You Can’t Always Get …

College Football Recruiting
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

by Bob Epling, The Campus Game

“You can’t always get what you want …
but if you try sometimes, you just might find …
You get what you need …”

(The Rolling Stones 1969)

Just like Mick and the boys from Britain sang, you best believe coaches are trying real hard to get what they need right now.

Yes, it’s recruiting season.

With a week remaining until NSD (National Signing Day) coaches are still trying hard to land the talent, while fans wander the web to find out the latest leanings and rumors.

But, do fans truly understand what their teams actually need?

Welcome back to The Campus Game, where you’ll always find just what you need to keep up with the great American game – college football.

This week, instead of looking at recruiting from the perspective of a fan’s “wants” … let’s analyze from a coach’s needs.

Defense: Know Your School’s Alignment

4-3 or 3-4?

You probably read frequently about whether a team will use a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme or alignment. My two favorite teams (Georgia and Notre Dame) both just made the switch from the former to the latter. With Alabama coach Nick Saban ascendant on the college scene (Saban is college football’s foremost proponent of the “3-4”), expect even more squads to play copycat.

So what do those numbers mean?

Simply put, they refer to the number of defensive players near the ball before each snap, and to how those players are aligned.

Originally called the “50 defense” or “Oklahoma 50,” the 3-4 scheme calls for three defensive linemen to play “down” (meaning with their hands literally on the ground). The one in the middle (nearest the center) is the nose tackle, the other two (lined up on the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles) are called ends.

The other four players in the 3-4 are now commonly called linebackers: two outside linebackers (OLB) and two inside linebackers. The inside backers are often labeled “Sam” (for strong side – usually lining up closer to the tight end side) and “Will” (for weak side – usually away from the tight end); they line up on the outside shoulders of the offensive guards but a few yards away from the line of scrimmage. The OLBs line up close to the line of scrimmage, on the outside shoulders of the last men on the offensive line. These outside linebackers can either penetrate, hold their ground, or drop into pass coverage. All four linebackers line up in a “two-point” stance – meaning they are standing.

The 4-3 originated as a variation of the 3-4 or old Oklahoma 50.

In this alignment, there are four “down” linemen. Two defensive tackles line up on the outside shoulders of the opposing offensive guards. Two defensive ends line up on the outside shoulders of the last men on the offensive line.

Backing them up are three linebackers. The Sam and Will designations explained above still hold; between those two comes the “Mike” (or middle linebacker).

The defensive backfield typically consists of two cornerbacks (playing nearer the sidelines of the field) and two safeties (playing nearer the middle of the field).

Before we leave alignments, realize all teams shift personnel to take into account opposing attacks (for example removing one or two of the front seven and replacing them with extra defensive backs). With the proliferation of the spread offense, some teams (most notably Florida) make their base defense include five defensive backs (the Gators regularly use a 4-2-5 alignment).

How Does Alignment Affect Recruiting?

Let’s focus solely on the defensive fronts. Given that all defenses would love big, strong, fast players at every position, as a fan you should be aware of your squad’s specific personnel needs.

Those personnel needs are different for the 3-4 and the 4-3.

In the 3-4, three positions require a lot of girth: the nose tackle and the two defensive ends. Ideally, your team lands a huge, mobile “two-gap” nose tackle like Bama’s Terrence Cody. The two-gap tag means that your nose tackle can occupy two gaps … the space between offensive linemen. Cody could occupy the gaps on either side of the center, forcing offenses to allot two men to block him.

If you cannot find a two-gap guy, then your team might have to rely on a smaller (relatively speaking) one-gap nose tackle. Using this style, the nose would shoot gaps and try to penetrate into the opposing backfield on nearly every snap. New Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham does a great job explaining how undersized Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys makes all-pro as a one-gap nose tackle.

The defensive ends also need to be jumbo sized in the 3-4. Most of the pass rush in this alignment will come from blitzing outside linebackers, so you want your team to have ends in the 3-4 that can clog up the opposing run game. By the way – for the old-timers and traditionalists out there (including me) – to us, the modern “end” in a 3-4 is what we’d call a tackle in “50” terminology.

On to the 4-3. Your team better be able to recruit even more size up front.

Your squad will have two huge tackles lined up inside, and two more large (and agile) defensive ends that must be able to rush the passer and fend off run blockers. My beloved Fighting Irish have had much trouble recruiting defensive linemen for many years … moving to a 3-4 puts less a premium on recruiting these highly coveted athletes because you only need three instead of four.

While I actually prefer the 4-3 alignment (and almost all coaches who can get the athletes to run it would use it), the 3-4 is probably more unpredictable.

