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Woody’s Roundup: Week 1 (Alcorn State)

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The opponent was overmatched, but nevertheless, the rebuilt defense’s first outing was a huge success

Since there’s no longer a Roof to worry about on the Flats, the Roof Inspection Report has been discontinued this fall... and has been replaced by something more thematically appropriate for the new sheriff in town. Welcome to the first edition of Woody’s Roundup, which will feature a similar breakdown of the defense’s week-to-week performance accompanied by terrible jokes about snakes in players’ boots and the Al’s Toy Barn disaster of 2010-12.

The inaugural Roundup will examine the 2018 opener against Alcorn State, in which defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s defense pitched a shutout. Tech allowed just 146 total yards and permitted ASU to cross midfield only twice in the entire game—and one of those was a drive that began just three yards shy of the 50-yard line. The opponent was an overmatched FCS squad, so Saturday’s outcome should be taken with a sufficiently large grain of salt, but it’s hard to look at an injury-free, season-opening shutout as anything other than a net positive.

Week 1 vs. Alcorn State: Defense by the Numbers

Stat Total
Stat Total
Opp. Possessions 13
Points Allowed 0
Points per Possession 0.0
Total Yards Allowed 146
Rush Yards Allowed 77
Opp. Yards per Carry 2.8
Pass Yards Allowed 69
Opp. Yards per Attempt 3.0
Opp. Yards per Play 2.9
Third Down Conversions 2/11
Fourth Down Conversions 0/0
Three-and-Outs Forced 4
Turnovers Forced 3
Havoc Rate 15.7%
Stuff Rate 28.6%

Overall, there isn’t much to complain about. Tech completely silenced the ASU offense, holding it below 100 rushing yards and 100 passing yards and allowing just 2.9 yards per play. ASU recorded just nine first downs all afternoon and had just one play that went for 10 yards or more—and it went for exactly 10 yards. Their longest drive of the day lasted over six minutes, but it only went for 37 yards and ended in a punt, and it was their only drive that lasted longer than six plays.

If there’s anything to nitpick, it’s that the havoc rate (the fraction of plays that had a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a pass breakup, or an interception) was oddly low. The overall havoc rate of 15.7% was fairly close to the national average a year ago, and that seems a bit low for a shutout. But a closer examination reveals that Tech was close to making that figure much higher. The defense’s stuff rate (the fraction of run plays that went for no gain or a loss) was 28.6%, with six runs that were stopped for no gain; had any of those been stopped a yard further back, the havoc rate would have been bumped up. That’s more indicative of how the defense fared overall.

Unit Evaluations

Given that the first game featured a revolving door of players at every position and was the first look at the new scheme, this section will be broken out into more sections than usual for this week—and possibly in the future as well, depending on how Woody’s scheme and player rotations shape up.

Defensive Line

Like every position and unit, the defensive line saw multiple players play multiple series at every position. Seniors Anree Saint-Amour and Desmond Branch were the two starting defensive ends, as expected, but junior Brandon Adams got the nod over senior Kyle Cerge-Henderson at nose tackle. The entire two-deep saw plenty of action, as did a few players further down the depth chart and even a couple true freshmen who are likely slated for the scout team (but can play four games without burning the redshirt thanks to a new NCAA rule).

The biggest impacts came from Adams, who forced a fumble that was returned for a Tech touchdown, and sophomore end Antwan Owens, who tied for the team lead with four tackles. Overall, it was a mixed bag. At times, the linemen were routinely knifing through to the backfield, particularly Saint-Amour and Owens. At other times, they were struggling to get off blocks and found themselves trying to arm-tackle the ballcarrier as he went by. Their overall performance wasn’t bad, but there were two notable concerns that emerged from Saturday’s game, and this was one of them.

