I’m always interested in teams that can do more with less. Appalachian State has been one of those teams. Starting in 2014, the Mountaineers began playing in the FBS (D1). They had instant success going 7-5 and couldn’t play in a bowl due to NCAA eligibility rules. The following year (2015) would be even better. App. State would end the season with an 11 win season only losing to Clemson and eventual Sun Belt conference champion in Arkansas St. (9-4/8-0). 2015 would also see the defense reach the top 25 in Defensive Efficiency. Outside of ’17, the defense has held a spot in the top 25, even reaching #6 in ’18. Impressive for a team that six seasons ago was playing in the FCS (D-1AA).
Nate Woody (current Army DC) would lead the Mountaineers until 2017 when he left to be the DC at Georgia Tech with former Head Coach Paul Johnson. Defensive back coach, Bryan Brown (DC, Louisville) would step into his place and have instant success. The defense would see its best year since joining the FBS. Head Coach Scott Satterfield would leave after 2018 and take the Louisville job, Brown would also follow him. Then NC State OC Eli Drinkwitz and DC Ted Roof (also from NC State) would leave their posts in Raleigh and head west to Boone. Again the defense would dominant the Sun Belt and finish in the top 25 in DEff. “Drink” would parlay the success of ’19 into the Head Coaching job at Missouri. Roof would leave for the DC job at Vanderbilt.
In the past four years, App. State has beaten North Carolina and South Carolina, took Penn. State to overtime, and almost beat a #9 ranked Vols team in overtime. Since ’15, the Mountaineers have only failed to win 11 games once (’17, 9-4) with the high watermark coming in ’19 (13-1, #20 CFP). That’s pretty impressive for a relatively “small” program nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. There is definitely something in the water in Boone, NC.
Throughout the multiple coaching transitions, the defensive scheme has stayed relatively the same. In fact, the App. State Tite Front defense is a great baseline look at how many teams around the country are playing Tite Quarters. Even Roof who came from a completely different tree stuck with the defense in ’19. This is similar to when Todd Orlando (DC USC) followed Dave Aranda (HC Baylor) at Utah St. and kept the defense that that was already there. The Mountaineers looked almost identical in ’19 as they would have the five previous years. Though Roof changed a few things (everyone has a personality), the foundation was there. The saying, “If it ain’t broke why fix it?” applies here.
The Mountaineers run what I call a reduction defense. This means they are using an edge rusher from the field or boundary to add in as a fourth rusher. This doesn’t mean they don’t use the interior delayed rush seen often in Tite defenses. With smaller D-linemen, the Mountaineers have opted to use movement as a base. This allows the defense to get their quicker linemen penetrating gaps versus larger opponents. The constant movement also puts pressure on the O-line post-snap. One issue with a true Tite Front is the static alignments and the ability of the D-line to hold gaps. If you are getting blown off because the O-line is superior to your smaller D-line, then you have issues. App. State solves this with movement.
One game in particular highlighted App. State’s ability to defend a Power 5 offenses in its game with North Carolina. The game a great study on how to defend what has become the prototypical offense of the NCAA. The use of a hybrid TE that can align as a Slot, FB, or TE has become a staple for most offenses at the college level. Former UNC OC Phil Longo (now Ole Miss) challenges defense with what you would expect out of this type of offense: QB runs/reads, RPOs, and a mixture of gap and zone schemes. App. State is a great counterpart because their defense is essentially the NCAA Tite/Mint defense that has, like Y-off, become the standard in college football.
The goal of this film study is to look at how App. State fits the run using their Tite Front structure. UNC, as stated, is a great baseline look at where the modern collegiate offense stands. Zone, Power, Counter, Stretch, and Slice Option are all looked at. The scheme developed by the Mountaineers reflects much of the ideals seen across the country and answers basic questions about how to fit runs from the Tite Front from a two-high shell.
