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Film Room: Defense 2020 Part One—Fronts

Ryan Walters is back, and he’s bringing his fronts with him.

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

While the Eli Drinkwitz regime brings with it a full revamping of Missouri’s offensive coaching staff, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters remains in his position, as do defensive holdovers Brick Haley and David Gibbs. This is the first installment of a seven-part series analyzing Walters’ 2019 defensive schemes, the initial purpose of which was to get a sense of the general principles on which the 2020 Tiger defense would operate. Now that the status of the 2020 season up in the air, well...let’s just set aside that concern for the moment and enjoy talking Xs and Os.

Today we look at the two main defensive fronts employed by Walters in 2019—the Over Front and the Tite Front.

But first, a word about personnel.

Personnel

Walters’ base defense is a 4-2-5 manned by four down linemen, two inside linebackers, and five defensive backs. Here is a defense with this personnel represented.

Let’s quickly note the particular personnel. Two interior defensive linemen man the line of scrimmage: the nose (N) and the tackle (T), both of whom line up on the guards. Two defensive ends (E) flank the edges of the offensive line. The inside linebackers are the Mike (M) and the Will (W). Five defensive backs are deployed: the two corners (C) and three safeties—strong (S), free (F), and boundary (B).

This review of personnel is relevant because on most downs Walters chooses to play with this base personnel on the field, regardless of the front he calls. We will come back to this matter later in the piece.

Over Front

Over is an even front, meaning that there are two defensive linemen on either side of the center. In the Over front the strongside tackle is in a 3 technique—on the outside shoulder of his guard—and the nose is in a 1 tech—on his guard’s inside edge. Both defensive ends are aligned in the C gaps.

Over Front

This is an Over front with Mike stacked on H back.

Here is an Over with the Mike walked to the weak edge.

Let’s look at a run play against a Tiger even front.

The offensive call is Inside Zone to the left. West Virginia’s #3 receiver is responsible for the Mike linebacker, Cale Garrett (#47). He doesn’t get there and Garrett stops the run for a loss.

Tite Front

Tite is an odd front, meaning the center is covered by a defensive lineman. Tite Front sets the nose tackle in a zero-technique—head up on the center. The other two down linemen line up in “4i” techniques—inside eye of the tackles.

Tite Front

An image of the Tite Front on the field.

In Walters’ scheme, offensive formation and coverage call sometimes dictate that the Mike linebacker plays one edge rather than the strong safety, leaving the Will alone on the defense’s second level.

Here Mike linebacker Devin Nicholson (#58) lines up on the strong edge, with Will LB Nick Bolton (#32) stacked behind him.

In the last couple years Tite front has become quite popular in college football, and the Tigers often played Tite front on running downs.

Tite Front out of Base 4-2 Personnel

Over and Tite were far and away Walters’ favorite fronts. Over the course of the season, he called Over and Tite in roughly equal measure, switching back and forth between these fronts from play to play. Over the last number of years more and more teams play multiple fronts. The reason is simple: having the ability to change fronts forces an offense to stay on its toes in terms of recognition and responsibilities.

But this advantageous strategy brings us back to the issue of personnel. Because Walters switched fronts without substituting, the base 4-2 personnel—selected to operate in an even front—had to adapt to play the alignments and responsibilities of the Tite front.

Let’s illustrate.

Here is an example of an odd front out of traditional 3-4 personnel.

Let’s not get caught up in the names of the four linebackers. There are various ways of labeling them—I just threw up some letters. The point we’re making with this diagram is that in a traditional odd front there are three interior line positions—the nose flanked by the two tackles—and these spots are manned by larger, defensive-tackle-type bodies.

Because Walters’ base personnel only includes two defensive tackles, shifting to an odd front requires one of the lighter defensive ends to play an interior position.

Here’s a diagram.

The right defensive end becomes the right outside linebacker and plays in a two-point stance. The thing to notice here is that the left defensive end (in red), responsible for the left edge in the even front, is now playing on the interior, inside-eye on the offensive tackle.

Let’s see it on the field. In the image below, left defensive end Jatorian Hansford (#28) is standing as an outside linebacker on the left edge of the Tennessee line. The opposite defensive end, Tre Williams (#93) is lined up inside, covering the Volunteer right tackle in a 4i technique.

In the next image end Chris Turner (#39) stands up on the offense’s right edge, and it is Hansford shifted down into the B gap on the offense’s left.

Let’s take a look at this play.

The play is Outside Zone to the offense’s left and the interior line is slanting away from it. Kobie Whiteside (#78) is the nose tackle, and does a good job getting to his gap, then redirecting to chase the ball down.

But watch the play again. We mentioned that the lithe Hansford—a pass rusher by trade—is playing a position that in a traditional 3-4 would be manned by a stouter player. On this snap, he does not hold up well at all.

This is only one play - yes - but there were several times last year where Hansford and the other ends got manhandled while playing on the inside of the Tite Front.

The point here is not to denounce this particular strategy, but rather to point out the tradeoffs that come with any strategic decision. In Walters’ mind, I suppose, the benefits of playing different fronts from snap to snap outweigh the consequence that he can’t have the ideal personnel on the field when he calls Tite front.

(Before last season I wondered if the key to resolving the issue might be Akial Byers, who has displayed the versatility to play outside and inside. Maybe next season will be the year he fills this role?)

Bonus Front!

Over and Tite are Walters’ favorite fronts, but he used a few others as well. Most of them show up on passing downs, and we will get to those in upcoming coverage and blitz segments.

I would, however, like to mention one other front that combines elements of the Over and Tite fronts. For lack of a better term let’s just be descriptive—we’ll call it Mike Over Center.

Mike Over Center

Mike Over Center is an even front, but now both the interior linemen are in 3 techniques—outside shades on the guards. The Mike linebacker aligns on the line of scrimmage, directly over the center.

A couple screenshots.

Note that by alignment the pattern by which the offensive linemen are covered ends up being essentially the same as the Tite front: the Mike is the zero-tech, and the tackles are in the B gaps. But both edges are secured by the defensive ends, as they are in an even front.

Here is Nicholson making a great play from his position over the center.

And my favorite snap from this alignment—Bolton’s explosive hit on the goal line to deny a Tennessee touchdown.

Let’s take another look.

Conclusion

That’s a good look at Ryan Walters’ base fronts. Next time we’ll look at the ways Walters utilizes line stunts out of these fronts.