Scheme-wise, the line’s alignment is generally fairly constant: both ends lining up roughly in the 3-gaps (between the guard and tackle on each side), with the nose tackle over the center. In a couple cases, Woody mixed it up, with the most extreme variant debuting on the third play of the game:

There are still two linemen in the 3-gaps, but here it’s Branch and reserve nose tackle Chris Martin. Saint-Amour is lined up as a five-technique end off the right tackle’s outer shoulder. It puts Saint-Amour in a better pass-rushing position, but it also leaves a gaping hole in the middle, so two linebackers step up into the void. Expect to see this alignment only on the occasional passing down; for the most part it’ll be more standard, but always with three linemen on the field.

Inside Linebackers

Senior Brant Mitchell got the start at one ILB spot—hardly a surprise for the veteran and team captain. Across from him, though, was an actual surprise: the second ILB was redshirt junior David Curry, who was playing in his first game since 2016 and overtook sophomore Bruce Jordan-Swilling in camp. With Jordan-Swilling sitting out the opener with an injury, Curry played most of the game and made the most of the opportunity. Early in the third quarter, he scored Tech’s first defensive touchdown of the season when he recovered an ASU fumble and ran it back untouched.

Curry’s score aside, the ILBs were a bit of a mixed bag as well, which leads into the second notable concern from Saturday: tackling form. Mitchell couldn’t quite get into position to line up tackles in several instances, and Curry showed a tendency to go for a shoulder tackle instead of wrapping up. It didn’t matter much in the end on Saturday, but those issues could be problematic against the faster and more athletic opponents ahead on Tech’s schedule.

One notable bright spot was second-stringer and true freshman Quez Jackson, who saw plenty of action in the second half and recorded three tackles. A major tenet of Woody’s defense is aggressively attacking gaps, and Jackson seems to be a natural in that respect. Tech has a viable three-man rotation with Mitchell, Curry, and Jordan-Swilling, and it’s not out of the question that Jackson joins them as a regular if he keeps up this level of play.

Outside Linebackers

The “Jack” linebacker generally lines up alongside the defensive line and has more pass rushing responsibilities, while the “Stinger” linebacker lines up a couple yards back and is more of a safety/linebacker hybrid, rushing occasionally but generally taking on more of a coverage role. That breakdown was known ahead of time, but some of the personnel decisions had muddled the distinction a bit. Sophomore Jaquan Henderson, for example, seemed to be a perfect fit at Stinger but ended up as the second-string Jack LB behind senior Vic Alexander... and it seemed an odd fit for the 200-pound Henderson to be lining up as effectively a fourth defensive lineman.

Three players saw significant playing time at each position: Alexander, Henderson, and true freshman Jordan Domineck at Jack, and senior Jalen Johnson, junior Christian Campbell, and true freshman Charlie Thomas at Stinger. It’s likely that all six of them will be in the rotation all season, health permitting. Campbell had Tech’s lone sack of the day and always seemed to be around the ball when he was on the field, and Thomas forced a fumble deep in ASU territory toward the end of the game. None of the Jack LBs had a standout game, but Henderson did finish with three tackles.

Cornerbacks

The biggest news earlier in the week was the announcement that a pair of 2017 recruits, redshirt freshman Tre Swilling and sophomore Jaytlin Askew, would get the nod at cornerback. Both were expected to play, but instead it looks like Woody will be rolling with the youngsters—though plenty of others are slated to play as well.

Boundary corner is shaping up as a mix of Swilling and redshirt sophomore Ajani Kerr in roughly equal amounts. Swilling acquitted himself well in his first career action; on practically every ball thrown in his direction, he was in position to either swat the pass or make an immediate tackle. Kerr did not represent much of a drop-off at the position, so at first glance Tech appears to have two very viable options on the boundary.

