptions? Aaron Williams, who quickly moved to safety in the NFL, and Xavien Howard who’s managed to do very well at cornerback despite lacking the prototypical, sub 4.5 speed.

You want guys that can play man coverage. Sticking with a receiver in and out of his breaks is hard to accomplish without elite quickness and recovery speed. That’s why the 40 yard dash is often a more valuable measurement for cornerbacks than other players, it’s hard to anticipate and disrupt every break the receiver might make and then you need to catch back up to him quickly. If a receiver is good at setting up the cornerback to create space for himself, or quick in his break, or big and strong with long reach and/or great hands he needn’t necessarily be blazing fast. The cornerback has to react though so it’s helpful to have the speed to always be a fly buzzing in the receiver’s ear.

As you can see from the list of high draft picks, no one has had a monopoly on top prospects at the position. Texas regularly recruits cornerback at a much higher level than the rest of the Big 12, but when they had an edge at defensive back relative to the rest of the league in the 2010s it’s typically been in depth of quality. Not having a single, brilliant man coverage defender.

For instance, their three best defenses and secondaries in the last decade:

Top 2010s Texas secondaries.png

None of them had a lockdown corner who’d go high in the draft, although Kris Boyd and Holton Hill have fared better in the NFL than some feared. Each unit did have multiple draft picks as well as future multi-contract veterans and tended to be able to put a lot of strong athletes on the field. In essence they’ve had an easier time flooding the field with 4.5/4.6 athletes to eliminate weak spots rather than relying on the special abilities of a single, dominant skill athlete. For most schools that's more difficult.

The best path to finding an ace cornerback seems to be to recruit athletes with special speed and then to be very effective in developing their skill set. That’s typically how TCU does it and they appear on the list more than most teams.

In the next post we’ll take a look at the top guys heading into the 2020 season and which teams may have elite athletes that can develop into high level, winning cornerbacks.
 

josephcook

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Not even Texas or Oklahoma have been able to field blue chips that can hold up at an All-B12 level as underclassmen.
It's a tough league, this and your note about the lack of underclassmen All-B12 corners really emphasize that.

None of them had a lockdown corner who’d go high in the draft, although Kris Boyd and Holton Hill have fared better in the NFL than some feared. Each unit did have multiple draft picks as well as future multi-contract veterans and tended to be able to put a lot of strong athletes on the field. In essence they’ve had an easier time flooding the field with 4.5/4.6 athletes to eliminate weak spots rather than relying on the special abilities of a single, dominant skill athlete. For most schools that's more difficult.
True, but on-field isn't what knocked Hill out of the draft.

I remember reading that Utah builds their run defense from the outside in. Corners who can hold up mostly on their own allow the other DBs to not have to *always* be thinking turn and run, they can help with the rush defense. Obviously it isn't the emphasis of flyover football to run all the time, but it's still worth noting.
 

Ian Boyd

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I remember reading that Utah builds their run defense from the outside in. Corners who can hold up mostly on their own allow the other DBs to not have to *always* be thinking turn and run, they can help with the rush defense. Obviously it isn't the emphasis of flyover football to run all the time, but it's still worth noting.
Yeah, I was very hesitant about Morgan Scalley for this reason. I watched how they played the child bro last season and didn't feel confident about his approach against B12 teams. I think he would have set a high floor but there were concerns.
The fetishization of speed at the CB position.
Ha, I'm just pointing to the facts. I'm also curious how fast Thompson is now, he's walking around at like 215 or something nuts.
 

ripharley

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Are there yet any other non-B12 college programs that have implemented good defenses based on ISU‘s model? Seems like offenses will be trending to Flyover sooner rather than later.
 

sherf1

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Are there yet any other non-B12 college programs that have implemented good defenses based on ISU‘s model? Seems like offenses will be trending to Flyover sooner rather than later.
Auburn and Clemson used some of the structure against LSU, but they played it more aggressively than ISU does, less drop 8, more disguised pressure.

I think it's really hard for these elite school D Coordinators to just accept calling the same 3 or 4 defenses and conceding stuff on the run and underneath to protect the back end. It's just not the way they are built.
 

Ian Boyd

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Are there yet any other non-B12 college programs that have implemented good defenses based on ISU‘s model? Seems like offenses will be trending to Flyover sooner rather than later.
Auburn and Clemson used some of the structure against LSU, but they played it more aggressively than ISU does, less drop 8, more disguised pressure.
Auburn and Clemson didn't use that structure against LSU. Clemson used it against Ohio State, who looked totally lost.