The App. State Defense
App. State’s 3-4 base looks similar post-snap to what I call my Okie Front except the initial alignment is a 404. In fact, the OLB to the 5 tech. (post-snap) is referred to as the “Okie ‘backer.” The entire defensive front is built from hybrids. Most of the D-line is converted HS LBs. These “quick” linemen and OLBs are faster than their opponents and the Mountaineers use this to their advantage. There are not many exotic movements or pressures in the scheme. 3rd Down is used “exotics” that are packaged to match up with the offense’s personnel. The main objective of the scheme is to use movement instead of pressure. App. State focuses on four and five-man pressures with post-snap movement. The design by the scheme’s developer, Nate Woody, is to apply tremendous pressure on the offensive tackles while staying as simple as possible (play fast and attack the ball).
The Anchor and Dog (OLBs) are hybrids as well. Both are capable of defending the pass, but the Dog is a sturdier player. Unlike many Power 5 teams that use a true EDGE player, the Mountaineers opt to use a “lighter” package. By staying “light”, the Mountainers allow the Anchor and Dog to stay field and boundary. This helps the defense align quicker and makes things simple versus tempo teams. The Anchor is essentially a Nickel (Ni) defender and can be replaced with another Dog to give the defense a bigger presence on the edge versus larger teams (most Tite Front teams base from a 3-4 with two EDGE hybrids). In many of the coverages, the Anchor is a “wall-seam” player, meaning he is protecting the seam of the defense while the secondary players a Quarters concept.
One of their base calls, 2 Switch (initial image) illustrates the post-snap movement seen in the scheme. Any boundary reduction by the defense (a fancy way of saying blitzing the boundary) and the Dog (“D”) will insert off the TE or OT’s block. The movement of the D-line is usually set away from the slotted TE and puts the defense in an Over Front. By placing the D-line in a 404, the Mountainers can attack either side of the formation. The base way is illustrated above. The Mountainers, like many 3-4 defenses, find a way to get four in the rush.
The objective of the 4 tech. to the TE is to attack the guard and hold the “B” gap. If the guard were to step away from him (Zone away/Gap to) the DE would work off his backside (heel-line). The Dog is reading the departure of the TE and will work off his backside as well. This puts pressure on the tackle because the 4 tech. is a constant nuisance that he has to chase. The post-snap movement keeps blocking horizontal and the ILBs free. If the guard were to step to the DE (Zone to) he will attack the near hip of the guard and squeeze the “B” gap.
Coverage wise, App. State stays in a two-high shell running different variations of Quarters. To the two WR side, the Mountainers can play Quarters (Lock), 2-Read (Hold), or Trap (Cloud). “Lock” is exactly how it sounds, the CB is MEG on #1 and the Safety is MEG on #2 (4-Lock). The Anchor in Lock is the wall-seam player. “Hold” is the Mountainers 2-Read concept with the CB playing a “squat” technique. In Squat, the CB will still take any out route by #2, but will play from the top down. This allows the CB to work #1 before attacking #2. If the Mountaineers need a “hard” CB they will “Cloud” the coverage and play a true “hard” Cover 2. The Safety in Cloud will play deep 1/2 with the OLB again playing the wall-seam, but hin Cloud, he has to carry the vert of #2.
To the TE side, the FS will play Switch or a version of Quarters to the TE. Switch is the equivalent of Lock to the boundary. The Safety will take the TE up and out while the Will would take anything by the TE underneath. The FS’s footwork is what I call a “sink” technique. Instead of flat-foot reading the TE or stepping off in order to close the Post versus the pass, the Safety will step down on top of the TE, playing in the slant window. If the Mountainers want to “slam” the Safety into the box, they have a “Cut” call to make the FS primary run. In Cut, the Safety is responsible for helping with any Digs or Over routes while the Will is locked on the RB. This would run versus a non-passing threat at TE.
Opposite of their base way of getting to four rushers versus a Y-off formation, the Mountaineers’ next favorite way to get to four is by sending the Anchor. Like 2 Switch shown above, the D-line will work opposite the fourth rusher. App. State’s will run a Cover 3 scheme while the Anchor sets the edge. This is similar to Saban’s “Super” call (below). In the App. State scheme, any time the defense is bringing anything from the field they will spin to single-high. Formation into the boundary (FIB/FSL) is treated the same way.
