ACC Basketball Weekend Update: Conference Dominates in NCAA’s

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The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the books, with the ACC performing about as well as one could have anticipated. Six out of the seven conference teams that made the field of 68, won each of their first two games to advance to the Sweet 16. The six tickets punched to the Regional Semi-Finals were by far the most of any conference, further strengthening the argument that the ACC is the nation’s best college basketball league. Managing Editor Justin Cates and Assistant Editor Mike McDaniel discuss their observations of all the action so far.


Well Cates, it was definitely an eventful weekend of tournament action. This time of year never ceases to amaze me with all of the craziness that seems to ensue. If there was one over-arching thought about the opening two rounds for you, what would it be?


We all ripped on Syracuse — some more than others — but they’ve managed to carve out a Sweet Sixteen appearance with a very favorable draw. The Orange ran away from Dayton and then blasted Middle Tennesse after they pulled the upset of the tournament and beat Michigan State. Now they have a match up with 11-seed Gonzaga. What do you make of the resurgent Orange-persons?


I wrote this column last week on why I thought Syracuse deserved to be left out of the field (link), and those thoughts, as I mentioned then, had nothing to do with whether or not the Orange would go on to win any games in the tournament. While I still think they got the benefit of the doubt on Selection Sunday, there is no dispute over how well they played this weekend. Their game against Dayton was simply tremendous. The renowned match-up zone defense of Jim Boeheim’s club won the day against the Flyers, as Dayton never seemed very comfortable with the pace of the game. The lack of adjustments to the pace ultimately got the Orange swiftly into the second round, where they ended up beating the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State into submission. Jim Boeheim and his staff are proving once again that they are made for March, as they seem to be a constant in the second weekend year after year.

Outside of Syracuse, my biggest winner of the weekend has to be the Virginia Cavaliers. The ‘Hoos were able to not only stomp Hampton and control the second half tempo en route to a win over Butler to advance to the Sweet 16, but their biggest foe of the last two years, the Michigan State Spartans, were upset in the first round by previously mentioned Middle Tennessee State. The Spartans have knocked Virginia out of the bracket in each of the last two seasons, so not having to game plan for Tom Izzo’s club has to be somewhat of a reprieve for Tony Bennett’s squad. Plus, Malcolm Brogdon was simply phenomenal this weekend, continuing his strong streak of play. Through two tournament games, he is averaging 16.5 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. He has to be my MVP in the ACC this weekend.

What about you Cates? Who most impressed you through the first two games in the ACC?


The Overall dominance of the ACC has been a bit unexpected. People figured UNC and Virginia would win some games, but everyone save Pittsburgh pulled out theirs as well. The ACC will send six teams to the Sweet Sixteen and will earn a truckload of money for the effort. Tens of millions of dollars, that’s what winning gets you Mike.

I had the Cavaliers down as winning it all on my initial pass through the bracket last Sunday, but I convinced myself that they have a short bench. That hasn’t really been the case. Against Butler, Mike Tobey and Marial Shayok both came off pine to score double digits. That coupled with Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill have made UVA very tough.

Notre Dame has been solid which is nice as they were one of my Final Four picks. They needed some magic to beat Stephen F. Austin, but they’re a tough came that can shoot it. Zach Auguste is a force down low too.

Fun fact: Stephen Fuller Austin is considered the Father of Texas having led a successful settlement there in 1825. Also, the Lumberjacks hail from Nacogdoches which is one of the best named places in the country.

Who’s your favorite underdog so far Mike?


Well in my mind, the only true “underdogs” in the ACC that are left are probably Notre Dame and Syracuse. With my well-written feeling of the Orange’s initial presence in the field, I’m going to have to go with Notre Dame for this one.

The Irish are an extremely interesting team. Offensively, when they’re at their best, they can play with any team in the country. They have been ranked as a top team in offensive efficiency according to KenPom for most of the season, and have shown an ability to morph into a team that can play at any given pace on that end of the floor. Their ability to score both inside and out, as well as their athleticism on the wings and at point guard with Demetrius Jackson make Notre Dame extremely difficult to defend.

With ND, the question marks pop up on the defensive end of the floor. The Irish have struggled at times this season to get stops, but when they are at their best on defense, they are one of the few teams left in the entire tournament that can pull away from their opponent down the stretch and run good teams out of the gym. Mike Brey is a proven leader who never gets too high or too low, and has consistently gotten the most out of his rosters over his 15 years in South Bend. To be able to coach to the strength of your roster is extremely crucial at any level, and the fact that Brey has not pigeon-holed his team to play strictly to his system on both ends, but instead to play to what makes each unique group successful is what makes the Irish such an impressive bunch to watch.

To close, Cates, who is your favorite underdog and what match-up are you most looking forward to when turning your eye towards the Sweet Sixteen?


Syracuse-Gonzaga is an interesting match up. One of those teams is in the Elite Eight and that’s a bit of a surprise especially for Jim Boeheim’s club. Whoever prevails will take on the winner of Virginia-Iowa State so the path to the Final Four isn’t easy, but whoever makes it that far has a strong shot.

The basketball has been great despite the over-corporatization of the whole thing. From the ads to the cookie-cutter courts and massive payouts mentioned above, this whole tournament is some kind of beautiful, capitalist basketball hunger games.

