Film Study: Auburn luring Muschamp puts entire country on notice
As a former defensive player, and now a writer based on the Southeastern Conference, my favorite game in recent memory was a 7-3 spellbinding-thriller of a game between Auburn University and Louisiana State University in the 2006-07 season.
This game featured two of the very best young defensive minds in the game, Bo Pelini (LSU) and Will Muschamp (Auburn), who have since grown to be two of the most coveted coaches in the business.
The former’s reputation was established during stints with the University of Oklahoma and the University of Nebraska; he was on a fast track to becoming a head coach — which came to fruition a couple of years later with the Cornhuskers — while the latter was trying to form his own identity outside of the lengthy shadows cast by the legendary Nick Saban (for whom he served under the previous six seasons, ironically at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins).
LSU was stacked on offense and defense: JaMarcus Russell (quarterback), Alley Broussard (RB), Justin Vincent (RB), Keiland Williams (RB), Dwayne Bowe (wide receiver), Early Doucet (WR), Brandon LaFell (WR), Buster Davis (WR), Glenn Dorsey (defensive lineman), Marlon Favorite (DL), Ricky Jean-Francois (DL), Perry Riley, Jr. (Linebacker), Laron Landry (safety) and Craig Steltz (S).
While Auburn didn’t have much to offer on offense (outside of RBs Kenny Irons and Ben Tate), it, too, was stacked on defense: Sen’Derrick Marks (DL), Quentin Groves (DL), Pat Sims (DL), Marquies Gunn (DL), Will Herring (LB), Tray Blackmon (LB), David Irons (Cornerback), Jonathan Wilhite (CB), Pat Lee (CB), Jerraud Powers (CB) and Walter McFadden (CB) immediately come to mind.
Both LSU and Auburn were masterful against the run, giving up 1.8 and 1.9 yards per carry, respectively. And while LSU managed 267 yards through the air, it was the constrictive nature of Muschamp’s defense in the “money zone” that stood out, above all else (bend-but-don’t-break defense).
Holding that LSU offense to a single field goal was, truth be told, when Muschamp officially arrived as a force to be reckoned with as a defensive mind in this great game.
Now Muschamp finds himself right back at the place where he established his how own identity, after being fired from his first head coaching tenure with the University of Florida, and he has a prime chance to erase that stench behind a program that is every bit as talented as it was when he was previously there.
However, Muschamp is now provided with his offensive equal in head coach Gus Malzahn and a defense that is filled with talent at key positions.
This was a huge hire, folks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am partial to anything or anyone who comes from the Saban/Bill Belichick (New England Patriots fame) coaching tree. Being as though I have a defensive back background, I followed their entire careers as they are, in my mind, the two best coaches for the position.
Nobody teaches technique like the pair, and the multiple schemes they’ve run are absolutely perfect for developing complete corners and safeties — which coincides with Muschamp playing safety at the University of Georgia in the early 90’s.
Muschamp, for all the flak he’s taken, has proven to be Saban’s best pupil as he, too, has developed defensive backs at a high clip since breaking away from Saban. Former Alabama defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt, now the DC at Georgia, may one day join Muschamp as Saban’s best pupil, but Muschamp is currently in a league of his own.
While Saban is now known for running an odd-front defense, Muschamp’s scheme is a 4-3-based outfit (with plenty of odd-front elements) like Saban ran at LSU. While running a 3-4 allows for Saban to bring pressure from a plethora of spots, Muschamp’s 4-3 allows for some serious gap control and organic pressure due to the four down linemen.
Versatility is the key to a Muschamp-led defense as he cross-pollinates his front seven players to oscillate between odd- and even-front principles. Interior linemen have to be able to play anywhere from a 0- to a 5-technique alignment, while edge-players have to be able to rush from a two- or three-point stance and play in reverse as coverage duties are required in certain packages.
Current New England Patriots rookie, and former interior player for Florida, Dominique Easley most exemplified this theory under Muschamp. He could literally play the nose or a “Wide 9” end.
The primary position on the defense is a hybrid edge-player called a “Buck.” Future NFL star Dante Fowler played this position as well as Muschamp could’ve imagined the past couple of season; his ability to rush, drop in zone and play a plethora of positions tied the entire defense together.
