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The 2020 season has been circled for Texas since 2018, when Tom Herman signed a top ranked class that included six blue chip defensive backs. As soon as Chris Ash was hired and “4-2-5 press quarters” became the new philosophy for the Texas defense, the cornerbacks from that 2018 class became some of the most crucial players in the building.
Press quarters is an aggressive approach to playing pass defense that has been one of the more popular schemes across the college game for the last decade. Other teams that have employed that strategy include the now defunct Mark Dantonio Michigan State Spartans (three Big 10 Championships), the Chris Ash Ohio State Buckeyes (National Championship in 2014), the Clemson Tigers (National Championships in 2016 and 2018), and also the Kevin Steele Auburn Tigers (no titles but ranked top 10 in defensive FEI three years and 15th the fourth).
The scheme is to play press-man outside with the cornerbacks while two deep (but not that deep) safeties bracket routes in the middle of the field and close pretty quickly on running plays. That kind of coverage can eliminate quick throws, force the quarterback to hold the ball, and consequently make the most of good defensive line talent.
It’s a good scheme if your goal is to make the most of blue chip talent at defensive end (or tackle) and cornerback. That’s how it’s gone for Auburn, Clemson, and how it was at Ohio State for Chris Ash. Michigan State didn’t recruit as well but had a particular knack for developing NFL quality players at defensive end and cornerback without necessarily recruiting from the blue chip ranks.
Ostensibly this approach would seem to be a good fit for Texas in 2020, but it hinges on getting high level play from the cornerbacks. Texas needs to get good press-man coverage outside and ideally one cornerback in particular would offer high level press-man coverage on the boundary.
D’Shawn Jamison in 2019
Jamison is the most obvious candidate on the roster to be a great press-man corner in 2020 and indeed is atop the depth chart at boundary cornerback heading into fall camp. Recovery speed is a big key here, as is the ability to flip hips and match up tight on routes. The boundary receiver is close enough to the quarterback that even passers without NFL arms can still whip the ball in to a tight window. Jamison has the best blend of short area quickness and recovery speed on the roster to try and deny a receiver those opportunities, even if he’s only 5-foot-10, 190 pounds.
Texas rotated in multiple cornerbacks over the course of 2019 but Jamison played heavily all season with nine starts. He really started to hit his stride down the stretch when he was healthy for the final few games. His ball skills were made obvious from his three interceptions, including the acrobatic catch against West Virginia, and Jamison also forced a fumble and recovered another. He also had some big pass break-ups. A notable one came against Kansas State when he shot his hands in and knocked the ball from Dalton Schoen’s hands on what would have been a touchdown catch in a one possession game.
Texas tended to use Jamison on opponents’ speedier receivers. Against Iowa State he locked down Tarique Milton, a 5-foot-10, 183-pound burner, while Jalen Green handled the bigger La’Michael Pettway. Milton managed just 20 yards on three catches and couldn’t get free down the field. On one particular snap the Cyclones used a tight end and Pettway as the two outside receivers and Texas matched Jamison on Pettway. Jamison responded by disrupting a slant with good positioning and a push, then intercepting the pass when Pettway couldn’t get to his spot. That’s exactly the sort of play a boundary cornerback needs to make regularly.
The following week against Baylor they had Jalen Green on the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Denzel Mims while Jamison took on 6-foot-3, 176-pound Tyquan Thornton. Mims ended up with seven catches for 125 yards and a score. The touchdown came against Jamison when Baylor moved him to the wide side in the red zone and got him isolated on a skinny post with no safety help. Thornton did absolutely nothing against Jamison, although it should be noted that by this point in the season Charlie Brewer couldn’t throw outside the wide hash mark.
There was an obvious preference for matching up Jamison against smaller, speedy receivers while Green took on the bigger targets but in some limited action against the big guys Jamison held up quite well. He’s strong enough to get a good jam on receivers, fast and fluid enough to maintain good positioning and stick on routes, and his active hands are adept at smacking the ball when receivers try to bring in a contested ball. Green had a tougher 2019 season and when you combine that film with his shoulder injuries it doesn’t suggest that press-man coverage on the boundary is a fair ask of him against Big 12 opponents. Texas’ smallest defensive back from the 2018 class appears to be the man of the hour.
