THSCA Football Lecture – Kirby Smart (2018)

Learn how one of the top defensive minds evolved his defense.

One great thing about being a coach in the state of Texas is “Coaching School” at the end of the summer. The Texas High School Coaches Association (THSCA) puts together a massive conference that covers everything from professional development to sport specific clinics. If you have ever been to football’s national convention held by the AFCA, then you have an idea of what this convention looks and feels like. There are regional meetings to elect representatives for leadership positions in the association as well as rule committees for each sport. The association functions as the voice of coaches across the state and works with the UIL (Texas’ athletic governing body).

The convention isn’t just about football, though it is dominated by football coaches. That shouldn’t be a shock in a state that worships the game. Most head football coaches in the state are either the athletic director for the district or coordinate the campus they are on. This means that most decisions about sports for a district or high school are centered around the head football coach. As with college football, many times you are “hired to get fired” in Texas. Every head coach in the state has a crucial role even outside of football. They basically make sure every high school runs smoothly in the athletic arena.

This year’s convention in San Antonio saw a record number of coaches from all sports. There were lectures and clinics for everything from swimming to soccer, track to football. It is one of the greatest transfers of knowledge in the state and everyone is invited. For many staffs, this is the last days of summer and many spend it as a time to come together for fellowship and plan for Fall Camp. Arkansas Head Coach Chad Morris and Georgia’s Head Coach Kirby Smart were the two main football speakers for this year’s convention. Below are my clinic notes for Coach Smart, which was one of the best I’ve been to. This will be different than my Don Brown clinic notes in the fact that I will add a little more commentary (and no PDF).

The clinic opened up on accident with the last slide of Coach Smart’s presentation, but it actually set the tone for his whole lecture. He didn’t have a GA with him or an ops guy, so it opened up at the end. I’ve been a GA when the presentation froze. It was at the Lone Star Clinic with Coach Jim Gush (now HC at Navarro JC). The clicker went dead and I ask him to check and see if the laser pointer worked on it (usually a sign if the computer froze). Needless to say, the computer crashed for a bit and I had to stand in front of about 50-60 high school coaches while Gush ripped into me. Looking back it was funny, but at the time I had to just eat it. Gush was definitely stoking the flames and making it much more embarrassing for me. He’s one of my favorite coaches and we had a great laugh about it later. So to all the GAs and QCs out there… I’ve been there, man! Enough about me, lets get to the good stuff. Below is the quote Coach Smart had used:

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” – Albert Einstein

Smart’s lecture was broken into several parts: 1) the evolution of his defensive scheme; 2) winning 3rd down; 3) TFL study (how to get more of them); and finally 4) a question and answer session. What I really enjoyed about Coach Smart was the fact he was willing to admit he needed to change. Many coaches, especially at his level, can get comfortable after a lot of success, but that breeds complacency. He had several comments on how he needed to adjust his defense to what they were seeing and encouraged everyone to go and visit people to gain new ideas and insight on their particular scheme. Don’t be a dinosaur – adapt or die!


  • TFLs = scoring goes down
  • Must respond to change and adapt to the changing landscape of football
    • This was an interesting piece because he chronicled the last ten years of SEC football from heavy 21p to now the Pro Spread they see on a weekly basis.
    • Below is a typical look in the SEC for Alabama in 2008:Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 8.43.48 PM.png
    •  Here is today (2018): Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 8.48.26 PM.png
    • Another interesting point he made was to break down the heights and weights of his defense for Saban’s 1st National Championship team in 2009.
    • His defenses from a decade ago were big inside – with 2-gap D-lineman and ILBs that could easily be DEs. They had some great players, but many would be out of place in today’s game because the Spread dominates. He compared this to his Georgia team from 2017 and the weights were down almost 10-20 lbs. for every position except CB.

Most know that Saban and his proteges base out of his Match 3 coverage Rip/Liz scheme, but Smart has discovered that you have to adjust not only the overhangs (Saban likes his outside leverage) but also how the CF safety plays (MOF). I’m assuming a lot of this change came after he went and met with current Texas DC Todd Orland when he was at Houston. This wanting to adapt came after Ohio State scored 42 points and beat Alabama in the 2015 Sugar Bowl. Tom Herman, former Houston HC and now Texas HC, was the OC for the Buckeyes at the time. Interesting stuff.

  • Smart is moving away from the DEEP middle third safety (unless D&D calls for it)
  • The “High Safety” (FS) now plays the RPO (think like a high low hole player -Quarters guys should be familiar with “robber,” and if you are in Big 12 country the 3-safety Dime).
  • The safety sits at 10 yds and is like a “High Rat” or robber player reading the QB. He will take the inside RPO to let the LBs fit run. Think of it as a funnel. The overhangs are outside leverage and funneling everything to the safety who is sitting at 10 yards reading the QB.

