Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Easy as 1,2,3... & 4,5,9

What did Grant mean by "time at the 4"?

Gus Malzahn wants to run his offense at as fast a pace as possible. But faster communication is needed to achieve faster pace. Since his time as a high school football coach, Malzahn has developed a system that allows the play calls to be communicated from the sideline that is easy to understand for the offense and hard to decipher for the defense.

One aspect of this communication system is the skill position numbers. Traditional skill position designations are letters. The quarterback is QB (duh), the split end is X, the tight end is Y, the flanker is Z, the fullback could be F, and the tailback could be T. A typical formation would look like this.

Malzahn uses the following numbers for the skill positions. The quarterback is the 1, the split end is the 9, the tight end is the 5, the flanker is the 2, the H-back is the 3, and the running back is the 4. Now the typical formation looks like this.

The Quarterback is the 1

It makes sense that the number 1 is given to the quarterback. He is the on-field leader of the offense and nearly every play goes through his hands. Malzahn has typically had quarterbacks with great decision-making abilities and an ability to avoid turnovers. At Auburn, Chris Todd went from being replaced by Kodi Burns halfway through 2008 to breaking school records in 2009. Cam Newton followed that up by leading the team to a national championship while earning the Heisman Trophy.

This season, Nick Marshall will be the team's 1. In junior college, he showed he can run and pass as well as anyone, but he turned the ball over too many times (20 interceptions, 8 fumbles, 5 lost). Watch for him to protect the ball much more this season, hopefully while still making some spectacular plays, like he has apparently done in fall camp.

The Flanker is the 2

The 2 is the wide receiver off the line on the tight end (or 5) side. This player doesn't have to be a burner, flying down the field every play. Instead, this player should not only be able to get open on pass plays, but also be able to interact with the backfield when sent into pre-snap motion. This position will sometimes move into a pitch relationship with the quarterback or continue running to the other side of the field. Most of the time, this motion is meant to just slow the linebackers, but when the 2 does receive the handoff, it is usually a big play. It is this backfield (a quarterback, two running backs, and the 2 as a third back) that most displays this offense's Wing-T origins.

Terrell Zachery and Kodi Burns spent time at the 2 in 2009 and 2010. Zachery especially proved deadly with those pre-snap motion runs. In 2009, he rushed for 214 yards on only nine carries for an average of almost 24 yards per rush. Auburn's first score in the 2009 Iron Bowl is the perfect example.

The H-back is the 3

The 3 is the now famous H-back, the spread offense's version of the fullback. He is different from a fullback in that he must have more lateral speed, able to block from left tackle to right tackle, while also being a threat to receive a pass. (I think of fullbacks as straight-line, between-the-tackles, lead blockers, though they can catch passes, too.)

Shown as "FB" here, the 3 kicks out the SAM (strong side linebacker)
in a play from the Wildcat formation.
In 2009 and 2010, Auburn did not have an ideal 3. It was a shared job between Mario Fannin and Eric Smith. Fannin had the ball-carrying and pass-catching skills and Smith had the "knock a defenseman around" skills, so they were swapped in and out based on the situation. But no matter who was in, he was responsible or both aspects of the 3. For example, Cam didn't need the help, but Smith (#32) had a good kick out block to open the hole for the touchdown.

In 2013, it is clear who the 3 is. Jay Prosch, who's story is well known, is the only senior on the offense and is certainly a leader on the team. He played fullback in 2011 at Illinois and 2012 at Auburn, so we know how well he blocks linebackers and even defensive linemen. What we haven't seen is his ball carrying skills. He did run for two touchdowns and a few first downs in short yardage situations last year, but in camp, his carries have been few. However, Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee has commended his pass-catching ability, so we can still look forward to Prosch getting a few touches.

The Running Back is the 4

Running Back U should have no shortage at the 4, the tailback position. In 2009, Ben Tate racked up 1362 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior leader on that team looking to bounce back from the 2008 disaster. In 2010, Michael Dyer broke Bo Jackson's freshman rushing record with 1003 yards. And everyone's favorite squirrel-chaser, Onterio McCalebb, added his fair share of yards (565 in 2009, 810 in 2010) as the 4, especially when the formation and play called for runs outside of the tackle box.

Wildcat Ben Tate (#44) was a great downhill runner at the 4.
The Birmingham News / Hal Yeager
In 2013, Auburn again has plenty of depth at running back, so much that freshman running back Jonathan "Rudy" Ford has moved to cornerback, where the depth isn't so good. Newcomer Cameron Artis-Payne has the Ben Tate look, so he very well could be the work horse this year. Corey Grant, though not much smaller, has the quickness to be effective on the speed sweeps that made McCalebb so dangerous. But perhaps the most versatile of the running backs is Tre Mason, the starter for most of last year, who, despite giving up snaps to Mike Blakely (who is no longer on the team) and playing on the worst Auburn football team in decades, still managed to break 1000 rushing yards in 2012.

The Tight End is the 5

In today's football, the tight end is a special player, a sort of hybrid between a wide receiver and offensive lineman. In Malzahn's spread, the tight end is the 5, but the 5 is more on the receiver side of the spectrum. In fact, he rarely lines up next to a tackle. Instead, he is often detached from the line. This forces the defense to either send a linebacker over or bring a safety down to cover him as a receiving threat. It also gives the 5 a better angle for blocking when a run goes wide.

Perhaps everyone's favorite player of the last three years was Phillip Lutzenkirchen. As a freshman in 2009, he backed up Tommy Trott and played as a true tight end in some of Malzahn's rarer formations, but he broke through as a major red zone threat in 2010. A full third of his receptions were for touchdowns (five of 15), and none were more important than the one that completed the greatest of all comebacks and inspired a new dance.

C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse have been respectable tight ends, but at least one will need to step up this year as the 5. It seems Uzomah has begun to take that step forward, making himself more versatile and therefore much more useful on the field. And in those rarer formations with two tight ends, Fulse should be more than a competent blocker.

The Split End is the 9

The split end is the other typical receiver, and in Malzahn's offense, he is the 9. He is almost always on the opposite side of the formation as the 5 and 2. He usually runs his routes down field, trying to "take the top off" of the defense, posing as a home run threat while opening holes for intermediate passes. The 9 also must be a decent enough blocker to keep the backside cornerback or safety from making the tackle on running plays.

In 2009, Darvin Adams exploded on the scene for 997 yards receiving after only making three receptions the year before. He followed that up with 963 yards receiving in 2010, including this dagger just before halftime of the SEC Championship Game.

You may have noticed that I don't have anything to say about this year's receiver positions, the 2 and 9. That's because I don't know anything. In fact, no one knows anything. According to that post, Jaylon Denson is the leader for the X or 9 position. Does that mean Quan Bray is the leader at the 2? Where do Ricardo Louis and Sammie Coates fit? Will Travon Reed finally make the leap this year? Now that the dust has settled from the quarterback battle, I am most interested in who will be this year's go-to receivers.

To see how these positions can be scattered about the playing field, see this excellent post that uses screen shots of game footage. Or check back here in a day or so for diagrams and names of the most common formations we can expect to see this season.

(With just over a week to go before Auburn's first game of the 2013 season, I'm running out of time to write much more about this offense in general. Instead, I will try this. Before each game, I will try to focus on the upcoming opponent. What tactics should be effective, what strategies the other team may use, etc. Then after each game, I will pick a few big plays and explain what went right and what went wrong.)

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