Gameplan: Kwiatkowski inherits Texas’ linebacker rebuild

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Chris Ash’s main goal in 2020 was to get Texas playing better, fundamental defense on a very basic level. The linebacker position, where Texas has struggled through boom/bust cycles all century, was a prime target for this development.

Ash had to remake the position by spinning down safeties DeMarvion Overshown and Chris Adimora to man his outside spots and the group had their roles simplified in terms of the complexity of the assignments as well as the difficulty level of their tasks.

There was partial success. Texas played solid defense on the year with some notable breakdowns but a few major successes mixed in as well. The linebacker corps was protected wherever possible but still faced some tough moments handling the stress of defending Big 12 offenses.

New defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is inheriting a much better situation than did Ash, but a still imperfect one. Part of the mission for Ash and linebacker coach Coleman Hutzler at Texas was simply to rebuild the linebacker room. The last two recruiting classes have been among the first at Texas in some time to include linebackers who match the modern profile. Kwiatkowski and his linebacker coach Jeff Choate will need to continue the evolution in recruiting while molding the next generation of ‘backers in a totally new defense.

Chris Ash’s space shield

Chris Ash has historically been a 4-3 defensive coach, treating the nickel as more of a “linebacker who has to play in space” than a true defensive back. 2020 was no exception, Chris Adimora filled out to 6-foot-1, 214 pounds to play the position and his assignments weren’t always terribly different from those of weakside linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who played at 6-foot-4, 217 pounds.

Those two would move in and out of the box, yet typically draw coverage assignments only within a five-yard radius of the box in the initial moments of an offensive action, while middle linebacker Juwan Mitchell sat in the middle and triggered downhill against the run game.

The scheme was something closely akin to Ohio State’s 2014 defense when the Buckeyes won the title, a 4-3 Over quarters defense Baker Mayfield famously referred to as “basic.” The Pete Kwiatkowski defense is something very different and linebacker is certainly a position which will be subject to major changes.

Texas’ safety trio of Caden Sterns, Chris Brown, and B.J. Foster probably got a bad rap in 2020. The linebackers played mostly inside the hash marks, with quick triggers on run actions, and with the understanding the safeties would pick up receivers down the field.

For instance, one of their common trips coverages left anything outside of the hash marks to the free safety and corner:

Anything vertical from the inside receivers was getting picked up by the safeties in their quarters coverages, the linebackers were typically just tasked with making sure receivers didn’t get a free run at anything breaking inside. B.J. Foster is playing a two-deep coverage here but has to get outside on this out route over the rub in order to try and make a stop before the marker. As it happens, he did a fantastic job in this game and the Sooners didn’t get much from their many attempts to exploit the coverage.

Even Adimora’s nickel position would regularly send slot receivers up the pipe for the safeties to deal with after denying them an easy inside release, allowing him to patrol the flats like a more traditional linebacker. This approach to linebacker coverage didn’t always go particularly well for Texas over the year, as you can see in this multi-tweet thread chronicling their issues with receivers getting open between the ‘backers and the safeties.

So the Texas linebackers were basically tasked with owning the box, while already playing behind massive or otherwise highly talented defensive tackles like Keondre Coburn, Ta’Quon Graham, T’Vondre Sweat, and Alfred Collins. A fairly easy gig, all things considered, especially after Ash adjusted when Texas Tech was picking at them with unbalanced formations and quick hitters over the middle.

Contrast this philosophy to coverage with how the Pete Kwiatkowski Huskies would play their match 3 coverages in the Pac-12.

The ball goes outside and beats a pretty tight window outside the hash marks, tip your cap to Justin Herbert, but check out the drops by the inside linebackers. It’s first down yet both the Mike and Dime backers are getting 10-15 yards deep by the time the ball is thrown.

Match 3 coverage has a feature to it made famous in the recent National Championship game when Heisman winner DeVonta Smith got matched against Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland:

The Mike and Dime linebackers have to be able to make deep drops between the hash marks to protect the deep safety. The classic 4-verticals play is perfect for illustrating the issue.

In the instance above Tuf Borland (D here) did not get enough depth on his drop to effectively cover Smith (Y), although the deep safety lost his mind anyways, leading to a wide open touchdown for Steve Sarkisian’s Tide offense.

Watching Washington’s film over the last few years, UW put a big priority on getting depth with their linebacker coverage drops against vertical releases. The upshot of this tactic was opponents often finding space to throw the ball into underneath (assuming effective protection) but struggling to punish the Huskies’ deeper zones. This is very much a “bend don’t break” approach to coverage which asks the linebackers to do some of the bending. The Mike linebacker in particular needs to be able to cover some ground but even the more plugging Dime needs to drop back deep from time to time against trips formations.

Suffice to say the linebacker coverage techniques of 2020 would not be effective in this scheme, particularly the “hop in place” footwork often seen from Juwan Mitchell who stands to inherit this Dime linebacker position. While Kwiatkowski will use the nickel and safeties to help the linebackers flow to the ball and stay in the box, he’s not going to protect them from hi-low challenges in their area of responsibility.

