Southern Miss will execute a version of the 4-2-5 defense in its attempt to slow Benny Snell and prevent Stephen Johnson from connecting on the Wildcats’ most threatening pass play which is the deep post route. Let’s review how defensive schemes are numerically labelled before we take a headfirst dive into X-and-O Land:
- 4 is the number of down defensive linemen.
- 2 is the number of linebackers.
- 5 is the number of defensive backs. In this case; the 4-2-5 continually operates with a Nickel base set.
Southern Miss Defensive Season Review
It’s important to take a look back at USM’s defensive standings on a national scale before we can project its outlook for the September 2 opener. Last year was an abnormal statistical season for the Golden Eagles’ defense. It disproportionately failed to force turnovers but excelled against the pass and in explosive play categories (QB sacks and tackles for loss). The following are 2016 national rankings:
- Pass Defense: Surrendered just 174.9 yards per game (10th nationally)
- Rush: Allowed 149.92 ypg (46th)
- QB Sacks: 34 (28th)
- Tackles for Loss: 94 (21st)
- Turnover Margin: 125th, forced just 5 fumbles and intercepted 10 passes
UK’s 2016 Offensive Production vs. Southern Miss
Below are Kentucky’s statistical numbers from last year’s season opener:
- Scoring Offense: 35 points
- Number of Plays: 50
- First Downs: 14
- Rush: 25 carries, 96 net yards, 3.8 yards per rush
- Pass: 16/25, 303 yards
- Total: 409 yards
- Red-Zone: 2/3
- 3rd Down: 3/9
The Departed (Lost starters/key contributors from 2016) provides a look at Golden Eagle players that significantly impacted last year’s game.
– Nickel D’Nerius Antoine: 86 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 QB sack
– Nose tackle Dylan Bradley: 64 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 8.5 QB sacks
– Rover Devonta Foster: 44 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs
– Sam Linebacker Elijah Parker: 43 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 QB sacks
– Mike Linebacker CJ Perry: 26 tackles, 2.5 TFL
– Wolf Defensive End Ja’Boree Poole: 25 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7 QB sacks
– TOTAL: 288 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 19 QB sacks. Although the number of returning starters vary, it appears as if USM lost 5 from 2016 to go along with a ton of production.
Projected Starters Vs. Kentucky per the Hattiesburg American’s Jason Munz:
Bandit End: Xavier Thigpen, 6’5 240 Sr. Finished 2016 season with 12.5 TFL and 5 sacks.
Defensive Tackle: Draper Riley, 6’4 305 Sr. 3.5 TFL in five starts.
Nose Tackle: LaDarius Harris, 6’1 280 Jr. 6 starts, 30 tackles, 5 TFL.
Wolf: Paxton Schrimsher, 6’3 225 Soph. Played in 10 games made 7 tackles.
Linebacker: Sherrod Ruff, 5’10 215 Sr. 11 TFLs in 2 starts. Played in 12 games.
Linebacker: Jeremy Sangster, 6’0 233 Jr. Played in 13 games, made 7 tackles.
Cornerback: Cornell Armstrong, 5’11 180. 2nd leading returning tackler (47).
Cornerback: Curtis Mikell, 5’8 170 Sr. Started 4 games, produced 2 INTs.
Safety: Tarvarius Moore, 6’2 190 Sr. Picked off 2 passes in 2016.
Safety: Demetrius Market, 5’8 168 Soph. Played in 12 games as true freshman.
Nickel: Picasso Nelson, 5’10 195. Leading returning tackler (48)
Slowing Kentucky’s Run Game
USM’s 4-2-5 defense has the capability to stack the box and run blitz its linebackers while relying upon immediate edge support from both the Nickel and or safety. Adjoined by four defensive linemen shooting predetermined line-of-scrimmage gaps with intent for disruption and clogging running lanes; this concept can present a serious challenge for opponents that are not fond of the physical run-game. Kentucky does not fit that description. The term “8 in the box” is also applicable above. Expect a version of this defensive philosophy to be frequently applied which will aim to force momentum stopping drives and prevent Benny Snell from establishing run game rhythm. Also expect to see a form of this scheme when Eddie Gran goes to the Wildcat formation.
UK can counter this front/coverage with an effective play action passing plan and by quick-hitting screens. A simpler mode of attack would consist of a direct run game. Stay with me here; running straight at crashing, incoming defenders may sound crazy. But, with little time for run support from the second level, a missed tackle could lead to an explosive play. Much like other attacking defensive styles, the run-blitz from the 4-2-5 can cause a high number of tackles for loss. It’s a high risk/high reward system. Long wording to say that the Cats merely can remain “status quo” and eventually a long run will pop.
The most advantageous factor that Eddie Gran will have on September 2 will be a deep and versatile offensive line. Run/pass blitz heavy defenses consume a considerable amount of energy especially during a 4:00 p.m. kickoff. It’s going to be hot. Is USM deep enough along its front seven to go toe-to-toe with the Cats in a battle of line-of-scrimmage attrition? The answer to this question will have serious W/L implications.
Stopping UK’s Post Route
Stephen Johnson completes a high percentage of attempted post routes. The post is a difficult pass to throw and even more challenging to complete. Johnson has shown the propensity for consistently converting in these explosive play connections. In the above graphic you can see that a FS (Free Safety) is solely dedicated to not allow an offensive player to beat him over the deep middle of the football field. This would be a smart move by USM to ensure that at least one safety is assigned to that sector of the field at all times. UK’s threat for the home-run throw could prevent USM from playing a number of snaps in man-to-man coverage. But, the Cats will have to prove that it can hit the long-ball.
The above example also highlights specific pass coverage responsibilities of its five defensive backs and linebackers. Cover 3 is the most simplistic look that college quarterbacks will see in a game. The “Courage Throw” against this coverage is in front of the safety and behind the linebackers. When you hear Eddie Gran describe Johnson’s needs for completing short-to-intermediate passes, this is the area of the field in which he is describing and wants to attack.
In our last graphic example below, you can see a receiver route tree. Numerical route identifications may vary but names are fundamental. A post route is as simple as it sounds. The receiver runs vertical for a specific number of yards and then angles towards the goal post in the end zone.
What in the Heck does all this mean?
Southern Miss effectively slowed the Kentucky offense in the second half of last year’s matchup after the Cats roared out of the gates on its way to a 35-10 lead. Untimely turnovers, sloppy execution, and a low number of plays as well as time of possession lamented the Cats as it limped through the third and fourth quarters before eventually falling 44-35. It’s also important to remember that RB Benny Snell and QB Stephen Johnson did not factor in last year’s contest.
Kentucky’s offensive personnel is built to handle the 4-2-5. UK has shown historical success against this scheme and saw it often against multiple opponents across 2016. USM lost impactful starters and key defensive contributors. It will be banking on energy, momentum, and tempo to counter the Wildcat’s size and power advantage. Road-game composure will be paramount. All the fall camp talk about Kentucky’s offensive experience and veteran presence will be invaluable assets. It’s close.