Florida football: Exploring Todd Grantham's defenses against mobile quarterbacks
Lane Kiffin is still officially undecided about his starting quarterback ahead of his Ole Miss debut Saturday against Florida, which has left Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham preparing to see both of the Rebels’ talented sophomores, John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral.
“We just gotta be ready to play both,” Grantham told the media this week. “I think both are good players. I think both of them can throw it, both of them can run it.”
I’ve no doubt Grantham thinks this. He’s paid to think that way and have his team prepared for every scenario. Plus, as part of Dan Mullen’s staff, Grantham was familiar with both players in the recruiting process. Mullen was the first Power 5 coach to offer Plumlee, though he recruited the speedy quarterback to play a different position.
“(Plumlee) has elite, elite speed,” Mullen told the media this week. “When we first saw him coming up, we actually were looking at him as a corner. He wasn’t starting at quarterback. He was playing (defensive back), and he could fly. We recruited and offered at (defensive back).”
As for Corral, he was a one-time 4-star committed to Florida before Mullen was hired. One of the first things that Florida’s staff did after Mullen arrived in Gainesville was visit with Corral, who ultimately visited and flipped to Ole Miss. Mullen was complimentary of Corral this week as well, not just of the Californian’s big arm, but of his ability to run and extend plays.
The ability of the Ole Miss quarterbacks to beat you with their arms and their legs will be the biggest challenge the Gators face this weekend in Oxford.
Season-openers are often sloppy affairs. This goes for offenses and defenses, but on defense, it’s not unusual to see defenses take poor angles to the football and struggle with tackling. No matter how often or hard you scrimmage, there’s just no substitute for live game speed and live tackling. It’s the hardest thing to rep as a defensive coaching staff.
Florida’s staff has doubtlessly been emphasizing this, but it’s worth remembering that the Gators missed 24 tackles– what would ultimately be a season-high– in their opener a season ago against Miami. Coupled with a host of offensive miscues, the mistakes resulted in a very close football game with the Canes, despite Florida’s better talent.
If there’s a path to an Ole Miss upset Saturday, it starts with Florida being undisciplined defensively against Corral or Plumlee.
In truth, however, it’s Plumlee who is the most frightening.
The sophomore out of Hattiesburg has 4.6 speed, making him one of the fastest players in the SEC. Forced into action after Corral left the Cal game with a rib injury, Plumlee started the final 8 games of the season. In less than a full season, Plumlee ran for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding 910 yards with his arm. His 1,933 total yards rarely included explosive plays with his arm, but he made plenty with his feet, including multiple runs of 50 yards or more against national champion LSU.
Plumlee finished the LSU game with over 200 yards rushing in a game where the Rebels piled up 37 points. After the game, Ed Orgeron lamented his defense’s inability to stay disciplined and locked in on tackling angles and containment assignments. If that happens to the Gators on Saturday, things could go south at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The good news?
Grantham’s 3-4 scheme has held up extremely well against mobile quarterbacks in his 3 years with Mullen. One wrinkle that undoubtedly helps? Grantham’s defense, instead of having all 3 down linemen tasked to read multiple gaps, only asks the nose tackle to do that. That frees up the other down linemen to do other jobs — like contain the edge or get downhill after the passer. While those linemen do that, Grantham uses a strong-side linebacker or a hybrid linebacker/safety type as a fourth player near the line of scrimmage, depending on the opponent’s strength. This is particularly useful in playing contain against mobile quarterbacks, and that defensive versatility, a strength of Grantham’s system, becomes especially valuable when facing challenges like Plumlee.
Another strength of Grantham’s scheme is his ability to disguise blitzes, something he is well-respected for in college and pro coaching ranks. Grantham cross-trains his players at various positions, which allows him to move them around plenty. This complements his use of a host of zone blitzes, which he’ll often delay and disguise, using a linebacker, late-blitzing safety or corner while dropping a fast defensive end into coverage. Other times he’ll stunt, using a linebacker to flash inside while moving a versatile down lineman to the edge to contain. This can confuse young quarterbacks, as it did here, to Bo Nix of Auburn.
Grantham calls some of these blitzes “zone replacements,” because really it is just a cross-trained rusher entering a different zone of the field to disguise and bring late pressure. But the result, for mobile quarterbacks, is often a blitz that helps contain the boundary.