I’ll add that somehow Oregon still feels a bit like an underdog. They’re new blood and my east coast bias leaves me less knowledgable than I should be regarding a top seed. Tyler Dorsey seems like a pretty terrific freshman based on the end of the Saint Joseph’s game. They seem incredibly athletic too in the vein of someone like Miami. Plus, they’ll wear a different uniform every game that they play. Imagine what they’ll pull out in Houston if they reach the Final Four?


I’m going to have to agree with you with the marketing of this tournament. It is such a money-maker every year and the interest with every upset only further grows the tournament and intrigue from a monetary standpoint. I think you and I share the same sentiment that the NCAA, which has proven to be quite corrupt time and time again over the years continues to find more and more creative ways to profit handsomely over their amateur athletes, and this year is no different.

As far as match-ups are concerned for the Sweet 16, I’m with you on Gonzaga and Syracuse. The Orange, who I think are definitely over-seeded as a 10, are facing off against a very gritty Gonzaga bunch who may have been one of the more egregious under-seedings in the entire field of 68. Both teams are playing an extremely high quality of basketball right now, and as with most games in this tournament, the match-up will most definitely be decided by which team best controls the pace. Syracuse will try their best to force the issue, especially defensively, where they will try to turn the Bulldogs over and get out in transition. Gonzaga loves to dump the ball into their big man Sabonis and let him go to work, so the turnover discrepancy will be paramount in deciding the winner of that game.

In an attempt to be different though, I’m really looking forward to Oregon and Duke. The Blue Devils have cruised through the opening two rounds of the tournament, thanks in large part to their core of Grayson Allen, Marshall Plumlee, and of course, Brandon Ingram, playing extremely well. Duke is getting better and better defensively and you can never count out the defending National Champs for as long as Coach K is on the end of the bench. I’m interested to see how the size of Oregon impacts Duke, as the Ducks do not have a single starter standing smaller than 6’4″. The ability for Oregon to match-up any of their three guards defensively with some of Duke’s taller wings will negate any advantage the Blue Devils may have had with Matt Jones and Brandon Ingram slashing in from beyond the arc. I find this to be a potentially lower scoring affair than most believe, because while most will want to focus on the offensive firepower of both of these teams, I firmly believe that each respective roster is playing some of their best basketball defensively of the season. It should be a great match-up of heavyweights in what could be the highest rated game of the weekend on television.

Thanks for following along with our back-and-forth. Follow me on Twitter @BestCates and follow @MikeMcDanielACC. Like Inside The ACC on Facebook and check out @InsideTheACC.

The Tao of Frank Beamer’s Special Teams

Coach Beamer interviewing with Erin Andrews. Photo by Erich Geist (


“I think the kicking game is one of the most important parts of football. I personally believe the kicking game is just as important as offense and defense. I have believed that since my college days.”

That’s a quintessential Frank Beamer quote showing just how important a place special teams hold in the coach’s heart.

Except it isn’t a Frank Beamer quote—the author is Jerry Claiborne, Beamer’s coach at Virginia Tech, a special teams guru in his own right, and a major influence on the winningest active BCS coach in the game.

I grew up in southwestern Virginia and played high school ball at a time when “Beamerball” was becoming a nationally used term. I remember coaches coming back from Hokie clinics with packaged punt rushes and techniques like practicing kick blocks with Nerf balls.

Beamer’s “secret,” though, was never about tactics or coaching techniques. VT’s tremendous special teams run of blocked kicks and returns for touchdowns was the result of Beamer’s managerial skills. He took Claiborne’s emphasis and magnified it to a degree probably not seen before in major football.

First, Beamer invested his coaching staff in the philosophy. If you watch a VT game on television, you’ll hear at some point that Beamer is the squad’s “Special Teams Coach,” and that he takes personal responsibility for the performance of his kick units. This isn’t the easiest responsibility in the world—just ask Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson how his stint with special teams went.

What you don’t hear as much is that each of Beamer’s assistants is responsible for a particular aspect of the kicking game. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster, for example, coaches the punt- and kick-blocking teams.

Even more important, though, is how he gets buy-in from the players. To give a frame of reference, most teams (at every level of play) don’t pay much attention to the kicking game, with the following habits being pretty common:

• Special teams practices are squeezed into short sessions at the end of practices, or held before or after the main practice block.
• If you have a role on a special teams unit, it likely means you don’t have what it takes to contribute to offense or defense (even at tiny high schools.)
• The kickers wander off into an empty field away from the rest of the team to kick and send text messages.
• Players run through the drills at half speed because they don’t want to be killed in the conditioning sessions that often follow.
• Film sessions ignore kicks that don’t result in points or turnovers.

Add these practices to the fact that special teams wreak havoc on the body and it’s easy to see why they don’t have much allure.

Beamer flipped this trend on its head and put Claiborne’s mantra to work. He schedules special teams work for the middle of the practice day. He often puts his best players on special teams—it’s still a common to see Tech’s best DB, receiver, or tailback returning kicks. Beamer promotes these duties as a way to playing in the NFL, where low-ranked and undrafted rookies often have to play their way from the kicking game to having a shot on offense or defense.

The placekickers also have the importance of their work elevated by a “one-kick” drill. For this drill, held often during the week, the kickers are given a single shot at making a field goal from a given spot on the field. No do-overs or excuses. The entire team stops to watch the kick, which ratchets up the tension and simulates a game day experience.