The off-the-ball linebackers have to be adept in man or zone and must display some semblance of a pass rush.
The same can be said for the cornerback position. While Muschamp’s scheme is known for creating some of the best press-man corners, if they aren’t able to function in a Cover 2 look they will struggle in the scheme.
The safeties are interchangeable in this scheme so denoting either a strong or free safety is really not a necessity. This position is asked to be a slot corner, an in-the-box safety or a single-high defender.
Vernon Hargreaves III is the most talented corner Muschamp has been in possession of, while safety Jaylen Watkins is the most notable player at safety.
Here we see how Muschamp’s base defense might look, theoretically, as most of the time teams are in subpackages.
Here’s another subpackage look from Muschamp with the “Buck” in a four-point stance at a 6-technique. If necessary, the Sam would travel with the “Y” in this look, but this is an overload look from the offense.
Here’s how an odd-front alignment will look in Muschamp’s scheme; notice the mix of one- and two-gap techniques.
Muschamp’s first order of business is to stop the run; he preaches stick-and-wrap tackling and schemes up his line to play the run equally as intense as it plays the pass. When Muschamp is in possession of the type of defensive backs he seeks, the whole operation is tied together.
You won’t see a ton of manufactured pressure from his defense, just solid fundamentals and aggressive play up front; Auburn’s current roster may be just what the doctor ordered for Muschamp.
Coming off of former DC Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 based operation, Muschamp is already provided with the type of players needed to run his scheme. Had Auburn been an odd-front team, equipped with conventional players for that scheme, Muschamp may have needed a season or two to recruit one-gap penetrating linemen and run-and-chase linebackers.
Rising junior Montravius Adams has a chance to be a superstar in Muschamp’s scheme. At 6’4″, 306 pounds, he has the type of athleticism to play all over the line. He has unique off-the-snap quickness and is as physical as it gets.
Case in point: Adams converts speed to power while navigating this double on the way to a backfield stop. Ends Gimel President (6’4″, 259 lbs) and DaVonte Lambert (6’2″, 293 lbs) are solid players in their own right — expect the latter to see some time on the interior to take advantage of his size.
I expect to see the 6’2″, 251-pound Carl Lawson at the “Buck” position. A knee injury caused him to lose his sophomore season after he lived up to the hype proceeding his arrival as a freshman. He’s a ferocious pass-rusher with the prerequisite athleticism for the position; Muschamp’s scheme will create favorable matchups for him.
Off-the-ball linebackers Kris Frost (6’2″, 234 lbs) and Cassanova McKinzy (6’3″, 249 lbs) will excel at shooting gaps and chasing down ball-carriers in this scheme.
But it’s the secondary that has been a source of frustration for the Auburn faithful. But as I previously stated, Muschamp is the very best DB coach not named Saban so expect immediate improvement from this unit.
Corner Jonathan Jones (5’10”, 182 lbs) is a talented playmaker who had a surprising year with six interceptions. Muschamp likes bigger, physical corners, but there’s no substitute for creating turnovers so expect Muschamp to build off his success.
With Jonathan Mincy graduating, the other corner spot is up for grabs. Sophomore T.J. Davis may have the inside track but don’t be surprised if someone from the JUCO ranks comes in to compete.
The safety spot may end up being the deepest; Jonathan Ford, Josh Holsey and Derrick Moncrief are all talented players, however it may be Georgia transfer Tray Matthews that makes the biggest impact; he can play in a two-deep scheme, something Auburn fans will see a ton of under Muschamp, or as a Cover 1 safety.
This may be the most unique job Muschamp has taken as Auburn’s offense can undoubtedly carry the program.
It will have the best quarterback in the conference in Jeremy Johnson, which may circumvent the potential loss of a couple of NFL-caliber receivers, and the run game will be as potent as ever behind the stylings of incoming recruit Jovon Robinson as well as sophomores Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas.
Muschamp doesn’t need to field a top-10 defense as he’s done the majority of his career. But with the way he recruits, and the fervor surrounding this great program, he will eventually.
Just when you thought it was safe to play Auburn…