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BYU Football: Casting Defensive Shadows

10 July 2014 Louis E. Deaux
BYU defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (BYU photo).

BYU defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (BYU photo).

During media day last month, BYU defensive coordinator Nick Howell discussed one of my favorite subjects–defensive length.

While speed and quickness has long been recognized as integral to a great defensive team, the subject of overall height or length is sometimes over looked.

BYUtv host Dave McCann noted that BYU will field the tallest pair of starting outside linebackers in the country, and perhaps one of the tallest and largest overall rotations at those key positions on the defense.

A lack of length is something that cannot be simply made up for with extra effort or ambition.

One of BYU’s best middle linebackers in recent years was Brandon Ogletree. He was a tackling machine, something you certainly want out of a man in the middle. Unfortunately for the 5-foot-11 Ogletree, he had an NFL-sized heart in a barely Division-1-sized frame.

He simply wasn’t tall enough to play linebacker in the NFL. Interestingly, if he had driven his heart and ambition toward toting the rock, he might have made it in the league as a fullback. It requires many of the same skill sets and you don’t need to be an inch or two taller.

I often hear people ask, what’s an inch or two? Well, in this article I hope to demonstrate the reason height and length on the field matters.

During his interview with reporters on media day, 6-foot-8 BYU defensive end Bronson Kaufusi addressed the difficulties opposing quarterbacks will face when they see him and 6-foot-5 Alani Fau staring at them across the line of scrimmage.

Length creates what are called defensive “shadows”. A QB who wants to throw into a defended zone will simply have a much easier time fitting the ball into an area when it’s defended by a shorter player. Just how much a difference does length on defense make? Well, let’s take a look at what the opposing QB will see when BYU’s probable first-team defense lines up on the field this fall:

Table 1 – BYU’s Current Projected Defense (Subject to Change in the Fall Camp)

Table 1 – BYU’s Current Projected Defense (Subject to Change in Fall Camp)

Looking at the information as a chart can be revealing, but looking at what the opposing QB will see is far more illustrative of why height matters and how it can be used to help a defense overload certain, more vulnerable parts, of the field.

When Bronson was interviewed, he said, “The QB will not want to throw the ball in my (or Alani’s) direction because he’ll have to get it past us. I mean we want him to try that, because we’ll probably knock it down or maybe intercept it, but I don’t think he’ll want to try that very often.”

The reason for Kaufusi’s opinion can be understood by looking at a graph (begins at 5’-foot-0”) that displays at shoulder height what the opposing QB will see in his field of vision.

Graph 1 – Demonstration of Shoulder Height & Head Views from Opposing QB Position

Graph 1 – Demonstration of BYU’s Shoulder Height & Head Views for Opposing QBs

The solid line on the graph represents the size of the anticipated BYU first team defense. The dotted line illustrates the different look for a position when it is manned by a second unit player in the rotation.

As an opposing offensive coach, you have to look at the potential defenders you will see and begin to breakdown the shadows they create behind them. BYU has very tall OLB’s at both the SAM (Alani Fua at 6’-5”) and WILL (Bronson Kaufusi at 6’-8”).

Even their backups cast solid shadows, and that height does make a huge difference on the field. Consider the shadow cast by their reach from within their position location during a play.

Graphic 1 – Player Defensive Shadows by Size

Graphic 1 – Player Defensive Shadows by Size

Each defender will cast a defensive shadow that may be the difference between the QB confidently targeting, leading and connecting with his receiver, or missing badly simply because his target window is blocked.

Let’s take what architects like to call, a plan view of the shadow they can cast. We’ll look at the defensive shadows for someone 6’-0”, 6’-3” and 6’-6” tall as an example illustrated in Graphic 1.

Graphic 2 – Rearward Shadow of a Defender gets appreciably larger with height & length

Graphic 2 – Rearward Shadow of a Defender gets appreciably larger with height & length

Why are these important facts?

START WITH AN UNDERSTANDING OF SPEED

Well start with the concept of team and individual player speed. Speed is often the least understood component when evaluating a team’s ability to perform.

Most fans simply assume that all speed is the same. But relative speed is perhaps far more important. It isn’t enough for a player to be fast in shorts and a t-shirt running the shuttle or a laser-timed 40 yard dash.

A relatively small player may be extremely fast. However once you put the full weight of pads, shoes, helmet on that 170 lbs. frame, he is probably going to bog down quite a bit.