Beamer also gives out benefits and attention normally lavished on important starters. Units that spend their time running up and down the field are excused from a number of sprints and conditioning drills. After games, Beamer names both a special teams player-of-the-week as well as a “Kahuna” moniker for the special teamer with the biggest hit. During the week, all the units meet regularly and get timely feedback on their practices.

Finally, Beamer sets the same kind of clear and measurable special teams goals that offenses and defenses have been assigned since the game began. For 2011 some of those goals were:

• Average 10 yards per punt return
• Return kickoffs to at least the 28 yard line 60 percent of the time
• Block a punt, field goal or extra point, or force a bad kick at least once a game
• Gain 20 yards of comparative field position in the punting game each game

Goals like these have been met with success. Since Beamer started at Tech in 1987, his special teams have tallied 19 punt returns for TDs, 17 blocked punts for the same, nine kickoff returns for scores, four TDs from blocked kicks, and even returned a fumble for a score. Altogether, that’s 50 special teams touchdowns.

It’s true that other teams have learned from Beamer’s example, and the Hokies no longer hold the undeniable edge they once did. Opponents put better players on the field, and the shield punt has taken away VT’s aggressiveness much the same way the spread and option games have dialed back the ferocity of their defense. Looking at intangible items, it seems the Hokies now endure a counteraction to everything good they do in the special teams game. A strong return team will be balanced by weaker kickers. Odd breaks (such as Michigan’s fake field goal in the Sugar Bowl) feel tilted against the squad.

Even playing their most talented players yields mixed results. Return man Dyrell Roberts nearly saved a Hokies contest versus the Crimson Tide, though playing that same role led him to endure two nasty injuries he never seemed to recover either physically or mentally from. Conversely, a phenomenal talent like David Wilson never consistently lived up to the promise of his athleticism.

Unsurprisingly, Beamer’s reaction has been to redouble his efforts with the special teams, including using more scholarships for stars and recruiting harder for both the blue-chippers and the hidden gems who often walk on to football squads. He’s thrown several tactics at the shield punt, and he’s solidifying his kicking group. While I don’t think Tech’s special teams (or any other school for that matter) will soon reach the same  apex reached during their days in the Big East, I imagine we’ll see marked improvement over the next few seasons. And that will give opposing coaches something to worry about.

Garo’s Gaffe

To honor the 40th anniversary of the ’72 Miami Dolphins’ famous undefeated season, let’s talk about that team’s most famous (or infamous) moment: Garo’s Gaffe.

Garabed “Garo” Yepremian was the quintessential European kicker. Armenian by ethnicity, Cypriot by birth, and almost elfin in stature, the soccer-style kicker came to America with his brother, noticed the sport of gridiron football, and thought, “Hey, I can kick that thing.”  With his brother as an agent, the hopeful went about visiting NFL teams with a traveling salesman’s sense of determination.

Garo Yepremian.

The scheme worked.  The Lions picked him up, and along with the Dolphins he later played for the Saints, Bucs, and a Continental Football League squad.  He was hated by many of his opponents for being seemingly antithetical to the sport: foreign and lacking any of the brutality, athleticism, or bulk found in his teammates.  I’ll argue that in some ways, this disregard led him to becoming perhaps one of the toughest kickers in history, as teams routinely went headhunting for the 5’7″ Yepremian.  (He also served in the Army during a year-long hiatus.)

He was the league’s most-accurate kicker for several seasons, amassed over a thousand points, made two Pro Bowls, once kicked a record six field goals in a single game, and was named to the NFL’s All ’70’s team.  Not a bad career for a guy who once explained his enthusiasm over a made XP by saying “I kicked a touchdown.”  (He told this to Alex Karras, which, if you’re read my earlier piece on the Lion DT, you know was asking for the decades of jokes the comment led to.)

Yet he’s best known for a near-disaster.

The year was 1973, the scene Super Bowl VII, the stage LA Memorial Coliseum.  The undefeated Dolphins were two minutes away from blanking the Washington Redskins.  Yepremian was setting up for a 42-yard field goal that would ice the victory for Miami, while a simple miss would have given them at least a half-field of cushion and a favorable kickoff return situation.  Then everything went wrong.

Now you might say things actually went wrong before the ball was snapped. Garo’s kicks had been a little low all game.  Miami Coach Don Shula had put him on the field only because the idea of his soon-to-be 17-0 squad winning the Super Bowl by a 17-0 score had a nice ring to it.  Up by two touchdowns that late in the game (and in the ball control-minded 70’s) nearly guaranteed a win. A conservative punt might’ve been a better choice.  That said, though, punting later proved to be a risky option itself.

Getting back to the action, the ball was snapped and Garo launched into it.  Instead of clearing the line, though, the kick went straight into the back of blocker Bob Heinz’s head and bounced backwards to the Dolphins’ right side of the field.  Washington DL Bill Brundige erupted past a whiffed block and blew through the middle line in pursuit of the ball.  Yepremian, meanwhile, followed his tumbling folly to the fifty-yard line, where instead of falling on it, he made history.

“On the blocked kick, I was lucky,” he recalled.  “The ball just came into my hands. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve thrown a pass before in practice. I’ll throw it downfield.’”

The wind-up.

Yepremian never got a good grip on the ball—in the 5’7” kicker’s hands it could as well been a watermelon.  His arm moved downfield, yet the ball popped free and fluttered around his earhole, not moving forward in the slightest.  Fortunately for Yepremian, he was by default the closest player to the ball, and still capable of grabbing and falling on it.

But he didn’t.