Stopping the run in the 4-3 vs the 2-4-5

The schematic ask of the Texas linebacker corps will be significantly different in 2021 than in 2020, before even considering the “outside linebacker” positions in the 2-4-5 nickel front. The coverages are different, the priorities in positioning are different, and the run fits will also evolve.

In Ash’s 4-3 the outside linebackers, Spur (the “nickel” played by Adimora) and Will (Overshown’s spot), would focus on keeping the ball hemmed inside for each other’s pursuit, the defensive line, and safeties coming down in the alleys from the hash marks.

You get a glimpse of young Jerrin Thompson here, playing the boundary safety position. Adimora and Overshown are forcing the ball back inside on either side of the formation while Juwan Mitchell and Thompson fit inside of him (or try to).

Keeping the ball inside will now be a task for the new “outside linebackers” up front playing the defensive edge spots.

Here’s a couple of examples demonstrating how the 2-4-5 works against standard spread run game staples from the 2019 Rose Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

First, zone-read from 10 personnel:

The danger of zone-read from 10 personnel for a single-high defense like Kwiatkowski’s is that while the defense can keep six in the box by dropping a safety over a receiver, it’s now 6-on-6 if the quarterback is involved as a runner. Like many defenses, the Huskies would answer for this problem by always playing the 3-technique to the same side as the running back, having the outside linebacker play the quarterback, and turning the play into a 5-on-5 between the tackles. In such an exchange the opponent would have to find running room against players like Greg Gaines, Vita Vea, Levi Onwuzurike, etc, which normally worked out for the Huskies.

Here’s Ohio State running Y-counter against the 2-4-5:

The Jack linebacker comes wide off the backside edge and is actually able to catch the ball from behind when the defenders on the front side wreck the design of the play. The X-backer Joe Tryon (6-foot-5, 262 pounds) uses a “wrong-arm technique,” hitting the inside shoulder of the pulling guard in hopes of creating a pile-up inside and/or forcing the ball to go extra wide. He accomplishes the latter and then a safety, Ben Burr-Kirven, and Ryan Bowman (the Jack) all arrive to clean up.

The inside linebackers don’t do a great deal in either of these two examples but you can get a sense of the problem Kwiatkowski is looking to generate for opponents and the role left for those players up front. He wants the offense to run the ball between the tackles where there’s less space. His linebackers need to be quick moving, deep droppers against the pass who are adept at darting through the scrum he creates inside to make tackles against the run.

If you could simplify the zones of responsibility for the linebackers in the Ash defense vs the Kwiatkowski scheme it’d look something like this for the Ash scheme…

…and this for the Kwiatkowski system.

Washington’s best player at the Mike position in the Kwiatkowksi era was Ben Burr-Kirven. He was a 6-foot-0, 200-pound 3-star recruit at linebacker who went to high school two miles from Stanford University but didn’t get an offer from the Cardinal. When he hit the NFL Combine four years later he checked in at 6-foot-0, 230 pounds and ran a 4.56 40 with a 4.09 shuttle.

His darting quickness would fit well in the Ash scheme as well, but similar traits in Texas’ linebackers will be used differently now.

Texas’ linebackers in 2021

New linebacker coach Jeff Choate will be inheriting four main players for the two inside spots in 2021. DeMarvion Overshown is the main guy here and the most well known. He flashed a lot of potential in 2020 but was also regularly caught out of position in year one playing inside linebacker. It would have been interesting to see how Overshown might have fared with a more complete offseason before the 2020 season, but with the recent news of his shoulder surgery he’ll be missing yet another spring at his new position.

Juwan Mitchell is the other returning option. He’s a natural linebacker with good quickness and a low center of gravity at 6-foot-0, 230 pounds who’s missing spring practices. Mitchell has tended to fare better when he has quick-trigger assignments rather than having to process information at depth before using his quickness to close and tackle. Nevertheless, he has promise in this system if he can find the reps.

Next up is Jaylan Ford, who partnered with DeMarvion Overshown in a cover 3-heavy gameplan against Colorado. In the bowl game we got to see a little more of what these guys (including Mitchell) are capable of when asked to make deeper drops in the hook zones.

Obviously the ability is there. They didn’t necessarily look natural executing this approach but this defense was only a change up during the season rather than the main, base defense it will likely be in 2021. Jaylan Ford is another with the right profile to handle making deeper drops between the hash marks but showing up between the tackles against the run. He was listed at 6-foot-2, 223 pounds last season and is quietly one of the quickest players on the defense.

Finally there’s David Gbenda, who also has the profile of being quick but powerful at 6-foot-0, 228 pounds. Gbenda will benefit from both another year of playing the position although the schematic shift may prolong his (and others) developmental timelines for a season.

Between those four, and then incoming help from Terrence Cooks and Morice Blackwell, Texas is better stocked with the sort of smaller, quick linebackers you need for the modern game than perhaps they’ve ever been. Now they need coaching in a new system which will ask them to control the box and play with different angles. A big offseason looms for Overshown and the Texas linebackers. They have the right kinds of athletes and a good system to put them in but they’re going to need more time still in order to put it all together.

Cover photo courtesy of the Alamo Bowl

History major, football theorist.