But put a player with similar speed out there, but who is 40 pounds heavier, and the weight drag coefficient to body mass after adding all that equipment isn’t going to effect the bigger player’s on-field speed nearly as much.

Defenders need to have good speed, but small speedy guys that can run a 4.4 forty in shorts may not be as fast on the field as the larger player who runs a 4.5, simply because the second player is bigger and stronger under a similar drag coefficient for his uniform and equipment load.

The second component of player speed is his decision making capabilities. Is a player intelligent? Does the player know where to position himself during each down and distance situation? Being in the right place and making the right read matters a lot.

Teams can look slow simply because they are nullifying their own natural speed with bad decision making. The 2007 Michigan team that lost at home in the season opener against FCS opponent Appalachian State didn’t get physically faster several weeks later when it defeated the SEC’s Florida Gators at the end of the same season.

The Wolverine players all got much smarter, however, and their overall decision making capabilities, study habits, mental drills and determination to play smart allowed them to play faster and utilize the excellent team foot speed that they possessed all along.

Game speed is always a reflection of the way in which a team prepares mentally and utilizes its natural athletic abilities to enhance its game day speed, rather than nullify it through error and poor positioning. Like we saw from Texas against BYU last season, great team speed can be nullified quickly by poor decision making and having players out of position.

HEIGHT WORKS AS A MECHANISM TO ENHANCE TEAM SPEED

So how does this fit in with height, length and defensive shadows? It’s simple–the larger of the shadow a defender casts, the more difficult it is for a QB to see the field behind that defender or get a ball over that player and into a sweet spot in an open zone. Tall players like Alani Fua, Bronson Kaufusi, Kevan Bills and Sae Tautu create problems for the offense. They cast very imposing conic and tangential shadows wherever they appear in the QB’s field of view.

Now think of the smaller player who is an excellent athlete, but who is only 6-foot tall. That player must be quicker and cover more space in order to make up for his smaller shadow. The larger the shadow, the less the need for raw speed. Therefore size matters!

DEFENSIVE COUNTER-PUNCHES FROM WITHIN THE SHADOWS

A defense with great length has much more flexibility to disguise and roll coverage’s behind the shadows. For example, a cornerback may provide press coverage on a wide receiver but quickly hand the man off to a rolling safety while ducking into the shadow of a big outside linebacker. That OLB has already eclipsed the view of the outside receiver and the quarterback may have lost him, electing instead to look to his second progression option.

Suddenly though he finds himself being pressured by the hidden corner who is now blitzing between the offensive tackle Tackle, who has kicked out on that OLB, and the guard who is tied up by the defensive end. The blitzing corner has a free shot at the QB who finds himself looking into the teeth of the same difficult back-side shadow cast by the OLB on the other side of the field.

Graphic 3 - The diagram shows just one of the many potential ways in which to disguise the defense utilizing the big SAM backer Alani Fua.  Alternate routes and coverage are hashed.

Graphic 3 – The diagram shows just one of the many potential ways in which to disguise the defense utilizing the big SAM backer Alani Fua. Alternate routes and coverage are hashed.

Now the QB could simply assume his receiver will be in the right place at the right time, but it’s a significant risk to blindly try to force the ball into the zone beyond the reach of BYU’s big mitts on the outside.

With talented defensive backs like Jordon Johnson, Trent Trammell, Craig Bills and Robertson Daniel roaming in and out of the large shadows cast by Bronson and Alani, the Cougars should be capable of making things very tough on quarterbacks.

Those rangy OLBs should also frequently be able to pinch the quarterback’s field of view towards the center of the field. They can force the ball inside or into the seams along the hash marks.

Fua and Kaufusi will make outside throws very difficult, unless the QB goes for the lower percentage completions deeper into the middle and outside go zones manned by what will arguably be one of BYU’s best group of athletes in the secondary in quite some time.

If the quarterback’s main options for throwing the ball are continually pinched inside, you have to like BYU’s chances of picking off a number of throws this year.

BYU must still find additional ways to pressure the pocket. Any rotation and defensive scheme for a given down, distance and location on the field only works for so long.

However, leverage BYU’s length on the outside to make a QB’s downfield progression reads more difficult for the opposing quarterback is a good place to start. Under Howell’s tutelage, and with Bronco’s creative mind, the BYU defensive players will quickly learn how to use the team’s outstanding size and its excellent individual relative speed to get themselves off the field and put the ball in the back into the hands of Taysom Hill and the offense.

It should be very interesting to watch.

-Louis E. Deaux is a Deep Shades of Blue contributor. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and has covered college football for many years.

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