Yepremian swatted the ball.  On film, it almost looks like a volleyball bump or someone recoiling from a snapping snake.  He says he was trying to bat it out of bounds, though he was twenty yards from the sidelines and ended up batting the ball forwards, anyways.  As it happens, he batted the errant kick/pass/flail right into the hands of Washington CB Mike Bass, a former teammate of Yepremian’s from their days in Detroit.  Bass caught the ball in stride and took it down the sideline (because he had plenty of room) and straight to the end zone for his squad’s first score of the game.

There were two minutes left and suddenly the ‘Skins were back in it.  George Allen’s subsequent deep-kickoff gambit nearly paid dividends with a blocked punt, though unlike Yepremian, this special teams attempt escaped without a turnover (or errant passes) and Miami wrapped the game shortly after.

Yepremian was worried sick over the play, to the point he was almost physically incapacitated well into the evening.  He credited an encouraging post-game letter from Don Shula for turning around his psyche and allowing him to continue with his successful career.  In true Yepremian fashion, the letter turned out to be written by the coach’s wife.  Neither Shula nor Yepremian knew until Garo thanked a confused Shula for it years later.

I don’t want to turn this into a punching bag story—Yepremian was an excellent kicker who overcame hardship and doubts, and he now runs a charity for brain tumor research.  Even his greatest humiliation was a sting only in itself, as Miami still won the game, and it took both a questionable decision to kick along with poor blocking to even put Yepremian in such a situation.  That said, it’s funny as all get out, and the good-natured kicker turned his error into a late show circuit where he amused the likes of Johnny Carson.  All’s well that ends well, right?

Feeding the Hogs

Photo by Jeffreyw.

It’s a common refrain among college coaches (particularly line coaches) that their players need to eat more.  A lot more.  A big-framed, yet gangly kid coming out of high school might’ve lived on cereal, chips, and energy drinks when he played varsity, but that won’t cut it on the big stage.  A football player needs serious calories to gain and maintain playing weight.  Put another way, tight ends don’t become OTs without a little effort.

We can get a good guess at just how many calories players need by using an updated version of the Harris-Benedict equation.  Though the original version is nearly a hundred years old, this formula is a classic (and still solid) way of estimating someone’s caloric expenditure over the course of a day.

Picture a typical college lineman, say somebody about 6’2”, 295.  If you plug these stats into the H-B equation, you find out pretty quickly that during two-a-days this lineman probably needs about 5,000 calories (well, technically “kilocalories”) a day to maintain his playing weight, with variations depending on his muscle mass and how active he is during the sessions.  That’s about twice what an average American man needs during the day.

To put the amount of food in 5,000 calories in perspective:

  • At McDonald’s, a large quarter-pounder with cheese combo tops out at 1,510 calories.
  • A large Supreme pan pizza at Pizza Hut has about 3,300 calories.
  • KFC’s Double Down sandwich has a measly 600 calories.
  • The Cheesecake Factory’s Bistro Shrimp Pasta (recently named by Men’s Health as “the worst food in America”) boasts 2,730 calories.

Put another way, a typical male would approach this expenditure during a day-long hike while bearing a loaded backpack.  So 5,000 calories is a lot of food.  How do these guys get through August without shrinking?  The short answer is that many don’t.  Staving off dehydration means keeping the gut constantly full of water (not food), and exercise-induced fatigue can dull the appetite.  And of course, constant practices make it hard to fit in meals.

The biggest tool in keeping the weight on is an American icon: the all-you-can-eat buffet.  They’re staples at colleges across the country and critical for players needing to add some pounds.  Even the power of fast-food joints and Chinese-American restaurants pale in comparison, as dining out regularly is beyond the budgets of most students.  On-campus, though, players can cram in two or three buffet trips a day and supplement with snacks as needed.

Not that mindless gorging is advisable.  A binge followed by a long fast might not actually bump a player’s calories enough to stave off lost muscle, while too much face-stuffing leads to fat, winded players who aren’t much good on the field.  Getting in enough nutrients (especially protein) is also critical, but fruits, vegetables, and lean meats fill you up without having as much caloric density as fats and carbs, so things are further complicated.  This need for intelligent balance is why nutrition coaches have become so important at the college and pro levels (more so at universities—pro players have the financial means to hire personal dietitians.)

In its own way something as mundane as keeping weight can be an impressive and even clinical undertaking. In my experience, the only athletes who manage to outdo football players at this game of calculated overconsumption are powerlifters either seeking to move up in weight class, or competing in the heaviest weight divisions.  If you’d like to learn about some of the extreme measures used in the PL culture, or take a slightly more technical look at how athletes manage their energy intake, check out my article on the subject at:


The Curious Case of Gordon Gee

A statue of OSU mascot Brutus made to resemble Gee; photo by Natalie Guinsler.

Gordon Gee was—and still is—a bona fide celebrity at Ohio State.  From his his bow ties and round glasses, to his off-the-cuff manner and comfort with crowds, Gee is an accomplished self-promoter, and has leveraged his fame to not only become a tremendous fundraiser, but to become adored by many in the Buckeye state.  For all his skill, Gee’s recent nudge from the president’s office was a self-inflicted affair reflective of a career that became known more for gaffes than achievements.

