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Corey Batoon: Is he good at what he does?

The answer: probably?

Read Part 1 here on Corey Batoon’s history. Today, we look at the football stuff.

Obviously any coaching hire a school makes is impossible to determine if it’s “good” or not until you see them operate. But we can see what he’s done in the past in an effort to figure out if that can translate in CoMo.

So, for our purposes, I’m just flat out ignoring his coordinator stints at Northern Arizona and Hawai’i. The first of those roles (NAU) began and completed before Twitter was even created, and the second occurred at a school that is consistently broke, plays in the Mountain West, and has the recruiting disadvantage of having to fly all prospects from the Contiguous 48 a minimum of six hours across the ocean for a campus visit. They’re interesting data points but it doesn’t really matter much to me at this juncture.

Batoon was Kane Wommack’s defensive coordinator for three years: 2021, 2022, and 2023. Wommack is considered a football coach’s football coach; a bright mind, a hard worker, and a guy who gets his guys to grind out wins. So while it’ll be tough to parse out exactly who did what on the USA defensive staff, we at least know that Batoon was there long enough to figure out what Wommack wanted and what his guys could do, and therefore give us an idea of what he likes to run when he’s able to call plays from his happy place.

First things first: let’s talk defensive scheme

I’ve watched some South Alabama tape and looked at their depth chart and I’m fairly confident that they ran a 3-3-5 base defense, an alignment made popular by a defensive coordinator named Rocky Long, a 50-year veteran of the game who made it popular at San Diego State but also ran it to great effect when he was coaching at New Mexico (do you remember the “Hell in a Hank Baskett” game, Mizzou fans? That was compliments of Long). There are lots of tweaks and substitutions you can make to it but, at it’s base, it looks like this:

Base 3-3-5 defense

Three defensive linemen, three linebackers, three cornerbacks, two safeties; that’s what you’re looking at in this diagram.

The version South Al ran had...

  • Three defensive linemen (from left to right): Defensive Tackle, Nose Guard, Bandit (edge)
  • Three linebackers: Wolf (outside backer), Middle Linebacker, Sting (another edge rusher)
  • Three safeties: Rover (think a hard hitting nickelback), Free Safety, Husky (strong safety)
  • Two cornerbacks

Now, the defense doesn’t always line up quite as neatly where you can say “oh there’s clearly three down linemen and three linebackers!”, especially since the Wolf and Sting linebackers like to creep on the outside of the line of scrimmage and then either rush the QB or drop in coverage. The Rover and Husky DBs also move around a ton so the look can be a little nebulous at times.

The advantages of this scheme is that you can get a ton of speed on the field which is useful for schools that struggle to recruit or develop elite linemen. The military academies use three-man defensive fronts due to their weight restrictions, and schools in the northeast, half the teams in the MAC, and a chunk of west coast schools like to deploy three-man fronts since they lack an ability to attract beefy linemen from the south.

In addition to speed, the alignment is funky and not something that schools typically see consistently from season to season. This can confuse the protection assignments of offensive linemen, especially since every player is a risk to blitz on every down and that guy could line up anywhere and attack from anywhere, including on delayed blitzes. It forces offenses to think, which is the last thing you want a college offense to have to do with a week to prepare.

Given Missouri’s recent linebacker purge and plethora of defensive linemen talent currently on the roster, I’m not sure this is an alignment that Drinkwitz would want Batoon to run...but it is a fun wrinkle.

Then again, the last time we saw a 3-3-5 implemented in Columbia, Steve Wilks was running Mekhi Wingo straight into the line from 5 yards back against Tennessee so the Mizzou staff (and fans) might be a little gun shy about utilizing this scheme.

Now, let’s look at the numbers

Let me provide some context for South Alabama’s defense over the past three years.

In 2019 and 2020 South Alabama was scuffling under Steve Campbell, and Greg Stewart’s defenses were finishing 101st and 109th in consecutive years. Campbell was fired, Wommack was hired, and he and Batoon immediately set to work to improve a dreadful team.

The results were immediate, with defensive improvement of 50 spots in the first year, and then a further 20-spot leap in year two. In year three...the defense got worse. Yeah, really.

I can’t explain it! The Jaguars returned the 5th-most production on defense in the country and their end-of-year stats in 2023 were eerily similar to 2022. But they just regressed. Specifically, the passing defense and scoring defense. But let’s take a look at the full performance, broken into categories by ascending year, to get a better idea of the job Batoon did in Mobile:

Overall Defensive Ranks

Overall Defense

Overall, Batoon’s South Alabama defenses were similar to Blake Baker’s Missouri units; excellent ranking and success rates, a terrible tendency to give up explosive plays, and great havoc creation. Of course, while the Jags’ points per scoring opportunity improved the first two years, there was noticeable regression in Year Three.

Rushing Defense

Rushing Defense

Here’s a data point that we can put in the “Good” column: Batoon’s rushing defense improved every single year across the board, finishing as the 16th best rushing defense in 2023. They were able to shore up the big plays as the years went on and increase their stuff rate from an impressive 25th in ‘21 to an elite 13th in ‘23. Even the explosive rushing plays - their one rushing weakness - ranked 23rd in the country at the end of last year, coupled with an excellent limitation on opposing opportunity rates. This is all stuff that’s paramount to be good at in the SEC and, so far, his defenses have shown that strength consistently.

Passing Defense

Passing Defense

And then here’s a concerning data point for the “Bad” column. I’ve said on the podcast and written on this site that “returning production in the secondary is the best barometer for overall defensive quality” and, in 2023, South Alabama was the complete antithesis to this statement. They returned almost everyone from the secondary and the passing defense got worse, thus the overall defense declined. Batoon’s passing defenses always struggled with explosive plays (like Baker’s) and the sack rates were over 6% in two of the three years. They just...gave up more successful plays in ‘23 than they had in the previous two years, despite everyone returning, and the overall defensive product suffered for it. I can’t explain it! Let’s hope it’s just a weird one-off scenario.