On the other side, Askew made a splash, flashing veteran-caliber instincts and tackling form from the start. On the first play of ASU’s second drive, the sophomore snuffed out a screen pass for a five-yard loss, flying past the receiver trying to block him and making a rugby-style tackle on the running back before he could slip by:

True freshmen Jaylon King and Zamari Walton were also in the mix at field corner, and the latter nearly added a pick six in the second quarter. The 6-foot-3 Walton’s length will be an asset, and between him and Simmons, the Jackets find themselves with options when they need someone with more size than the 5-foot-10 Askew on the outside.

Safeties

Saturday’s breakout star was, almost without question, strong safety Kaleb Oliver. The redshirt freshman didn’t get the start—that honor went to sophomore Tariq Carpenter—but Oliver rotated in early as a fifth defensive back and played plenty of strong safety as the game went on. Oliver was responsible for two of Tech’s eight havoc plays on the day: a tackle for a three-yard loss on a pass play, and an interception that he ran back for a score, only to have the return called back for a penalty. Perhaps more importantly, he showed excellent tackling form all afternoon, and that skill should translate well as the competition level ramps up in the coming weeks.

On the opposite side, graduate transfer Malik Rivera got the nod at free safety and played almost the entire game. The Wofford alum didn’t have a flashy debut, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be a major playmaker this year, but his experience and knowledge of the scheme (safeties coach Shiel Wood was also his position coach at Wofford) will be invaluable given Woody’s commitment to a youth movement elsewhere in the secondary. His backup, true freshman Juanyeh Thomas, was nursing a minor injury and did not see action on defense (though he did handle kick/punt return duties).

Coaching

The logic behind the personnel decisions—particularly at outside linebacker—became clear on Saturday, as Woody kept the base 3-4 personnel on the field for the vast majority of the game. On a few occasions he rotated in a nickel defensive back, and one time he added a sixth (see below), but the flexibility of the Stinger LB position as a linebacker/safety hybrid—and the deployment of Campbell and Johnson, two seasoned former safeties—allowed Tech to cover three-wide and four-wide sets using the base package.

Woody mixed it up with his rush packages. He rarely sent more than four rushers, leaning on the 3-4 front’s advantage of being able to disguise the fourth rusher. It was typically one of the outside linebackers; the Jack LB is generally the fourth rusher, but Woody sent the Stinger LB almost as often on Saturday. There were also a couple of boundary corner blitzes mixed in, though ASU ended up running the ball on those plays. When he did send extra heat, it was most often one of the ILBs rushing alongside the OLB next to him, and there was one first-quarter blitz that featured three linebackers rushing with the Jack LB dropping into a short zone.

Coverage assignments were a mix of man coverage across the board and Cover 3 zone, with three players deep (typically the corners and one safety) and four players in medium zones near the marker. An interesting note—and one that marks a departure from Roof’s scheme—was Woody’s willingness to shuffle personnel and formations as needed depending on the situation. One example was a third-and-8 situation in the second quarter in which Woody had six defensive backs on the field:

Campbell lines up to rush alongside the defensive line, and behind him are Oliver and Carpenter—the two strong safeties—playing at linebacker depth, with Carpenter marking the motion man across the formation. Askew shifts over from field corner to cover the slot receiver as Walton, the true freshman, takes over his spot on the outside. Collectively, it’s as indicative as anything of Woody’s emphasis on getting speed on the field, and the cornerback alignment gives Tech length on the outside while putting a good tackler in the slot.

Truthfully, the above example might be the exception to the rule, as Woody’s objective is to only go to nickel/dime packages when necessary. Either way, all indications are that he’s at least committed to rotating players frequently to keep players fresh and spread out playing time.

Overall

As previously stated, it’s dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from a game where Tech’s opponent was completely overmatched. At the same time, there are some positives that should carry forward—most notably in the secondary, where Oliver and Askew flashed very promising skills in both coverage and run support.

The issues that emerged are not new ones: defensive linemen struggling to get leverage and linebackers struggling to line up tackles. It’s also worth noting that the young secondary remains largely untested. These should all be points of emphasis in practice this week heading into an important early-season test at South Florida.