Gee is a man of competing concepts.  He abstains from alcohol as part of his faith, but he attended OSU social events (including Greek and dorm parties) regularly.  He’s an outsider from Utah (schooled in Utah and New York), who was accepted almost unabashedly as a transplanted Ohioan.  And despite the transplant, he left OSU, yet was still admired enough to be rehired.  He reignited the core Columbus campus with a spate of land buys and construction, yet traveled the state and the school’s other campuses enough to be seen as an advocate for all of Ohio.

His CV might suggest a nebbish scholar, but he’s best used in emptying donors’ pockets and aiding OSU’s—he seems most comfortable spotlit as a charismatic, driven figure , as his success in a current $2.5 billion campaign suggests. Finally his public persona is  warm and caring, yet his most controversial actions are seen by many as calculating, self-serving, even heartless.  One striking example, if true, is his ex-wife, Constance Gee.  She claims Gordon divorced her at the behest of Vanderbilt trustees, who threatened their then-president with termination if he didn’t distance himself from Constance’s publicly-exposed use of medicinal marijuana.

Gee holds the dubious honor of creating controversies of some sort at each of the five institutes he’s helmed, whether the Vanderbilt scandal, his corporate-style revamping of (and sudden departure from) Brown, allegations of sexist comments at Colorado—even his stint at WVU had a hint of the unusual, as he was bit of wunderkind having taken the post at the age of 37. The past three years brought heaps of criticism that, hard to believe, relates most to his handling of the Buckeyes’ football team—the same team that exited a cheating scandal by hiring an upgrade over their fired BCS Championship leader.

He was also a man who learned from his mistakes, only to create new ones, and sometimes come full-circle on old problems.  Most tellingly, Gee keeps a list of the one-liners and comments that’ve caused him the most trouble in public, and it’s quite a list: calling a sitting governor a “dummy,” making a Polish joke, and his “Little Sisters of the Poor” quip are some notables.  Despite having so many learning experiences, the cause of his departure has been a series of embarrassing verbal gaffes, beginning with an ill-advised quip on Jim Tressel’s importance (made during the midst of an NCAA investigation), and now concluding with jabs at Catholics and Southerners. It seemed Gee thought himself immune to recriminations for his stand-up routine, or perhaps had little self-control over his own mouth, though both are hard to fathom for a man of his experience and position.

He also continued his methods of changing the university climate, which to many faculty and alumni tarnished the university.  Tuition and fees were raised and lowered in see-saw fashion, and much of the university’s parking space was leased to QIC, a private firm in Australia, for 50 years and $483 million.  Raising the ire of landlords and students alike was his plan to build more student housing for second-year students, which would pull them out of the city and suburbs and into the ever-growing main campus.  He also oversaw a curriculum that gradually pushed more teaching responsibilities on GTAs whose stipends were lower than those of peer institutions.  Since most of these changes occurred during the recession, opinion was split on whether Gee was pointing OSU in a sensible direction, or merely taking advantage of circumstance in implementing his vision.

There was also an inevitable element of timing that likely hastened Gee’s ouster.  Gee’s return to OSU was fortuitous—his second term followed the resignation of Karen Holbrook.  Holbrook was in many ways about as different from Gee as two presidents of the same school could be.  A biologist who steadily worked her way up the career ladder (without incident) to the provost’s spot at UGA, Holbrook had few of Gee’s concerns.  While her academic progression plan was established in part by Gee, she was the first to honestly carry it out, and she did so through consensus-building and collaboration.  She also ended the school’s policy of open admission for Ohio residents, which drastically changed the campus’ student culture.

Both Gee and Holbrook were respected as fundraisers, though Holbrook took a patently academic route, as her big successes were with federal research entities, not alums and friends of the school.  In the eyes of many, OSU’s first female president was most concerned with tamping down the Buckeyes’ football culture, particularly boozing and tailgating. I find it hard to fault her much in this regard—she had barely settled in when OSU’s 2002 victory over Michigan erupted into the school’s largest-ever riot.  And this is coming from a school with a reputation of rioting for no particular reason.  On one trip to Columbus, I remember seeing copies of The Lantern, the student newspaper, with front page shots of street riot. Many of the participants were captioned with requests for identification tips.

In fact, Holbrook’s resignation letter mentions football only in that the sport (along with things like “random warm spring weekends”) was a cause of riots, and that this had been tamed under her watch.  OSU also won a national title on its way back to dominance under her, though this gets no mention, as tangential as her participation might’ve been.  Worsening her perception in the eyes of Buckeye fans was when portions of a later interview with USF were made public, particularly her stinging comments on rioting at OSU.

It’s been six years since Gee took over for Holbrook, and among the faithful, memories of the bad old days aren’t nearly as strong, and perhaps even forgotten.  Since then the inevitable divide of “academics vs. athletes” has gradually worsened.  You can see it in the message board posts and hear it in conversations among fans. The tone of conversation has moved to a different point most recently, with OSU supporters seeing the  entire institution’s value as being sullied by Gee’s remarks and the mishaps that occurred under his watch.

Perhaps most important is that the university seems to be a perpetual motion machine when it comes to fundraising and major sports.  The upshot is that the sense of gratitude towards Gee has diminished, as has the need for him.  In the eyes of the trustees, it seems the aging president could only screw up the good thing they had going: he wasn’t a bad leader or even a bad person, just an embarrassing and erratic one.

