Gameplan: Pete Kwiatkowski’s anti-tempo defense

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You don’t want to take too much away from a spring game when it comes to X’s and O’s, but Pete Kwiatkowski showed some interesting dimensions to his defense in Texas’ public scrimmage. They were likely to stay in the same personnel package regardless of strategy due to the limitations of the roster when fielding two separate teams, but the first team defense showed a lot different looks from their base nickel personnel.

This was the case at Washington as well. Although PK often sub-packaged his defense for the red zone, he would also play a few different styles of defense from his base, 2-4-5 personnel group. It’s a similar philosophy to what Tom Herman pursued for the Texas offense.

One snap, Herman’s offense would be in a four or five-wide spread set, the next they’d pack things in with a fullback/tight end hybrid helping to lead block on a quarterback run. The versatility would often serve to make the most of a star player, typically the slot receiver, because the offense could move players around to create space and matchups for the slot receiver in a variety of fashions. Most importantly, they could do it all from the base 11 personnel and use tempo to trap the defense in a bad personnel group or defensive call which could be easily exploited with bad matchups.

PK showed some similar versatility from the base 2-4-5 nickel defense in the spring game, mixing different fronts and relying on a few hybrid players to set up particular positions to have a big impact. If they can master this system in the fall, man a few key positions, and make the most of the positions where guys are set up to make plays they could do real damage in the coming season as an anti-HUNH spread defense.

The hinge pieces

Sam Ehlinger and the “Y” tight end were the key pieces for the Tom Herman offense. The H needed to be a playmaker but if there was one to be found among the skill players on the roster, it was easy to set them up to have success. The real versatility had to come from the Y and quarterback.

Ehlinger had to be able to serve as a lead ball carrier in the power run game and then be accurate throwing the ball. Then he also had to understand all of the different concepts in order to distribute. The Y had to have a similar mastery over multiple concepts and be able to vacillate between being a flexed out receiver one snap and a powerful lead or attached blocker in the box the next. But with those two boxes checked, Texas could create a ton of formations to hunt and punish matchups with tempo.

In PK’s 2-4-5 the hinge positions are the Jack and the nickel.

Check out where the Jack and nickel would align in some of Texas’ various fronts in the spring game.

Here’s a look against the first team offense with 12 personnel on the field.

Baby shark = D’Shawn Jamison, Moro Ojomo = Black Panther

The nickel, Chris Adimora, moved to boundary safety to be able to play more in space while strong safety Brenden Schooler lined up down in the slot across from the tight ends. The Jack, Jacoby Jones, is in a 7-technique across from the tight end with Moro Ojomo inside of him as a 3-technique.

Here’s another look they gave:

Now the nickel is over the slot, potentially isolated in coverage, while the Jack is in a 5-technique with the tight end outside of him and a nose tackle rather than a 3-technique inside of him.

Finally we have PK’s 46 front with the Jack sliding inside to a 3-technique or 4i-technique as the nickel continues to be matched up on the slot receiver.

Up above you have three very different fronts with a couple of different alignments for the nickel, all from the same 2-4-5 personnel package from the defense. In each case the Jack has to be ready to balance playing outside with being able to slide inside and hold up. The nickel needs to be ready to hold up in space with a few different potential assignments ranging from zone to man/match coverage.

If those two players can handle the versatility required from them, the rest of the defensive unit has a chance to be positioned to make game-changing plays, much like the H in Herman’s offense.

The benefactors

While the nickel is taking on the toughest coverage assignment of the three safeties and the Jack is doing the heavy lifting for creating versatile fronts, there are a few benefactors across the defense.

One is the strong safety, a position currently manned by Brenden Schooler. While it didn’t appear anyone was doing him favors when he’d line up around the box only to be juked by Bijan Robinson, the nature of the scheme was set up to allow him to make some plays in the run game. Kwiatkowski’s approach to run defense in his single-high coverages is mostly designed to free up the linebackers to play fast but it does position the strong safety (usually, sometimes the free safety) to hover around the box and make plays near the line of scrimmage.

Other potential benefactors in some of these fronts include the 3-technique and the Dime Backer. Particularly in the 46 fronts and the Under fronts, which makes it extremely hard for the offense to double the 3-technique and allows the Dime Backer to turn into an attack piece off the edge or charging inside.

Moro Ojomo was an absolute tour de force in the spring game, picking up three sacks and making some plays in the run game as well. Two of his sacks came against Hayden Conner but he had another against Junior Angilau and he gave Denzel Okafor fits in the run game. Coming out of Katy years ago he seemed like an ideal nose tackle for the Todd Orlando tite front who could eventually match Poona Ford’s knack for disruption in the A-gaps.