Chris Ash versus spread isolations
Spread offenses love, love, love the 3×1 formation because it’s exceptionally useful for isolating top receivers in space and within easy range of the quarterback.
Here’s the typical press-quarters set-up against a 2×2 formation:
D’Shawn Jamison (baby shark here) is matched up on an outside receiver in press-man coverage. On any in-breaking route and potentially even on an outside route, he’s getting help from the free safety sitting inside on the hash mark.
But here’s Chris Ash’s favorite coverage for defending a trips formation:
The goal here is to maintain the same basic rules the defense would play against a 2×2 set. The safeties key the inside receiver across from them and match them if they run deep while the linebackers focus on playing underneath. The trick is that if the free safety is eyeing that Y-receiver he may not be there to help the boundary cornerback on the backside. Bump that Y out further and the issue is exacerbated:
The normally difficult dig-post combination by the two slot receivers is now well covered, but the offense is rewarded with a ton of space on the backside for that receiver to work any number of routes in isolation against Jamison.
Ash has used a few main change-ups in his time. One is to blitz, which leads to the same outcome of 1-on-1 matchups outside and in other places, but ideally leaves less time for a receiver to beat the press and execute a route. If Jamison and the Texas cornerbacks can consistently frustrate opposing receivers’ releases and avoid getting beat on fade routes, blitzing will work much better. When the quarterback can reliably drop back and throw up a fade that gives his receiver a good chance within three seconds then the pass-rush is irrelevant. The way you stop that is by disrupting the timing of the route with press coverage, not necessarily the jam but by denying the receiver positioning and the chance to run to his spot with the timing the quarterback is expecting.
Another option is to change which receiver is isolated with a kind of “special coverage” where the free safety stays in the boundary to help the boundary cornerback and the opposite corner is left all alone in isolation against the other receiver. The trick to this coverage is that your “spur” linebacker is now playing as a cornerback on the outermost slot receiver and he gets the short straw of defending a post on the “dig-post” combination from above without safety help.
That’s a really tough assignment for anyone and certainly for a nickel who’s chosen for his role in large part for his abilities in run defense and playing underneath coverage. That said, Texas mixed this coverage in against Utah in the bowl game with Chris Adimora, he was hung out to dry on a route like this, and he came up big.
Notice how those tricky devils motioned into it just before the snap to incur the check from Texas and isolate Adimora deep. But they came up empty when the freshman was able to stick on his man. Tyler Huntley’s poor timing is noted, but the ball was well placed. Between Adimora and Josh Thompson, Texas may have spurs with the coverage speed to make this work now and again but it’s not ideal as a plan A.
Ash’s other solution is a coverage that aims to protect everyone by yielding space underneath:
Basically the field corner drops deep and everyone cheats inside. You’re giving away the field hitch to the X receiver or daring the quarterback to throw a fade on a rope to the X receiver that the field cornerback can’t recover to and defend. This is a great idea for a game like the 2019 Baylor contest where Charlie Brewer couldn’t hit those routes, or if the opponent flexes out a running back or blocking tight end wide to try and convince you to waste a good cornerback covering them. A cornerback who excels in zone and may end up serving as a phenomenal safety at the next level. Quandre Diggs would thrive as the field cornerback in this coverage.
However a quarterback with a solid arm will destroy this and feast on the easy money throwing underneath and outside the far hash marks.
Finally there’s this option…
By dropping eight into coverage the defense can get a bracket on the backside Z receiver with the cornerback and jack linebacker while using the safeties to lock down vertical routes from the trips side. The trade-off is now Joe Ossai is dropping into coverage again rather than blitzing the edge. This is a worthwhile call to mix in against teams running lots of RPOs and play-action where pass-rush doesn’t have much time before the ball is out, but it’s just another tool in the box.
If you don’t have a stud cover man at the nickel or play with three deep safeties, there are only so many answers against 3×1 formations from the offense designed to isolate you deep. The easiest answer that Ash has tended to rely on in the past is to have an NFL athlete equipped with good press-man technique playing on the boundary who can hold up in isolation.
If D’Shawn Jamison can be that man for Texas in 2020, their safeties will feast from the opportunity to sit on the hash marks and close on throws and runs. Then, the pass-rush will have a chance to dominate some games. Cue the shark music…