Rightly or wrongly, they think he can be easily replaced—easily enough to warrant a carrot-and-stick expulsion from his post.  The carrot was a generously compensated “President Emeritus” role that would ask him to still raise money and hobnob with elites; the stick was publicly chastising him with a letter of rebuke that promised stern consequences for future errors made during his presidency, and a demand that he essentially enroll himself in a supervised etiquette program.  My guess is that any replacement will come without Gee’s public missteps, yet lack the star-power that was so critical to Gee’s fundraising abilities.  Unless of course they fellow Maurice Clarett’s advice and hire Jim Tressel to take the post.

Deacon Jones (1938 – 2013)

“Going in, going into The Pit, I like to slap the guys’ helmets.  It shakes them up.  When I get to the man with the ball, I hit him as hard as I can.  If I can hit a man hard enough so he has to be carried off the field, I’ll be glad to help him off.”  –David D. “Deacon” Jones

Deacon Jones

Deacon Jones might’ve been the greatest defensive end to ever play the game.  During ten years with the Rams he earned the nickname “The Secretary of Defense” by terrorizing quarterbacks.  Even though he may have invented the term “sacks,” they weren’t individually counted until 1982, so gauging his stats is a bit of educated guesswork.  Jones may have had nearly 200 during his 14-year career, most of them during his tenure with the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” line, and good for third-all time.

He used speed, guile, and power to rip and dart past opponents, bull rush through timid blockers, and employed a head slap so effective that linemen would come of their stance with their arms up like a rolling boxer’s.   Quarterbacks and runners weren’t safe from his hands, either, since one of his favorite tackling styles involved clubbing the ball carrier across the head and/or face.  He was one of the main reasons head slaps and clubs were banned.

Just as impressive was his drive.  Players around the league were amazed by his dogged, sideline-to-sideline pursuits.  “The main thing is to keep going,” Jones said once.  “If I get blocked, I claw my way in, even if I have to crawl.”

Despite all this he was only a 14th round pick coming out of college, though this was due more to enrolling at small, historically black schools, and even being kicked off his first squad for participating in the Civil Rights Movement.  Deacon grew up in violently segregated Florida, and personally witnessed heinous racial acts, one of which ultimately ended in death.  He came into the NFL determined to shed aside the docility demanded by the South and make a name for himself, which led to him developing a persona to match his on-field prowess.  He was wild on the field—not so much coached as unleashed—and brash during interviews.  He gave himself the nickname “Deacon” to help in this effort.

Jones was so dominant that family movie night at George Allen’s house (then head coach of the Rams) would turn into a film session extoling the defensive end’s virtues.  He also became a fixture in the Allen family, and many years later Allen’s daughter Jennifer named one of her sons ‘Deacon.’

Like many ex-NFLers (including fellow Foursome members Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen), Jones dabbled in acting and broadcasting after his playing days ended.  He had numerous cameos in number of shows and films, one of which was alongside Jim Brown.  I remember recognizing Jones on G vs E, a short-lived series that tried to ride the combined coattails of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.  No surprise he was the best part of the show (and he played a character named ‘Deacon,’ no less.)  He was even a talented singer.  The last decades of his life were spent fighting poverty in the Anaheim/LA area, mainly through his eponymous foundation.

A quick glance at the number of headlines and recollections on Jones is sign enough of his impact.  Twice named Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time All Pro, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Deacon Jones left an indelible mark on the game.

What is a “Gap-Sound” Defense? Pt. 3

For the first two parts of this series, we looked only at static gap defenses that alternated between various amounts of single- and two-gap assignments.  The final variation is a flexible gap defense where the assignments are situational.  We’ll use Jimmy Johnson’s 4-3 under (called “Eagle” in his terminology) from his days with the Miami Hurricanes, though its tenets are pretty much the hallmark of all advanced 4-3 defenses.

The idea behind flexible gap assignments is pretty simple.  First, there’s no point defending a gap that isn’t threatened.  Second, it’s more effective to cover gaps in a way that has the defense flowing to the ball carrier.

Unlike vaguer pursuit rules such as force and contain, flexible assignments require players to determine their specific gap assignment after the snap.  We see this in action with the Miami linebackers, whose assignments are determined by which way the ball is being run.  Here’s a strong-side run being defended:

Miami's base Eagle versus a strong-side lead; click to enlarge.

I’ve identified the Will, Mike, and Sam to help keep things clear.  In this situation, the Sam reads run and flies upfield to defend the alley.  The Mike defends the B-gap, while the Will streaks across the formation in pursuit of sweeps and option plays.  Notice that having the Will ‘backer cut across leaves the weak-side A-gap without a designated man.  This doesn’t pose much of a problem, mainly because the Will is heading in the direction of the gap to begin with, but also because Johnson’s system was built around having extremely fast players at the linebacker spots who could recover from bad reads.  Technically, the backside linemen don’t even have gaps—they’re simply assigned to pursue the run.

Even though the front is asymmetrical, the gap assignments are roughly flipped for a weak-side run:

Hurricanes D versus a weak lead; click to enlarge.

Now the Will is at the point of attack, while the Mike fills in behind him.  Again there are uncovered gaps, but they’re either away from the play or indirectly covered by virtue of a pursuing linebacker.

Of course, a defense like this can be vulnerable to trap, counter, and power plays that change gaps or the apparent direction of a run.  The solution harkens back to the fact that no defenders (especially the linebackers) ignore on-field action when they make run fits.  Linebackers and safeties in general read the backs, the outside backers and strong safeties read tight end releases, and inside backers watch the guards and center for clues about a play’s actual intent.  Johnson did it so well that not only did this scheme nearly render the option obsolete, but it dominated the professional ranks when he moved to the NFL.

