Tech’s first win of the season was a defensive struggle that saw new defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s unit deliver a top-notch performance, one that was necessary on a day when the offense struggled to move the ball. Partly because of that success, this week’s film room feature will focus on the defensive backs, who underwent a major schematic transition in the offseason and have responded by collectively emerging as one of the strongest units on the team.
Press Man Coverage
The single biggest defensive change from a year ago involved asking the cornerbacks to play significantly more man-to-man and press coverage. From a personnel standpoint, it was an ideal change that would take advantage of the tall, long corners that the team had stocked up on in recent years. The question was how well and how quickly the cornerbacks would be able to adopt the new techniques after years of playing in zone-heavy schemes.
So far, they’re looking very comfortable. The new defense puts more responsibility on the corners, and they’ve been up to the task.
One of the best showcases of press coverage on Saturday was early on, courtesy of left cornerback Zamari Walton (lined up at the top of the screen):
Right off the line, Walton is in the receiver’s face, hitting him with repeated arm checks and staying right in his path. Twice the receiver tries to stutter-step to get by, and twice he finds a 6-foot-3 corner still in his way. When a corner presses effectively like this, it can be an immensely frustrating experience for the receiver.
USF quarterback Blake Barnett’s first read appears to be in Walton’s direction. It’s a one-on-one matchup with no safety help over the top, but seeing his receiver struggling to even get downfield, Barnett turns away and eventually lobs a dangerous throw to the other side of the field. The whole point of press coverage is to disrupt routes and timing, and this was a perfect showcase.
Even when they weren’t pressing on Saturday, the Tech defenders were largely successful at sticking with USF’s receivers on their routes. One example that sticks out was nickel back Kaleb Oliver running stride-for-stride with the slot receiver on a wheel route:
Barnett’s pass is overthrown, but even an on-target throw would very likely have ended in a pass breakup. It’s worth noting that Oliver kept his eyes on the receiver and never turned around to track the ball, so there is some room for improvement there.
The tight man coverage also led to several pass breakups. Oliver had one on a slant route late in the first quarter, and Tre Swilling had a particularly impressive one in the third:
The receiver is running a zig/whip route, which can be difficult to defend and particularly difficult to mark, but Swilling is prepared. He stays on his man like glue, anticipates the throw, and steps in front to swat it away.
Not everything was perfect, and the secondary had a couple of lapses when playing zone. Redshirt freshman corner Myles Sims was victimized early in the second quarter, leaving USF’s Terrance Horne open on a comeback route:
Sims simply loses track of the outside receiver. He’s trying to mark both Horne and the receiver in the slot, but he doesn’t notice Horne turning on the comeback route until it’s too late. It’s discouraging because Tech’s corners had similar issues a year ago... but it’s also hardly a reason for long-term concern, because 1) this was only Sims’ second collegiate game and 2) Tre Swilling had similar issues in zone coverage a year ago and has made massive strides since then.
On the flip side, Tech defenders also made some encouraging plays when sitting back in zone. One example was on the previous play, when senior safety Christian Campbell made a timely pass breakup on a deep throw:
It’s a fairly relaxed coverage posture on second and 10, but Campbell has the awareness to move toward the two receivers near the sideline and the aggressiveness to make a play on the ball. Being too passive in zones has been an issue for Tech for several years, and plays like this are encouraging signs that the players are growing and understanding their responsibilities better under the new regime.
Tackling and Run Support
Tackling form has been refreshingly good across the secondary. There weren’t a ton of missed tackles on Saturday, and all of the players—particularly the safeties—did an excellent job of wrapping up and going low whenever there was an opportunity. Free safety Juanyeh Thomas had one of the top individual efforts on a play, sweeping across the field to chase down and wrap up USF’s Eddie McDoom on a reversed reverse for a loss.
One quieter play that looked promising was the first play of the second quarter. It was a QB run that ended in a tackle by Edge man Jaquan Henderson, but safeties Carpenter and Campbell did a great job of closing off all possible rushing lanes and trapping the QB.
Tackling: The Tariq Show
Speaking of Carpenter, he seemed to be everywhere on Saturday—enough so that he gets his own section here for his tackling efforts.
Carpenter played fast and loose from the beginning on Saturday, and he made a number of great tackles at crucial moments. His first saw him track the left slot receiver across the field and bring him down immediately after the catch to snuff out USF’s first possession:
Perhaps the most impressive thing is how he seems to shift into another gear right when the receiver makes the catch.
Carpenter also made sure to split the blockers on a screen pass and devour the running back for a loss with a perfect rugby-style tackle:
Carpenter’s athleticism was never in question, and with his tackling form massively improved, he seems to be putting all of the pieces together in his junior campaign.
The one lingering concern remains his man coverage ability. Carpenter was beaten on USF’s lone touchdown; it was a quick receiver running a difficult route for anyone to cover, but it’s still something the junior needs time to refine.
Through two games, the secondary appears to have fully embraced the new defensive scheme and philosophy, and the result has been a unit that looks faster and (so far) more disruptive than most recent Tech secondaries. Only time will tell whether they can maintain this high level of play as the competition gets tougher, but the early indications are very promising.