Against LSU they both ran their normal defenses but they used an inside-backer as a constantly blitzing 3-technique tackle and then used their bigger safeties as linebackers. Otherwise they ran their normal schemes, just perhaps with a little more depth.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma State is fairly close to implementing the flyover model, or a variation on it. Baylor used it to great effecting in 2019 but it's not clear if Dave Aranda will continue down that path. TCU has it in the package but I'm not sure if they're ready to commit to it as the main strategy. Ditto Kansas. West Virginia is halfway between that and a normal 3-3-5, Kansas State runs a 4-2-5, Texas Tech is dabbling with all kinds of stuff and frankly just floundering, Texas probably won't go that direction in 2020.
 

travisroeder

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Oklahoma's Tre Brown has his ups and downs as an actual quarterback, but he is probably the fastest player in the Big 12. I will never forgive him for running down Chris Platt last year in the Big 12 champ game. He was clocked at over 23 mph. Platt is a 45 second 400m guy.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Oklahoma's Tre Brown has his ups and downs as an actual quarterback, but he is probably the fastest player in the Big 12. I will never forgive him for running down Chris Platt last year in the Big 12 champ game. He was clocked at over 23 mph. Platt is a 45 second 400m guy.
They need him to figure things out in the worst way.
 

sherf1

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Auburn and Clemson didn't use that structure against LSU. Clemson used it against Ohio State, who looked totally lost.

Against LSU they both ran their normal defenses but they used an inside-backer as a constantly blitzing 3-technique tackle and then used their bigger safeties as linebackers. Otherwise they ran their normal schemes, just perhaps with a little more depth.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma State is fairly close to implementing the flyover model, or a variation on it. Baylor used it to great effecting in 2019 but it's not clear if Dave Aranda will continue down that path. TCU has it in the package but I'm not sure if they're ready to commit to it as the main strategy. Ditto Kansas. West Virginia is halfway between that and a normal 3-3-5, Kansas State runs a 4-2-5, Texas Tech is dabbling with all kinds of stuff and frankly just floundering, Texas probably won't go that direction in 2020.
Thanks for the correction, my bad.
 

ripharley

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I think it's really hard for these elite school D Coordinators to just accept calling the same 3 or 4 defenses and conceding stuff on the run and underneath to protect the back end. It's just not the way they are built.
I’d guess that trends in statistical analysis have helped with getting innovation adopted on both sides of the ball, innovation that wouldnt have seen the field otherwise. I’m still ready to adopt any team whose offensive game plan excludes the possibility of a punt. Well, almost any team.
 
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ripharley

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Auburn and Clemson didn't use that structure against LSU. Clemson used it against Ohio State, who looked totally lost.

Against LSU they both ran their normal defenses but they used an inside-backer as a constantly blitzing 3-technique tackle and then used their bigger safeties as linebackers. Otherwise they ran their normal schemes, just perhaps with a little more depth.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma State is fairly close to implementing the flyover model, or a variation on it. Baylor used it to great effecting in 2019 but it's not clear if Dave Aranda will continue down that path. TCU has it in the package but I'm not sure if they're ready to commit to it as the main strategy. Ditto Kansas. West Virginia is halfway between that and a normal 3-3-5, Kansas State runs a 4-2-5, Texas Tech is dabbling with all kinds of stuff and frankly just floundering, Texas probably won't go that direction in 2020.
So Patterson’s base will still be 4-down? I have some vague memory that you might have written otherwise.
 

Ian Boyd

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So Patterson’s base will still be 4-down? I have some vague memory that you might have written otherwise.
I don't know what he's planning.

They had a 3-down, flyover defense they've used effectively a few times in recent seasons. I think they should use it considerably more and not just against Kingsbury or if they're already down by 20 against Oklahoma. Maybe this season they will.
 

apthorn

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Auburn and Clemson didn't use that structure against LSU. Clemson used it against Ohio State, who looked totally lost.

Against LSU they both ran their normal defenses but they used an inside-backer as a constantly blitzing 3-technique tackle and then used their bigger safeties as linebackers. Otherwise they ran their normal schemes, just perhaps with a little more depth.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma State is fairly close to implementing the flyover model, or a variation on it. Baylor used it to great effecting in 2019 but it's not clear if Dave Aranda will continue down that path. TCU has it in the package but I'm not sure if they're ready to commit to it as the main strategy. Ditto Kansas. West Virginia is halfway between that and a normal 3-3-5, Kansas State runs a 4-2-5, Texas Tech is dabbling with all kinds of stuff and frankly just floundering, Texas probably won't go that direction in 2020.
Arkansas is apparently planning to base out of the flyover D this year. I’d be interested to see how much success they have with it.
 

system poster

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Adrian Frye in 2019 was the only underclassman cornerback (redshirt freshman) to make 1st team All-Big 12 at cornerback in the last decade. He was ironically then moved to safety the following year.
I had serious questions about Keith Patterson's competency when they announced this move. And then when he was ineffective and looked completely lost at safety, that confirmed my suspicions. He's back at cornerback now, apparently.
 
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cavesl

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That's nice. He was in press-man behind a wicked pass-rush but no doubt it was a solid season.
Yea. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes again. Pass rush should be pretty good this year as well. A lot of those guys last year were getting first real action.
 