Part 1:

Part 2:


What is a “Gap-Sound” Defense? Pt. 2

As we saw in Part 1, assigning every needed defender to a single gap can stress a defense.  One way to rectify the problem is to change the math by assigning one or more players to simultaneously cover two gaps.

You can baby-step your way into this approach.   Using the 4-4 again as an example, here’s a look at how 4-4 guru Bud Foster shifted his eight man front from the 90’s (which looked much like our example front in Part 1) into a variation on the “TNT” or “Eagle” look he called the “Tuff” front, which will look familiar to defenses NFL fans saw in the 80s.  Here’s how Foster drew it up for the Hokies:


Virginia Tech "Tuff" front; click to enlarge.

To achieve this front, the down linemen shift to the strong side, while a hybrid LB/DB called a “whip” takes the vacated weak-side end’s spot and a linebacker steps up to the line.  The result is a de facto attack-oriented 6-2 defense.  If you look in front of the “backer” position (roughly equivalent to a 4-3 SLB and labeled with a ‘B’), the defensive tackle (‘T’), nose tackle (‘N’) and right-side defensive end (‘E’) you’ll notice they have angled brackets drawn in front of them.  These represent gap assignments.  The backer, DT, and DE have single gap assignments—the C and two B gaps, respectively.  (Though it’s not shown here, the DT and DE are actually in shaded 3-techniques to help them hit their gaps.)

While these three are assigned single gaps, the nose tackle has responsibility for both A gaps, as the double bracket indicates.  This is the safest place to two-gap a defender: the center is handicapped by having to snap the ball before blocking, and teams rarely run to the A gaps because it leads them into the teeth of the defense.  Unlike a slashing single-gap defender, a two-gap defender essentially reverse blocks the man in front of him by exploding off the ball, gaining leverage, identifying the play, and then chucking the would-be blocker in order to chase down the ball carrier.

This front is great against running teams because it puts eight guys in the box while keeping the interior linebackers relatively free from contact.  Here, the rover (basically a strong safety) and mike key on the running backs nearest to them without worrying about blockers coming at them.  The scheme doesn’t, however, do as good a job with pass defense.  Walking the whip and backer down has pulled intermediate-level defenders out of pass defense, while pulling the rover down (a strong safety-type position) has made the secondary vulnerable.

One solution here is just to make more players two-gappers.  At the opposite end of the two-gap spectrum from the Tuff front are all-in defenses like the 3-4.  In this front, each down lineman is responsible for two gaps.  This gives the interior linebackers a great deal of freedom in chasing down plays, while also allowing for a balanced secondary.  Here’s a slide from a Baltimore Ravens presentation showing their base 3-4 defense.

Baltimore's base 3-4 in 2004; click to enlarge.
Note how each of the three d-linemen are lined head-up on an offensive player.  The nose tackle is in the same 0-technique from the Tuff front above, while the ends are in 4-techs over the offensive tackles.  All three players are responsible for stopping runs to their immediate left and right.  When done right, this relieves the linebackers of their immediate interior gap responsibilities.  In theory, the backers can react quicker to passes, either by dropping into coverage with greater purpose, or by tracking down flat runners and screens.

Like all things in football, however, there are tradeoffs.  The first is that it’s hard finding two-gap players.  “Truck and shuck” requires a controlled mentality, while beating offensive linemen head-up and then chasing down runners requires a freakish mix of size and athleticism. This can be a pretty apparent weakness when you see 4-3 teams in college switch to an odd front to help stop the option—the smaller DTs and DEs often get overwhelmed at the point of attack.  Second, even the best 3-4 linemen can’t consistently create a pass rush by themselves—they’re always outnumbered.  Blitzing is the obvious answer, though anytime you blitz from a 3-4, you’re essentially reverting back to a mixed or single-gap defense.  The 3-4 can make up for this by being so confusing, though it’s not a perfect solution.  Finally, in a pure 3-4 there are always two offensive linemen who are “uncovered,” i.e., they don’t have a d-lineman setting up shop in front of them.  If these guys aren’t required to help with double-teams, they essentially have a free shot on the linebackers.

In between these extremes are split-scheme defenses, which are often run as much to tailor schemes to personnel strength as they are to gain a chalkboard advantage.  Bill Belichick has been a master of this; in recent years, his squads have been combinations of 3-4 and 4-3 defenders.  To make the best of both worlds, he will split his defense down the middle and make the players on one side (say, the weak side) two-gappers, while the strong-side players are single-gap.  Perhaps the biggest weakness of this method is depth, since it’s pretty much impossible to have adequate reserves for two distinct styles of defense.

Pure two-gapping is a brute force solution to the numbers game of gap assignments, and it’s as old as the infancy of football, much the same as the pure single-gap approach. Today’s even-front teams generally prefer a more situational scheme that we’ll look at in the final post.