One of the two outside linebackers is going to be rushing the passer on virtually every play – so in both schemes you have a minimum of four pass rushers. The difference is that in the 3-4, offenses cannot be sure which OLB will be charging the quarterback.

So … What Does Your Team Need?

When your team inks its new recruiting class next Wednesday, you should really be able to analyze the defensive front haul based on your team’s needs (rather than your wants). Those needs are based on the alignments we just addressed.

Here are some points of analysis to measure whether your school had a successful recruiting season:

In the 3-4 …

Did you seek one-gap or two-gap nose tackles? If you land a big guy or two (300+ lbs. or so) you might have the coveted two-gapper. If your nose guys are all in the 280-300 lb. range, expect your defensive coordinator to be shooting the gaps.

Did you land at least two more big defensive linemen to fill the run-stopping requirements of those defensive end positions?

Look closely at players labeled linebackers. Did you get at least two or three rather tall (6’4 to 6’6), rangy athletes quick enough to rush the passer, strong enough to take on run-blockers, and agile enough to drop into pass coverage? If so, those are your outside linebackers.

In the 4-3 …

Where’s the beef?

Your squad better stock up on plenty of big bodies. Depending on your returning roster, every recruiting class usually needs at least two big monsters (300+ lbs. – height is not paramount) to man the tackle positions, and probably four big athletes (at least 6’2 and between 260-280 lb. range) to handle the tough defensive end slots.

Did you sign good size and numbers at linebacker and in the secondary?

Doing so fills two needs. Obviously, you need three LBs and four defensive backs on the field in your base defense. So, numbers are important.

The other benefit is that these guys often grow into another position. Miami in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s made a living by turning secondary recruits into smallish, fast linebackers (think Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma), and linebacker recruits into smallish, fast defensive linemen (think Cortez Kennedy and Warren Sapp).

You Just Might Find

College football fans celebrate National Signing Day next week as one contest when there are no losers. Every team will sign a whole bunch of good players.

Some of you will be disappointed because your team didn’t get everything you wanted.

But, if you try real hard (and analyze), you just might find … you get what you need. Oh yeah.

See you at kickoff!

College Football Warm Fire League

The Warm Fire League

Welcome back to The Campus Game and our first 2010 college football “Warm Fire League” discussion.

Sports fans recognize the warm fire term as a takeoff on the old baseball tradition of “hot stove” leagues. Not official leagues, the phrase simply refers to fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter to talk about their favorite teams, seasons past, and upcoming pennant races.

In the spirit of the hot stoves, The Campus Game gives you college football’s warm fire league. Strike the kindling, grab a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage, and settle back in your most comfortable chair. Let the warm fire discussions begin.

The Tide Rolls Again in 10?

Expect Alabama to start the 2010 season as an overwhelming choice to repeat as national champions – much like Florida the season just past.

Bama returns most of the offensive weapons that carried the program to its first title since 1992, including tailback/Heisman winner Mark Ingram and his talented backup Trent Richardson, savvy and unbeaten starting quarterback Greg McElroy, talented future NFL receiver Julio Jones, and most of the offensive line.

The other side of the ball is not so pretty. The Tide loses nearly its entire defensive front seven, including stalwart LB Rolando McClain and huge nose tackle Terrence Cody. The loss of starting cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas damages the secondary.

Finally, do not underestimate the loss of PK Leigh Tiffin, who grew into one of the country’s best during his four years.

Still, any team that has recruited like Alabama the past three seasons … and that has the driven Nick Saban on the sideline … will be a force.

Who Can Stem the Tide?

Many of the usual suspects should be in the hunt in 2010.

Ohio State seems likely to start the season at #2. The Buckeyes beat a good Oregon team in the Rose Bowl, recruit as well as anyone outside USC, Texas, and the SEC teams, and have a multi-threat quarterback in big Terrelle Pryor. The schedule is also conducive to a title run with one tough, high-profile non-conference team (Miami) visiting the Horseshoe on September 11th. In conference, a Nov. 20 trip to Iowa should determine the Big Ten crown.

Virginia Tech looked good in the Chick-fil-Bowl, returns a terrific offensive tandem in QB Tyrod Taylor and RB Ryan Williams, and the Hokies always play solid defense and special teams. Frank Beamer’s boys also have a nice inter-sectional matchup with Boise State at Fed Ex Field in D.C. on October 2nd.

The Broncos will get a lot of early publicity too. They lose only one starter (and just four seniors total) from a team that’s 25-1 the past two seasons. BSU should be riding an 18-game winning streak when they play the Hokies. Couple that game with another non-conference contest against Oregon State of the PAC-10 and Boise could be poised to play for a title.