This is an interesting idea because it allows your ILBs to be late. Smart referred to it as similar to Tampa (think an inverted Tampa). The way I see it, it is like what the Big 12 teams are doing with their 3-safety (Dime) looks, but from a Sabanistic perspective (Rip/Liz). I love the way he adjusted the scheme to fit what he knows. It works relatively the same as what you see at Iowa St. and Texas, except the CBs don’t cut, the overhangs are already outside. The middle safety is in the same spot and doing basically the same job. This is a good point for all coaches. If you like something, adapt it to fit your needs and scheme. See Smart’s adaptation below:

01 New Rip-Liz

… and the Big 12 version:

07 Cy Di 2x2

  • You are either an ‘Over’ or an ‘Odd.‘” – Coach Smart
    • This quote aligns with what I’ve written about in my book in terms of the Over Front being the answer when basing out of a four down.
    • Smart alluded to the fact that he has two different defenses: In his 4-down package (Mint 4), they base out of an Over Front where his Ni goes to the passing strength, and in his 3-down the Ni originally would go to the field.
      • This made it problematic for his defense versus tempo. Since most teams are running with some kind of a hybrid defense, his Ni would have to wait until the last second to figure out where to go depending on if coach called a 3 or 4-down call.
      • This is where Smart said Texas’ Head Coach (formerly of Ohio State) Tom Herman called his defense the “Palms Up Defense” referring to the players having their hands in the air asking for the call because it took to long against tempo. This made Coach Smart look at how he called his defense and better establish simple rules – In 3-down, the Ni now goes to the passing strength.
    • For his base defense he prefers the 3-down versus the Spread:
      • 3-Down Ni gives you fewer bubbles (especially if you base from a Tite Front/404)
      • He likes to set the Nose to the RB because most Spread plays go opposite the RB. He teaches a “lag” technique by the Nose (start in a “zero” and work opposite the Center’s step). This allows the Nose to close the cutback in the weak “A.” When basing from a 3-down, and you set the Nose to the RB you ensure every gap is covered on the cutback and your ILBs become “free” players and can pursue the ball quicker.
      • Gives the defense a scrap attitude -spill everything inside
      • Fast guys make plays because the DL occupies the front

I’ve talked about this several times on the site and in my book. The “B” gap is a crucial area for any defense to control when facing a Spread team. Being able to change that gap and make the offense guess is important. At the end of the day, you must have option rules and be willing to change that “B” gap. Coach Smart feels that the Tite Front allows you to close both “B” gaps down, forcing teams outside where he can allow his fast athletes to run the play down. His quote was, “Don’t let the offense dictate your front.”

Because of the way he was aligning his Ni, Spread teams could force his hand and get what they wanted. He noticed a lot of teams were going FIB and dictating where the Ni was depending on his front. If Smart had his 4-down unit in, teams knew the Ni was going to the passing strength, so they played relatively normal. When he would go 3-down, the Ni would now go to the field no matter what and he was getting a heavy dose of FIB. If he tried to leave a hybrid package on the field and switch from 4 to 3-down, but teams would tempo to get him to play “Palms Up Defense” because his verbiage was too long.  This changed the way he thought about his defense: 1) he needed to cut verbiage and 2) he needed basic rules for alignment – the Ni always goes to strength.

  • The Change:
    • Smart figured he must be able to line up versus tempo
      • Eventually switched to pass strength in every package (alignment)
      • Started using one-word calls
    • He tried to devise ways to keep alignments consistent even when switching packages
    • Simulate tempo in practice
      • “Fastball” starts versus formations – this is like a pursuit drill:
        • Team aligns to a formation
        • The ball is snapped and thrown to a spot on the field
        • The team runs to the ball. The whistle is blown and they must get lined back up
        • Repeat with a different formation (x4)
        • He would add scouts and work leverage on the ball versus screens and “pop” or snag routes
    • Don’t line up and play “vanilla.”
    • Design a field/boundary and match-up defense. This allows you to give different looks and the players know where to go instantly by the call.

I feel like this was a great part of the clinic. It showed that even someone as highly touted as Kirby Smart, who comes from a Saban tree, didn’t have all the answers. He explained that even when Alabama was having tramendous success they knew they needed to change (one example was against Texas A&M). Ohio State and Auburn had exposed the vaunted Alabama defense with Spread and tempo. Smart was seeing cracks in the armor and wanted to get better. This is why elite teams are elite. Even when winning they are constantly finding ways to excel and move forward.