When the TE is set to the speed (WR) side the adjustments are typical to what you would expect. Outside of the Big 12 and Aranda/Roberts systems, the most common way to play Y-off Trips is to attach the Mike or $-backer to the TE, pushing everyone over a gap. This forces the defense to rotate weak and “slam” the FS into the box (“A” gap – shown below). Though the FS has the “A” gap, this rarely happens. The Dog is a spill player, meaning he is working the heel line. So if the offense were to run Split Zone, the Dog would take the inside shoulder of the Y and the DE would squeeze the “B” to “A.” The FS would then fit off the RB. To get a POACH call in 2 Switch, the Safety can give a “Slice” call and read #3 to #1 backside. The CB is still playing MEG on #1, but it does give some support to the Mike.
The obvious issue with this scheme is the backside Glance (Post) route. App. State has an answer for that. They can play their Cover 6 call (Q/Q/H). This moves the Mike and Will back to their 30 spots and the Apache (Ni) would now apex and read the mesh. Mike is still in charge of #3. To the backside, the FS and CB are playing Cloud (CB force). Over the two speed (WRs), the secondary is playing Lock. This allows the Apache to insert versus run yet still be able to wall the seam or work through the curl (think Saban’s Mix).
Finally, the Mountainers can play Cover 4. This puts the FS in “Fish” or a Poach technique. In Fish, the FS is reading the departure of #3. If #3 goes vertical, the Safety takes him, if he is short, the Mike has him. Nothing really changes anywhere else. The combination of 2 Switch, Cover 6, and Cover 4 gives the Mountaineers several ways to play base, yet keep things the same for the front. All these allow the defense to make slight adjustments to put pressure on the offense and change the look for the QB post-snap. In most of these coverages, there are slight adjustments or tags that can allow the defense to have answers for “beaters.” For instance, 2 Switch’s base is Cloud to the two-speed, but Hold or Lock can also be run depending on the game plan.
The App. State defense isn’t a true Tite/Mint concept. That is by design. Unlike many Tite defenses at the Power 5 level, the Mountaineers just can’t recruit at the same rate. Maybe once in a while, they will stumble into a situation where they have a DE that can really hold down the “B” gap, but at the “Group of 5” (G5) level that isn’t realistic year-to-year. Woody and staff developed a defense that could handle bigger opponents by using speed to its advantage and forcing larger opponents to chase. As we know from history, App. State has a tendency to give larger programs fits and this philosophy aligns with many at the lower levels.
One of the basic runs for a Y-off Spread scheme is Zone Load (or Duo). The “Load” tag just means the TE will load the backside of the Zone. There really is no read unless the TE arcs (Zone Arc). The Mike is completely pushed out from the box versus 3×1 and the Will is in a “zero” alignment. The Mountaineers have several ways of playing the backside Safety, Switch or Cut. The clip below illustrates the Cut technique. The FS will “slam” into the fit, reading the ball carrier. The Center barely makes it off the Nose in time to block the careening Safety, but the job is done, the RB has to cut back.
Though this is not the Tite Front, the fits are very similar. The Nose “lags” to the A-gap on the side of the RB while the 4 tech. tries to pin the “B” gap creating a push. Technically the 4 tech. gets “zoned,” but the squeeze eliminates the “B” gap completely allowing the Will to work to the opposite “A.” The Mike seeing the TE “load” the Zone, fits tight off his backside reading the QB. App. State has created a quasi-Bear Front. As the Mike “surfs” the heel-line he closes on the RB once the ball is handed off. With the push from the opposite side, the RB has nowhere to go and is easily wrapped up for a loss (TFL).
The 2 Switch call creates a 3-on-2 triangle over the two WRs and can be any form of Quarters. Trap 2 or Cloud is the base way of playing 2 Switch, but UNC is not a big Bubble team, so Hold or Lock is used. In the clip, it appears the secondary is playing Hold (2-Read) with the FC and Apache topping the Hitches. To the boundary, Cut has put the BC in MEG coverage. He aligns deep and inside to wall the Post and will man turn to the “X” WR. This allows him to “catch” the Post and already open to transition versus a Fade. This play illustrates a typical way the Quads Trips Slot Open formation is played around College football.