The Iowa Hawkeyes are potentially another challenger from Big Ten country. Iowa beat Georgia Tech pretty handily in the Orange Bowl, their defense returns nearly intact, and QB Ricky Stanzi is a heady player.

Others that could be in the mix are Texas (freshman Garrett Gilbert showed toughness in the BCS title game), Oregon (the Ducks return all eleven starters from their explosive offense), and Oklahoma (the Sooners took their licks last year but may grow up in 2010).

What about the SEC?

Of course, the biggest challengers to Alabama may well come from the Southeastern Conference.

SEC teams have won the past four national titles, and next year may be no different – even if Bama doesn’t go back-to-back.

The West division will be absolutely brutal.

Arkansas may pose the biggest threat to the Tide. Bobby Petrino can X and O with anybody, the Hogs return big Ryan Mallett at QB, and Bama must travel to Fayetteville.

Auburn is having a great recruiting run after winning a thrilling Outback Bowl over Northwestern. The Tigers played the Tide tougher than anyone in 2009.

LSU features a deep, talented roster, but must get some consistency on offense to be a real contender.

Ole Miss comes off a second consecutive Cotton Bowl victory, and Houston Nutt has stockpiled a nice roster of talent. Losing QB Jevan Snead to the NFL hurts.

Mississippi State showed toughness in Dan Mullen’s first season, and the Bullies should continue to get better.

In the East, Florida faces the uncertainty of having a head coach in limbo and the loss of the greatest Gator ever – Tim Tebow. Still, UF has to be the favorite in a division that otherwise should be wide open.

Georgia has exceptional young offensive play-makers, but the Dogs are hampered by having absolutely no experience at quarterback.

South Carolina returns a lot of starters, but did not show up in the bowl game. A perennial tease, the toughness of the Gamecocks has to be questioned.

Tennessee is still reeling from the ugly departure of coach Lane Kiffin. I like Derek Dooley, but he has his work cut out next season.

Vanderbilt and Kentucky don’t figure to win the division, although the Wildcats have run off four consecutive bowl seasons.

Until Next Time

OK- that should be enough fat to chew.

One commercial announcement … I’ll again write the Southeastern Conference preview for The Kickoff preseason magazine. Last year was the first time the venerable Chattanooga-based publication published a preseason annual, and it turned out nicely. Look for it on newstands in early summer or click on the publication link above to make an order.

Well, the last embers are flickering, so we better throw another log on that warm fire.

Until next time – see you at kickoff!

Dooley’s Vols?

As the Tennessee football program staggers from the sudden and untimely departure of Lane Kiffin … as coach after coach seems to turn down Volunteer overtures … as the UT fan base frets over a wrecked recruiting class … here is some unsolicited advice.

Hire Derek Dooley.

Welcome back to The Campus Game and let me start by saying I do have a dog in this fight. Actually two or three.

As a teacher and coach fresh out of the University of Georgia, I worked at Clarke Central High School in Athens for a few years. There we had a young, undersized tight end with a pretty famous dad that worked a mile or two down the road.

While I never coached Dooley’s position and did not know him too well, he was a consumate student and player on a championship high school program. Smart but not overbearing. Confident but not cocky. Respectful but not obsequious.

Dooley went to the University of Virginia, played under George Welsh, and later earned a law degree. Once the coaching bug bit, he eventually hooked up with Nick Saban at LSU and then the Miami Dolphins.

At Louisiana Tech the past few years, Dooley has been the only D-I head football coach also serving as Athletic Director (at least to my knowledge).

Young, telegenic, and personable, Dooley fits the mold of a rising young head coach … much like Lane Kiffin without all the arrogance and baggage.

The Vols should snag him now.

Making Me Dizzy

You’re making me dizzy … my head is spinning!
Tommy Roe – Dizzy

That old tune from Atlantan Tommy Roe tells of a boy getting dizzy after being kissed by a pretty girl … no confirmation on whether the young lady was one of Lane Kiffin’s Orange Pride escorts.

Welcome back to The Campus Game where the annual college football coaching carousel is making me dizzy.

Lil Lane

“Lil Lane” Kiffin (as he’s known at The Campus Game) bolted the mountains of east Tennessee for the hills of Hollywood yesterday leaving a greasy trail across Rocky Top that will take a while to scrub clean.

I can understand why Lil Lane would take the job.

He’ll probably make quite a bit more money. The PAC-10 should be much easier to conquer than the ascendant SEC. He’s a West Coast guy and his silly “street cred” ploys play much more easily on Sunset Strip than Cumberland Strip.