3rd Down Study

Here are Smarts comments on how to improve on 3rd Down, which is key to beating a Spread team:

  • 2-man is a great 7-on-7 coverage, but not if the QB can run. NFL teams can get away with it because no one runs the QB – at least not consistently (prolong careers)
  • When he runs 2-man he like what he calls Odd Mirror 5 (2-man with a QB spy).
    • The LB who is opposite the RB will take the QB.
    • You have to create Bluffs and Baits for it to work (change who has RB and QB)
  • Multiplicity and the ability to do more than one thing
  • Sic’em 5 is the 4-down version of Odd 5.
    • DT’s are in 3s and are the take the QB if he comes their way (some refer to this as “jetted”)
    • LB has RB and DEs have two-way goes. This works because the DTs have the QB and it creates natural twists if the DE can beat the OT inside (contain)
  • Don’t be predictable on 3rd – Coach Smart noticed they always brought a 5 or 6-man pressure. Teams knew it and knew where to throw the ball
  • Solutions:
    • Simulated pressure – illusion of blitzes with a 4-man rush (Baits/Bluffs)
    • 1 Rat or Cover 1 with a low hole robber (for crossers and snags) with a Bluff to get the offense thinking blitz (RB determines the Rat for the ILBs). If the RB steps to you, you cover. If away, you drop to be the Rat. You can do this with even against protection:
      • Simulate a double “A” gap blitz
      • Whoever the Center steps too = drop as Rat (cut crossers)
      • Other LB blitzes of the Center’s backside (see below)

02 A Bluff 1 Rat

  • On 1st and 2nd Down you should be running your “meat and potatoes
    • Gameplan for 3rd Down should be different and attack what the offense does
    • If you are spending to much time on your base you aren’t being efficient
    • Early downs are where you get tempo, so you have to be simpler (base), but on 3rd down many teams won’t tempo. This gives you time to set up a call. Plan accordingly!

TFL Study

  • Tackles for loss (TFLs) are the #1 indicator for stopping an offense
  • 1 TFL during a series = 80% likely you killed the drive
  • Can’t sit back and “just play Quarters

I’ve argued this on many occasions. Yes, I am a “Quarters guy,” but you have to use it’s adaptability to your advantage, much like Georgia doesn’t do “just one thing” on every down. Just like Coach Smart alluded to if you just sit static when the ball is snapped you are going to get pounded because the offense now knows what you are going to do – every time! This even goes for the blitz-centric guys! If you do the same thing you are going to get burned… period. Like Smart does at Georgia, you have to use line movements, stunts, pressures, and coverage adjustments post-snap to make the offense work. I don’t think Coach Smart was bashing Quarters, but you can’t just “sit in it.” Even when basing out of a Quarters look, you have to find ways to make it look different pre-snap and adjust your scheme to fit what you are seeing.

Coach Smart broke it down into several factors on how to get TFLs:

#1 – 3 Deep/2 Under pressures (think Narduzzi/Dantonio)

  • Gives overlaps in the run game because you are inserting the extra man
  • Run “eyes” coverage behind – everyone is reading the QB, especially the overhangs
  • Extra pressure = bad throws. Coach Smart explained that at first, he wasn’t comfortable in doing it because he didn’t have the numbers, but when he used his new pressures and added the extra guy, he was getting batted balls, bad throws, INTs, and sacks.
  • CBs sink like in regular Cover 3, but they can change it up and play man on #1 (always look like man – bail in Cover 3)
  • Centerfield safety plays like he does in Rip/Liz (is now a high middle hole player reading the QB and patrolling the MOF). The technique is a light shuffle out and reading the QB’s eyes. Cannot get too deep.
  • Cannot live in it or make it the only thing you do or you will get exposed – remember, you don’t have the numbers in coverage.

If interested in the scheme I wrote an article on the topic – Building a Better Zone Blitz

#2 – Stunt the “B” gap (diagram below).

03 Antlers 3 Match

I wrote about the open “B” gap principle in my article on defending the Spread Option. At the end of the day, you have to know your option rules and dictate the open “B” – 5 Tips for Defending Spread Option Teams.

#3 – Mesh charge the RB

  • Don’t always “surf” or shuffle down the line on every play
  • The aggressiveness by the DE will freeze the QB. The aiming point is the mesh and not one of the backs. This leads to confusion – QB doesn’t know who the DE has.
  • Can’t do it all the time, but you need a “charge” call (this is similar to the “Up” or “Hold” calls I’ve talked about to deter or change the read for the QB when running BAsh and Power Read)

#4 – 2-Trap calls to take away the RPO

  • 2 guys off the edge
  • Keeps your option rules – 1 man for Dive, the other for the QB
  • Trapping CB takes the RPO (think of it as a bait, only the offense will find a CB hitting the screen as the ball gets there)
  • Like the 3 over/2 under pressure, you can’t live in it. Use it wisely.

Below is an example of a 4-down Trap 2 blitz pressure. The Sam would have the Dive and the safety would have the QB on Zone Read. The pressure is meant to look like a Match 3 coverage or simple zone pressure. Post-snap, the DS will work on top of the field receivers.