With the RB away from the Slot and almost even with the QB, you can assume a Stretch is coming (below). The Mike widens to a “plus” alignment on the TE with the RB away. There is very little concern about Zone Load with a split backfield (RB is opposite the TE). The Apache creeps near the box and moves to an apex alignment pre-snap. Both guards will pull because they are uncovered. The 4 tech. to the play side will hold the Tackle and move laterally eventually eating up the first Guard. To the away side, the 4 tech. play off the cut-block and chase down the line of scrimmage (LOS).
This clip is an excellent illustration of how to play the “zero” Nose position. With full flow away from the RB, there is no need to lag. Instead, the Nose fights to get outside of the Center, eventually penetrating and cutting off the Guard. This push allows the Will from the backside to run through on the pursuit. The bubble created keeps the RB’s path flat, allowing the troops to rally. Great effort by the Will to make the play!
The play side Mike will set the point and the Apache will fold in. With a plus alignment, the Mike has set himself up to hold contain. The design of the defense is to keep the O-line lateral, and this is exactly what happens. By being aware of leverage, the defense is able to layer the offenses blocking. As the Mike crosses the face of the Apache, the OLB works back inside and punches up the field. With nowhere to go, the RB is eaten up by the pursuit.
The Secondary is playing Switch to the boundary because of the location of the RB. The Glance RPO is a major concern with the RB to the weak side because the QB is naturally going to look that way. Switch is a better coverage here because the FS will “sink” into the box instead of “slam.” The slower pace allows him to play top-down and hold that “Glance Zone” longer, inhibiting the backside RPO. To the two WR side, it appears the secondary is playing Lock as the CB is bailing. The Safety fits off the block of the Apache.
A timely LB “Pop” pressure, or a blitz through a gap from depth, can be a devastating concept versus vertical runs like Power. In the clip below, UNC attempts to run Power to the TE side. The Will LB inserts into the “B” gap killing the pull and forcing the RB to cut the play back. App. State’s Nose abuses the Center as he attempts to block back on him. The Nose is already working to the opposite “A,” but as the Guard pulls in front of his vision, the Nose rocks back and slings the Center to the ground. All this movement creates a huge lane for the free hitting Mike to eat the RB up.
To the play side, the Dog sets the boundary as the TE works to him. The 4 tech. rocks out to the “C” bringing the Tackle with him. Movement creates a lane for the Will to work through, virtually killing the play. Once the Dog sees the RB cut up he folds back inside for support. The Nose and Mike meet the RB in the hole for little gain.
As stated, the LB “Pop” can have a disastrous effect on an offense. Most coaches are now familiar with the delayed rush, but a great way to create a wall of containment is to blitz the “B” gap opposite the RB. As illustrated this can affect even gap plays. Versus a Split Zone, the penetration would put pressure on the RB to cut back and keeps the other LB free. Sometimes, the guard might miss the LB all together.
In this particular pressure, the Mike is going to insert into the “B” gap. Though this looks like a Cross-Dog pressure it is not. The Will has a green-dog is the Tar Heels pass (which they do) and is tasked with finding daylight. To the three WR side, the 4 tech. rocks out to contain then gives an “up-and-under” move to the TE. The Will inserts inside and can read out to contain if the DE hits it fast enough. Regardless, the pressure gets to the QB. The 4 tech. away from the pressure pops out and loops to the field as a “spy.”
The coverage piece behind this six-man pressure is EYES/HOT coverage. The Apache and the FS will take the vertical hooks (seam) and read the QB. This is why no one relates to the RB. As the Slot attempts to dig out the Apache, the OLB is looking at the QB. Capping verticals is the responsibility of the two CBs and the SS. This type of pressure is great on run downs or 3rd & Medium/Short when you know throws are going to come out fast and near the hashes.
Below is one of my favorite plays in football, the Slice Option. The play is similar to Split-Back Option, but UNC adds a “quick” motion to it. If defenses aren’t prepared, they can easily get out leveraged. The “slicing” TE has a load block on the edge which puts even more pressure on the defense. Any kind of strong roll to the three WR side and the defense is toast.