Yes, he’s a shady guy with little to no scruples (kind of like Bobby Petrino only without the brains), and he’s leaving the Volunteers in a recruiting lurch … but I can understand why Lil Lane took the Trojan job.

I cannot understand why USC offered him the job.

On the field, the best one can say is that the jury is still out on Lil Lane (but it’s getting mighty close to a verdict). He was part of the golden age of Trojan football under Pete Carroll, but by most accounts played only a modest role at best. He had a disastrous stint as head coach of the Oakland Raiders (when Al Davis comes out of a spat looking better than you – well that’s ugly). He produced one mediocre 7-6 season in Knoxville, winning a single game of note (over a down Georgia team). He got taken to the cleaners in the Chick-fil-A bowl.

Off the field, Kiffin was far worse.

He cheated.

At least six NCAA infractions were reported by the Vols in Lil Lane’s fourteen month tenure (“compliance” to the Vol Athletic Department apparently meant taking bullets for boy blunder … bullets and Lane Kiffin football players is not such a stretch either).

He lied.

Lil Lane claimed Urban Meyer broke rules – false. He spewed nonsense that all his missteps were part of some grand design to keep Tennessee football in the limelight – false. Spend ten minutes listening to him at a press conference and you know Kiffin’s IQ would not allow him such scheming. Simply put, he’s not real bright. After being a college professor for sixteen years, it’s kind of easy to spot a C-minus student trying to charm and bluff his way through a course – that’s Lil Lane, only he’s bullshooting his way through a lucrative career.

He embarrassed.

Kiffin demeaned a proud program, many of his conference coaching brethren, and the citizens of at least two states (South Carolina and Florida). He recruited thugs and did not care. That whole business of using female undergraduate students in the recruting process is not unheard of certainly, but Lil Lane took it to sleazy new lows. Do you doubt Lil Lane would have run a brothel if he could have gotten away with it and landed one more five-star recruit (or that ham-handed UT AD Mike Hamilton may just have let him do so based on how he coddled Lil Lane)?

The putdowns of fellow coaches, of teenagers who would not commit to Tennessee even under the pressure of post-midnight phone calls, of high school administrators … the playing of lewd, loud music on the practice field when children were present, the shirtless screaming coaches … the insufferable sounds of chief recruiter Ed Orgeron (a somewhat endearing personality, but as much an envelope pushing, rule-bending recruiter as will be found on a college sideline) overheard on speaker phone enticing Tennessee’s committed freshmen recruits to follow the bad boys to So Cal at the same time Lil Lane was holding his team meeting … what a bunch of clowns.

I can understand why Lil Lane took the job.

I cannot understand why USC hired him.

A New Day … A New Type Athlete

The coaching carousel starts spinning crazily near the end of most every college football season, but the end of 2009 and start of 2010 may set a record for zaniness.

The strange cases of Mark Mangino, Mike Leach, and Jim Leavitt all point to a new standard for coaches in treatment of athletes.

Mangino made Kansas relevant on the gridiron for the first time since Bobby Douglass was running over and around people, even taking the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl.

Still, his chastising, sarcastic, and mildly physical style gave his administration enough ammunition (and or reason) to show him the door in Lawrence.

Mike Leach was an even stranger case.

Leach acted foolishly with his treatment of injured receiver Adam James. A coach-to-player verbal dress down is nearly an every day occurrence in many programs even at the high school level. A coach questioning a player’s injury or desire, while less common, is certainly not unusual.

However, ordering a player confined to a dark equipment shed or electrical closet for a couple of hours crosses a line from cantankerous coach to belligerent bully.

We always knew Leach was quirky or weird; the Lubbock Lockdown showed us he can be an idiot.

Still, Leach’s treatment of Adam James did not get him fired. The act simply provided the school an excuse to get rid of him.

Leach is a straight shooter, so when he says “animosity remaining from last year’s contract negotiations” is mainly to blame for his firing, he hits the nail on the head. I’d say that animosity (and saving a whole bunch of money) is about 90% of the reason he was fired.

The Jim Leavitt case at South Florida also reeked of old-style coaching methods costing a coach his job.

South Florida’s investigation found credible evidence that Leavitt grabbed a player by the throat and quickly slapped him twice (angrily but not viciously). While Leavitt denied the charges, the report (available at various sites online) provides plenty enough corroboration to make the scenario plausible.

As a former high school and college coach, I have seen plenty of instances that in the past might have been ignored or even snickered at … but in this new day would get a coach fired.

Coming Soon

Writing for Gameday Weekly several years ago, I coined the phrase “The Warm Fire League” … a takeoff on baseball’s Hot Stove League. Check back soon for Warm Fire League topics from The Campus Game.

See you at kickoff!