On the play below — again against Nix and Auburn — the play is intended to be a jet sweep for Anthony Schwartz, one of the only players in the SEC faster than Plumlee. But the scheme would work for a quarterback run around edge, too. Marco Wilson crashes down, effectively sealing the boundary on a delayed corner blitz.
Struck me as important play on rewatch, highlights UF discipline. Auburn mixed its personnel and formation pre-snap here (not shown). Speedy Anthony Schwartz can't get anything on outside because UF defenders (Greenard, Wilson, Houston) all do jobs. Next play was Davis' pick. pic.twitter.com/CX7Y9EMZkj
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) October 6, 2019
When you have a back as good as Ole Miss does in Jerrion Ealy, who averaged 10 yards per carry in 3 of Plumlee’s 8 starts a season ago, you also can expect some type of option or zone-read action. Here, Jon Greenard wins a 1-on1 battle and Kelly Bryant of Mizzou is punished for electing not to pitch — but even if he had pitched, a late blitz from Donovan Stiner has Florida in great shape on the edge:
"Ohhh myy – Jon Greenard got in there, Bryant fakes the pitch, and Greenard just wore him like a suit!" pic.twitter.com/rpwyd0K6W7
— libgator (@lib_gator) November 17, 2019
Florida will, of course, need to contain the edge well enough to avoid being punished on broken plays too. But Florida was terrific at that against Virginia’s All-ACC performer Bryce Perkins in the Orange Bowl (14 runs, 24 yards) and limited Nix and Bryant to 18 and 19 yards rushing last season on 10 and 15 carries, respectively.
Here’s some data on just how good Grantham’s defenses have been against mobile quarterbacks over the past 3 seasons at Miss State and Florida.
In 2017, Grantham’s Miss State defense played 4 “dual-threat” quarterbacks: J’Mar Smith of Louisiana Tech, Stephen Johnson of Kentucky, Kellen Mond of Texas A&M and Jalen Hurts of Alabama. Most fans remember Hurts’ 4th-quarter heroics against a tiring Miss State defense. But aside from quarter, the Bulldogs dominated mobile quarterbacks, who ran for just 117 yards on 38 rushes and 1 touchdowns and were a paltry 41-96 (42.7%) in the air. What’s more, these “dual-threats,” including Hurts, averaged only 5.8 yards per pass attempt and threw 5 interceptions.
In 2018, Grantham’s first Florida defense lost to Terry Wilson and Kentucky, with the Wildcats’ quarterback running for 105 yards and a touchdown and throwing for 152 yards and 2 touchdowns, including this late dagger to Lynn Bowden Jr.
But aside from that fiasco, Florida did well against dual-threats. The Gators harassed and harangued Joe Burrow, limiting him to 22 yards rushing on 10 attempts and a 19-for-34, 0 touchdown and 2 interception afternoon on their way to a huge win over No. 5 LSU in The Swamp. They also bullied and bruised Miss State’s Nick Fitzgerald, limiting him to 98 yards passing on 26 throws (less than 4 yards per attempt!) and 32 yards rushing on 20 attempts. Collectively, “dual threat” quarterbacks only ran for 159 yards against Florida on 40 carries in 2018. Forced to throw, they tossed 3 interceptions and averaged only 5.8 yards per pass.
In 2019, facing Heisman Trophy winner Burrow and an All-ACC quarterback in Perkins in the Orange Bowl, Florida’s numbers in pass defense weren’t good against mobile quarterbacks. Against 4, they allowed 965 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt and a 65% completion percentage. But the Gators were marvelous in limiting damage by opposing quarterbacks on the ground — containing Nix, Bryant, Burrow and Perkins to just 104 yards on 45 attempts.
In other words, when facing mobile quarterbacks, Grantham’s defenses do one thing better than all others: take away the run as the first option and force the quarterback to throw.
Throwing wasn’t really Plumlee’s strength last season. The numbers weren’t awful: 52.4 completion percentage on 150 attempts. But the 6.06 yards per attempt was in the bottom 3rd of SEC quarterbacks, a low number considering how good the Rebels were running the football (top 10 in success rate). With a quarterback whisperer in Kiffin in charge and an offseason to get better mechanically, Plumlee should improve in this area as a sophomore. But forcing him to throw first will certainly be Florida’s plan Saturday, and the good news for Gators fans is that Grantham’s defenses are excellent at doing just that against quarterbacks that are runners first.