Ian Boyd

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Yea. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes again. Pass rush should be pretty good this year as well. A lot of those guys last year were getting first real action.
I don't anticipate that the pass-rush will be as good this year.
 

cavesl

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I don't anticipate that the pass-rush will be as good this year.
Bonnito. David U. Redmond and stokes will be the main guys at first.
a lot of those guys got first time playing time last year. David U moved to MLB likely to fill the pass rush bear front that Murray leaves behind.Interior will be interesting. Once Perkins gets back will be better. Depth on the DL hasn’t been this strong in a while. They were playing new guys as starters pretty much and freshmen last year as backups.
 

Ian Boyd

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Bonnito. David U. Redmond and stokes will be the main guys at first.
a lot of those guys got first time playing time last year. David U moved to MLB likely to fill the pass rush bear front that Murray leaves behind.Interior will be interesting. Once Perkins gets back will be better. Depth on the DL hasn’t been this strong in a while. They were playing new guys as starters pretty much and freshmen last year as backups.
Hadn't heard Ugwoegbu was moving to mike.

Have heard that Redmond may be injured.
 
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texaslove2

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This is random but Ian, whats the best way to beat iowa st defensive scheme. I first thought about this because as i was watching mike yurcich at okst, he seemed to have the most trouble with them and tcu. So then i started watching other teams and even leach had some trouble as well. Still imo 10 personnel ironically looks to do the most damage, unless you are patient enough and have a team that is disciplined enough to put together long drives of 5-20 yard gains down the field. Kinda like we did to them in 2018. That game and kstate scare me the most this season.kstate is mostly because Manhattan in december is not going to be pretty.
 

sherf1

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This is random but Ian, whats the best way to beat iowa st defensive scheme. I first thought about this because as i was watching mike yurcich at okst, he seemed to have the most trouble with them and tcu. So then i started watching other teams and even leach had some trouble as well. Still imo 10 personnel ironically looks to do the most damage, unless you are patient enough and have a team that is disciplined enough to put together long drives of 5-20 yard gains down the field. Kinda like we did to them in 2018. That game and kstate scare me the most this season.kstate is mostly because Manhattan in december is not going to be pretty.
Not Ian, but I'll take a stab:

Dominate at the point of attack enough on the run to force the secondary players to trigger to the run, then you have them vulnerable on play action and vertical RPOs.

I look at it as a kind of trap. They set up in something that would almost be called a prevent defense, which entices you to run it, then they rally down to the ball. The trick is not so much to attack the obvious weakness (which the defense immediately rallies toward), but instead attack the deeper space those guys vacate in trying to rally down to the LOS.
 
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travisroeder

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Not Ian, but I'll take a stab:

Dominate at the point of attack enough on the run to force the secondary players to trigger to the run, then you have them vulnerable on play action and vertical RPOs.

I look at it as a kind of trap. They set up in something that would almost be called a prevent defense, which entices you to run it, then they rally down to the ball. The trick is not so much to attack the obvious weakness (which the defense immediately rallies toward), but instead attack the deeper space those guys vacate in trying to rally down to the LOS.
I think it's helpful to look at the two teams who were able to do much of anything against Baylor's D last year (largely the same as ISU's).

1. Odd-front defenses are inherently vulnerable to weakside runs and particularly to the QB run game. Oklahoma did 95% of their work against Baylor on counter QB option plays. With an odd front, the inside linebackers are usually reading flow, and there is inherently less gap control. Creating more gaps with gap-scheme running game, and then using the QB as a primary runner (thereby adding another gap) is really strong against a flyover D which has less gap control on the line of scrimmage. Hurts didn't do much in the Big 12 championship game himself, but he attracted so much attention from Baylor's LBs that it opened up some big lanes for their RBs.

2. Gap schemes are good against a flyover D (creating more gaps, fewer defenders near the LOS). They're even better with ancillary players at TE and H-back which can punish the LBs and Safeties coming up in the run game. Blake Lynch had a terrific year as Baylor's field LB at 6-3 230 lbs. When they played Georgia, that was the first time they played against somebody who had TEs who could erase the LBs in the run game.
 
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Ian Boyd

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This is random but Ian, whats the best way to beat iowa st defensive scheme. I first thought about this because as i was watching mike yurcich at okst, he seemed to have the most trouble with them and tcu. So then i started watching other teams and even leach had some trouble as well. Still imo 10 personnel ironically looks to do the most damage, unless you are patient enough and have a team that is disciplined enough to put together long drives of 5-20 yard gains down the field. Kinda like we did to them in 2018. That game and kstate scare me the most this season.kstate is mostly because Manhattan in december is not going to be pretty.
As mentioned above, if you can run the ball well enough to get their safeties triggering hard on run action you can get back to throwing it over the top.

Short of that you need a way to efficiently move the ball between the 20s that also works in the red zone. Either spread passing from 4-5 wide or potentially a QB run game. When Texas attacked them effectively in 2018 it was in part with a few QB runs that they brought them down. Ehlinger ran wild on a lead draw RPO and a GT counter play.

It’s harder from those defenses to outnumber the offense at the point of attack, especially if the QB is involved in the run game. In a B12 title game Id expect Ehlinger to get 20 carries against them between that and the scrambles where you can’t find someone against drop 8 zone and the QB just takes off.