Pat Summerall (1930 – 2013)

“For somebody who has been as close to the game as I have, it is staggering that people heavily involved in the game today wouldn’t know who Jim Brown is, not to mention Landry and Lombardi.  We live in an era of unprecedented communication, in which there is an abundance of sports talk stations and information available on television, radio, and the Internet.  But it seems that the more information there is, the more the actual history seems to get buried.  It’s appalling to me, but then again, history and football have always been two of my biggest loves.”  –Pat Summerall, Giants

George Allen “Pat” Summerall was a piece of history himself.  A three-way player—offense, defense, and special teams—in college and the pros, a good enough basketball player to get an offer from Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, and a minor league baseball player, he’s best remembered (on the field, at least) for his role as placekicker for the New York Giants.   Summerall was a true throwback—well over six feet tall, an end on defense and offense, and a straight-ahead kicker during an era when special teamers were embraced as teammates, and not the vestigial oddities that seems to be the norm today.  His greatest moment was a 49-yard field goal (the longest boot of 1958) made in a snowy season-ender against the Browns that sent the Giants to the playoffs.  His book Giants, quoted above, is an account of both his time as a player in New York, and an ode to two of his coaches on that team, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

Of course, he’s best known for his broadcast work with Tom Brookshire and then his two decades with John Madden.  His tenure alongside Madden cemented Summerall’s place in the pantheon of football commentators; though his reserved, thoughtful tone as play-by-play caller probably won’t get the same retrospective airplay as his longtime colleague’s, it was every bit as important.  He called 16 Super Bowls, an AFL-NFL Championship game, Emmitt Smith’s breaking of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, Masters golf tourneys, and the U.S. Open, along the way racking up awards and accolades, including enshrinement in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association’s Hall of Fame.

For many folks my age, Summerall and Madden simply were the combined “voice” of football.  In his prime, Summerall was in a class by himself in a way that should inform his peers in every sport.

What is a “Gap-Sound” Defense? Pt. 1

Pretty early in football’s evolution, coaches realized that even the simplest, most repetitive run game could be devastating if a defense wasn’t “gap-sound.”  Gaps—the spaces between offensive players—are the high ground of football: whoever controls them usually controls the game. If a defense leaves a gap open at the snap, any decent tailback will see the vacancy and run for a gain. Even if the defense initially covers a gap, leaving too soon invites cutbacks, counters, and misdirection plays.

Defenders are now assigned gaps to cover. These assignments can change based on play-call and what the offense does. In a 4-4 defense, the gap assignments might look like this:

A simple single-gap 4-4 front versus an Ace set; notice how every defender covers an initial gap.

Notice how each gap (or hole, if you’re looking at it from the offense’s perspective) has an initial defender, making this a purely one- or single-gap defense. In the base scheme above, defenders are aligned close to the gap they’re supposed to control: the linemen are shaded to make it easier to defeat blocks, while the linebackers are standing directly over their gaps so that they can rush in and make a play with minimal impedance. Being positioned over your assigned gap also makes reading and reacting to plays easier. If a ball-carrier runs into one of these gaps, the assigned defender should make the tackle for a loss or minimal gain.

How the defense defends these gaps depends on a lot of factors. Players on the line of scrimmage generally either attack the nearest blocker in order to gain leverage, or try to beat the blocker off the snap by exploding into the gap itself. Players off the line of scrimmage (the four linebackers in this case) might try to meet any blockers or runners in the hole, creating a pile-up in the first case and notching a tackle in the second.

Knowing when and how to abandon an assigned gap is a critical skill. Defenders are taught how to recognize if their gap is threatened, and if no one is coming to vacate the gap and help in pursuit or to defend against cutbacks and misdirection plays. They do this not just by watching the running backs, but by watching where and how the linemen are blocking. Middle linebackers, for example, are often assigned to read the center and both guards, while also being aware of the backs. If one guard pulls while the center and second guard aggressively block down, for instance, the Mike is probably worrying about a Power play. On the other hand, if all three take bucket steps in the same direction as the back is running, then he might be more worried about a zone run.

An offense can scheme to take advantage of a defense’s gaps assignments. Isolations and pulls are common ways of complicating gap assignments, as are option plays. When it’s clear which gap (or gaps) is actually threatened (or threatening to appear), defenders away from the play switch to defending against the runner or lead blockers. Defenders with assignments like “force,” “spill,” and “contain” try to either corral the runner back to the strength of the defense or towards the sideline by aggressively meeting blockers and option men. “Fill,” “cutback,” and “insurance” assignments make clean-up tackles against lead plays or provide backup when the defense breaks down. (You’ll see “contain” used in this context, too.)

Defenses that become too predictable in their gap assignments can make themselves vulnerable. Offensive coordinators can recognize the scheme and either throw shifts and formations that force the defense into tough positions by scheme, or they can single out weak links on the offense to attack. In addition to simply changing formations and assignments to vary the defense, blitzes, shifts, and exchanges are great ways to keep offenses off-balance. Blitzes, especially from unexpected defenders, can confuse blockers and bait running backs into traps. Last second shifts of the front (or “stems”) force blockers on gap-scheme runs to pick new assignments. Exchanges, where defenders move after the snap to cover more distant gaps, are subtler ways of getting to an offense.

Probably the biggest disadvantage of the purely single-gap scheme is its deficit versus the passing game. In today’s game, it’s nearly impossible to run a single-gap 4-4—there are just not enough people in the secondary. Moving one guy back to give you two safeties while still having him directly responsible for a gap is doable but requires a special player. This defender has to be smart enough to not only play the pass while watching a gap, but have the physical tools to do both. Undersized safeties without a nose for tackling will get targeted by opposing offenses, while stiffer, slower run-stuffers are prone to giving up deep balls.

Even with an excellent player, though, advanced passing schemes can create tremendous problems for a pure single-gap front. An answer to this dilemma is to have players who are in some way responsible for two gaps, though as we’ll see in the next installment this isn’t a perfect solution.