...but, just to reiterate, all the explosive plays that you hated seeing Baker’s boys give up? Yeah, that’s probably going to continue under Batoon. Prepare yourself.

Standard Downs Defense

Standard Downs Defense

As a reminder, a standard down is defined as any 1st-down, 2nd-and-7 or less, 3rd-and-4 or less, and 4th-and-4 or less. Looking at the number you can see a story where either Batoon was less aggressive on downs when the offense had the advantage, or the pressure sent didn’t connect consistently as sack rates were consistently some of the worst in the country and, of course, explosive plays were happening frequently. However, keeping offenses at a mid-40% success rate in these situations is better than average, so it’s certainly not a perceived issue at this time.

Passing Downs Defense

Passing Downs Defense

As a reminder, a passing down is defined as 2nd-and-8 or longer, 3rd-and-5 or longer, and 4th-and-5 or longer...and these situations are where Batoon really let’s his true self shine. He goes all out on aggression in passing downs, leading to the exact boom/bust nature of Baker’s outfits: sky high sack rates, numerous big plays given up, very good overall success rates. You take the good with the bad when you’re havoc-forward like this, and knowing that a big play will happen in passing downs - good or bad - is certainly an exciting way to play defense.

Downs Management

Downs Management

Looking at the numbers in both this block of data and the last one, you can start to see why South Al ranked as well as it did in ‘22 but regressed in ‘23. In ‘22 the Jaguars efficiency rating in passing downs was incredibly low (a good thing) and that was paired with the high havoc rates; in ‘23 the efficiency crept way back up out of the Top 10 and into the 60s range, meaning teams were stealing enough yards to be successful in passing downs and counteract the havoc. Here, you can see that the 3rd-down success rate in ‘22 was at 22% - 9th in the country! - but in ‘23 it went back up to 26%, 44th in the country.

As much as I say that havoc is fun, I also say that it is inconsistent and one year’s high havoc does not mean that next year will continue the good booms. It happened to Mizzou this past year just as it happened to South Alabama; fortunately for Mizzou they had enough talent to overcome the missed havoc plays where it seems like USA was not as fortunate.

The rest of this data set is more of the same: overall the success rates look good but if opposing offenses get going they’re stymieing the pressure, staying out of 3rd-downs, and routinely connecting on explosive plays.

Third Downs

Third Downs

Here we see yet another by-product of the down year for Batoon’s havoc-y defense; in ‘22 the Jaguars were excellent at getting offenses off the field in 3rd down and in ‘23 they were not very good at doing so.

Red Zone

Red Zone

Lastly, Batoon’s defenses do seem to be pretty good at stopping offenses once they cross the 30-yard line, ranking in the Top 10 of success rates inside the 21-30 yards lines and the 11-20 yard lines last year. They still gave up points on big plays, mind you, and had their worst points per scoring opportunity of the Wommack era in ‘23. But, again, that’s the headache you inherit when you are a havoc-centric defense: big plays go both ways.

Conclusion

Here’s the TL;DR version of the 1,800 words I just wrote above:

  • Consistently great rushing defense
  • Inconsistently good passing defense
  • Havoc-focused approach to stopping the pass leads to tons of big plays, good and bad
  • Has exceed expected turnovers the past three years, a lucky quality that isn’t reliable
  • Competent in the red zone, but still prone to giving up big plays for 7 points instead of holding for 3

Frankly, in a year where both Baker and Batoon experienced havoc reduction in their respective units, the difference was Baker’s guys were good enough (and Baker’s adjustments executed well enough) to weather the lower havoc production and still put out a quality defense. Batoon’s scheme, adjustments, or players were not good enough to do the same.

In the “X’s and O’s vs. Jimmy’s and Joe’s” debate, a college team can get pretty far by just fielding a more talented team week to week, but at some point you need to have good X’s and O’s when you’re stuck in a dog fight against a similarly talented team (or a game underdog). Without being in the headsets or the facilities, it’s tough to tell what the issue with South Al was in 2023 but, if it was a talent problem, Batoon certainly just inherited a roster with a metric ton more potential than the one he left.

I don’t think we can fully parse out how much of South Alabama’s defense was Kane Wommack, or Corey Batoon, or the staff, so there’s no use in trying to glean “oh this stat means he’s good!” or “this stats means he’ll fail!”. It was a team effort and the appeal here is you’re getting a seasoned guy who’s worked with a dude renowned in the industry for his defensive mind.

Here’s my takeaway: Eli Drinkwitz didn’t hire Corey Batoon because of his performance record over the past three years, or because he wanted a guy to install a 3-3-5. I think Drinkwitz made this hire because Batoon is a guy that shares the aggressive, havoc-forward philosophy that Blake Baker had and he’s an old enough guy to have seen a lot, know how to run a defense on his own and — purely my speculation here — at age 55, not likely to go take a job somewhere else.

We haven’t seen a Missouri defense under Batoon’s tutelage yet so it’s all good to me still. I’m curious how he deploys this defense — specifically, 3-man vs. 4-man front — and how aggressive he chooses to be with the SEC roster he has. Blake Baker was aggressive at every stop but adapted how he was aggressive based on personnel; Corey Batoon has been aggressive in the same way at every stop but has also had less talented players to work with at every job he’s had.

I think it’s a good hire that can work but we have 8 months to figure out what this even looks like, let alone the quality of defensive play over the next three years.