UNC Orbit motions the Slot to get into a three-back look (Diamond). Defensively for the Mountaineers, there is not a lot of shifting going on. The two-high shell allows the defense to keep it’s box structure intact and the sinking boundary Safety (FS) will take the pitch. With the FS taking the motion, all four LBs can focus on the box, with the Apache and Dog as the overhang/force players. The Dog in the clip hits the TE thick working to the outside. Similar to the Stretch shown above, the point is to make the QB hesitate and stay lateral. The sinking Safety triggers the QB to duck up behind the TE.
The D-line pinches to a Tite Front keeping the LBs clean as the O-line is occupied. Though the Will probably barriers up too quickly, he is able to pop out and rock back on the inside shoulder of the QB. There is a great “butt-and-press” by the Dog who reads the QB cutback triggering him to shed the block and close on the outside shoulder of the QB. Scraping all the way from the field, the Apache follows the slicing TE and “caps” the fit on the other side. Mike is late to the party as he is fitting the only open gap.
Secondary wise, this is an easy adjustment from a two-high scheme. With the TE working back to the boundary, the SS can squat in the Post with little vertical threat. The FS and SS rock-and-roll with the motion. Initially, the FS is play “Fish” or a form of Poach/Solo coverage to the Three WR side (this would be the adjustment in App. State’s Cover 4). This is the same concept used by many teams that want to cap the TE with the backside Safety in Quarters. Once the motion begins, the FS then takes the pitch and the coverage morphs into a Cover 3 look.
N. Carolina attempts to run a similar motion later in the game, but this time from an FIB/FSL 2×2 formation. The field Safety meets the pitch on the other side and the Apache reads out of the fit as the QB throws the ball. The pay in the clip above is a Counter GY with a Bubble from the Orbit motion. The read side is still on the same side as the RB and can be a great RPO for aggressive teams or defenses that roll to single-high versus FIB formations.
The final clip is a standard Counter GY scheme (Guard-TE). So far we have covered the basics of the Y-off Spread. The Mountaineers are using a boundary “reduction” (to use their words). This means the Dog is going to be the fourth rusher and the D-line will work post-snap away form him. This is similar to the “Bench Slant” concept used in Saban’s defense, except theirs is from the Tite Front (ASU is a true 404 team).
The field DE rocks out and then works back down the heel-line to spill the kick-out block by the DE. This forces the TE to log the kick-out block. Will inserts attacking the outside shoulder of the TE. As the RB cuts up the middle of the box, the Will now can overlap back inside. Mike works over the tackle and is there to cap the fit.
The play is made by the backside DE. Since there is a boundary reduction (Dog) he is already working the same way as the Guard’s pull. His movement assists him in seeing the block-back by the Center and he works over top. This movement is crucial to the play’s success and many times it is hard for the center to block back that far. The DE, who is more athletic than the Center, easily crosses face and makes the play. Looking at the diagram below you can see how many unblocked hats are around the ball carrier. Had the RB tried to bounce the play, the Apache was sitting outside, and initially, the Will had leverage.
To the two-speed side, the Apache is actually in an outside alignment. This type of alignment allows the Ni to leverage any out cut while funneling verticals to the FS. This Bracket alignment is something used when the Slot is a major threat. The Mountaineers don’t lock the Apache on #2 (MEG) like many do in Bracket, rather let him wall the outside and then work back into the box (cross-face). To the TE’s side, the FS is playing Switch and sinks into the box.
App. State gives a great formula on how to be simple, fast, and efficient when defending Y-off Spread offenses. The Mountaineers have built a foundation of success on what is referred to as the “East Coast 3-4.” App. State has proven that you can win while playing “small ball” up front. What I enjoy about this scheme is that it actually translates to the lower levels of football where D-linemen are a premium and most of the players are ‘tweener hybrids.
Post-snap movement, Quarters, and solid a structural set-up allow the Mountaineers to give offenses problems. My dad used to tell me as a kid that alignment was 80% of the game. I truly believe that and App. State proves that. They may not have the better players, but they are smart in their alignments. Schematically they have several simple ways to manipulate coverages to give them answers. The scheme is uncomplicated and that lets the players play fast. With hybrids, isn’t that what you want them to do? By using speed to their advantage the Mountaineers have created a legacy of great defense.
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