Instead he began life as a 4i-technique in 2019 after playing sparingly and redshirting in 2018. Then in 2020 Chris Ash made him a strongside end in his 4-3 defense. Ojomo was fairly effective there while splitting time with Jacoby Jones but you weren’t seeing him dominate games. With the move to the 2-4-5, Ojomo moved inside to 3-technique and we’re seeing his natural quickness paired with now lightning hands. On the LHN pre-game show Sam Acho pegged Ojomo as the next great defensive lineman and best pass-rusher for Texas and it didn’t look like a wild claim in light of what followed.

One of the most important attributes for any defensive lineman, particularly on the interior, is how well they can use their hands. Ojomo utilized a few different techniques to destroy lineman 1-on-1 in the spring game on the attack and was quite comfortable squeezing gaps closed and taking on double teams in the run game as well, as you can see in the above clip on Schooler’s tackle.

This can really matter down the line when Texas has the 46 front in its toolbox for handling passing downs. Oklahoma has used this approach to ramp up the pressure they can apply up front with all of their speed along the defensive front. It was devastating for Texas in 2019 when the Sooners would play Kenneth Murray on the edge like PK will do with his Dime Backer.

In addition to covering all five offensive linemen with a defensive player and creating 1-on-1s, it also leads to utter chaos in the event of a blitz or stunt by the defense. Before the snap every lineman is concerned with the athlete directly across from them so they may not be as quick as they should be in trading off their guy if he slants or loops elsewhere only to be replaced by another defender coming from the other direction.

To put the issue in perspective, imagine the following scenario. Ojomo has established himself as a menace when isolated on guards, Devin Richardson or perhaps Palaie Gaoteote have transferred in and taken over the Dime Backer position, Ray Thornton has slid inside to the Jack, and the better of Ben Davis or Ovie Oghoufo has transferred in and taken over at X-backer.

This is a pretty tricky game for the offensive line to pick up. The right guard will be concerned with Ojomo’s track, the center is getting bull-rushed in the opposite side by Keondre Coburn, and the Dime is looping and charging into the space between them. The offense needs for the center to be able to disengage from Coburn to pick up the Dime, or for the guard to trade off Ojomo to the tackle and then pick him up. If neither are able to do so than the Dime is running free to be accounted for by either the running back or the quarterback. Additionally, even if the guard can pick up the Dime it’s going to be hard for them to effectively trade off Ojomo without letting him loose, especially if the Dime shows on the edge for a moment to hold the tackle’s eyes before looking to get inside.

Kwiatkowski is a master of drawing up and teaching pressures like this one and having athletes up and down the line who know how to beat blocks in the pass-rush makes those pressures extremely potent. Creating different fronts to accentuate matchups hinges a lot on having a Jack who has the athleticism to play on the edge but the power and toughness to go inside some as well.

Against the spread run game on standard downs, the Jack is often more akin to an old school, really good Sam linebacker in an Under front. PK has the old under front in his playbook and it might be highly useful on a number of levels for the Longhorns.

Here’s an Under front look against something like Tom Herman’s tight zone play:

There are three ways for the defense to blow this play up from this look. The first is by the Jack shoving the tight end sideways into the gap which should otherwise be opened by the tackle having a free run at the Mike linebacker. If the running back doesn’t have a clean, downhill path then it makes life easy for the free safety coming down in run support to be able to make a play rather than trying to put out a fire.

The second is from the nose commanding a double team which frees up the Dime Backer to charge in free and make a tackle. The third is the offensive line being unable to handle the 3-technique 1-on-1 and him being able to either congest the running lanes, get into the backfield and cut off space, or making the tackle himself.

Once again, the nickel’s job is to handle the main coverage risk and the Jack is expected to play strong at the point of attack in order to help set up other positions to make plays. He’ll get his chance to make plays himself but he’d better be a rock in a few different roles.

Texas fans know well how a failure to have tight ends could scuttle the design of Herman’s HUNH offense. A lack of a good Jack or Nickel could have a similar impact on PK’s anti-HUNH defense.

If Ray Thornton can slide over effectively it should give Texas breathing room in 2021 to have two solid Jacks who can ensure the scheme doesn’t unravel. Nickel should be in good shape with Chris Adimora, Anthony Cook, and potentially Kitan Crawford all eligible and capable of playing inside. Down the line it’ll be essential Texas recruits and develops well at these positions so exciting athletes like Alfred Collins or David Gbenda can go dominate the HUNH spread teams waiting for the new staff in the Big 12.

History major, football theorist.