18 Freedom Trap 2

#5 – Stem the front

  • Creates false starts – make the OL think right before the snap of the ball
  • He counts a false start penalty as if it was a TFL
  • You have to practice this! This is a big tactic used in HS and Smart mentioned that. He said it still applies at all levels of the game – make the offense adjust.

1st and 2nd Down Pressures


  • Don’t get complacent – find ways to improve every year and go talk to the people that are doing it well (Smart went and talked with Todd Orlando – Texas was a top 10 defense last year)
  • Add a wrinkle each offseason
  • Evolve and change – you shouldn’t be the same year to year (refine your skills)
  • Finally, back to the original quote:

Measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” – Einstein


I really enjoyed listening to Coach Smart. There is a reason why he has been successful at Georgia as a head coach. Much of what he is doing on defense aligns with what a lot of the top Spread stoppers (if that even exists!) are doing. The future is in hybrid defenses that can be 3 r 4-down depending on what they need (10 per. heavy = 3/20 pers. or 11 pers. offenses = 4-down). One thing is clear, speed kills and is a priority when stopping the spread. Even if a kid is undersized, if he can run and tackle, he can help you stop the Spread.

I still believe you can play a 4-2-5 and be successful (TCU does it every year). If you look at what Coach Smart is doing by sending four or five on nearly every down (like most 3-down teams), you are ending up running fronts that are similar to a 4-down and act like it too. If you look at what Saban, Smart, and other top coordinators are doing across the country to stop the Spread, you won’t see static Quarters. This is why some are attacking Narduzzi at Pitt saying that his brand of defense is dying. That being said, this is not the type of defense I discuss or are a proponent of on the site.

Smart hit it on the head though, you can’t stay static. A defense has to be multiple and force the offense to guess. In order to win the run game, you have to defend the open “B” gap and change it by moving the front. A defense has to be smart with its pressure and multiple, all without being too complicated. As Smart proved, this can be possible. Georgia will interchange from 3 to 4-down and back again, but one thing stays true – SPEED. The Nickel defense isn’t going anywhere, and the future of defense is NOW. Even the Tite Front that is popular is nothing new. It is a modified Double Eagle or in 4-down teams – the Under Front. The image below is the same Tite Front from a 4-2-5’s perspective:


Below is another way to get the same look by running a “heavy” technique by the weak 5 technique. Notice the “tite” or “heavy” 5 tech.’s responsibility. If the offensive tackle steps out to him (base block) he will rip into the “B” gap and close it. Everyone else fits the gap. This allows the overhang to stay in his cover down and fit late, reading the DE to mesh.


The 4-2-5 isn’t dead, in fact, the further we go down the rabbit hole, the less you will see “base” fronts. Most people now have a hybrid DE, even if they are a 4-2-5. Even TCU, maybe the most notorious 4-2-5 team in the country, sometimes looks like 2-4-5 with two wide-5s and will carry a 3-down Dime package – everyone does. The Spread is about space and angles. Even Rip/Liz needs to be tweaked (which was interesting to hear)! I think it is important to understand that at the end of the day it is about overhangs and being able to set the edge and control the “B” gap.

Finally, regardless of what you run, run it well and make it simple enough to put your players in a position to be successful. Don’t run “Palms Up Coverage!” It was refreshing to hear an elite coach admit he needed to find answers and even gave credit to Todd Orland for helping (see the Tite Front and middle safety correlation?). No one is perfect, and none of us have all the answers. So take it from Smart – find a way to get better, to adapt, and grow. To all the coaches, good luck this season, get better, and fight until the end! Don’t be a dinosaur.


If you are looking for more ways to stop the Spread or looking for something specific, make sure to check out MQ’s Links page – Click HERE.


© 2018 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

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Author: MatchQuarters


10 thoughts on “THSCA Football Lecture – Kirby Smart (2018)”

  1. “This is why some are attacking Narduzzi at Pitt saying that his brand of defense is dying.” Do you think Narduzzi’s brand of D is dying? We run it as our base and are looking for incremental ways to adjust without blowing up the whole thing. Suggestions would be great!

    “That being said, this is not the type of defense I discuss or are a proponent of on the site.” Do you mean the Narduzzi type D?

    Thanks, Coach!

    1. Narduzzi is a true 4-3. Secondary plays basically blitz coverage. 4-2-5 means so many things now. Create a way to gain a full cover down for your Sam & make him a Ni if you are seeing a lot of Spread. You also need split adjustments & ways to get into other coverages. I Stress or Special (Stubbie) to Trips because Solo is no different than kicking the safety. You lose a man b/s if he doesn’t read it right & the offense can bait you. I don’t think it’s dead, but it can’t be the only thing you do unless you’ve got 4 studs in the secondary.

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