After riding their defense to a second-straight SEC East Championship in 2014, the Missouri Tigers looked to have all the ingredients present to whip up another Michelin starred unit in 2015. What they lost in experience at the defensive end position, they made up for at defensive tackle and linebacker. Factor in the stable of fast as hell, athletic cornerbacks, and it’s easy to see why many Tiger fans were making reservations at Faurot Field this fall.
Things got a bit more uncertain however, when Defensive Coordinator Dave Steckel declared that he would be filling the vacant head coaching position at Missouri State. Mizzou was a restaurant missing its head chef. If they wanted to maintain their upward trajectory, it was imperative that they make the right hire.
(Photo credit: Bill Carter)
Within two weeks of Steckel’s departure, Mizzou had already found his replacement. Enter Barry Odom, a Missouri alumnus and former coach fresh off an immensely successful season as Memphis’ Defensive Coordinator in which his squad ranked 28th in total defense and 11th in scoring defense.
We are already aware of his black and gold steeped past, but an unknown quantity still remains. Come August, Odom will be charged with keeping Mizzou’s streak of nasty defenses alive. So just how the hell is he going to do it?
To answer that question, I watched all of the game-film that I could get my hands on from Memphis’ 2014 campaign. That included the entirety of the Miami Beach Bowl, which pitted Odom’s former Tigers against the Cougars of BYU, and... nothing else. Try as I might, that was the only full game of Memphis’ that I could locate.
As far as examples go, though, I couldn’t have found a better (or more entertaining) game. It’s a bowl game. It’s at the end of his season. There would be no reason for Odom to hold anything back, especially with Missouri’s offer likely already on the table. I would be able to watch his defense operating at peak efficiency, with all of the playbook made available. In studying his squad, it became apparent that several key tendencies Mizzou’s previous defenses hold dear would be following Steckel out of Columbia. Most namely, the methods used to generate pressure on the quarterback.
(Photo credit: Bill Carter)
Gone will be the Missouri staple of relying on only the defensive line to create pressure. In it’s place, a new style of havoc will emerge; one that isn’t afraid to send any and all of its players hurtling towards the opposing quarterback. Linebackers and cornerbacks alike will abandon their posts and blitz – yes, blitz – with regularity, which will be quite the departure from the blitz-starved defenses that Tiger fans became accustomed to under Steckel. We’ve already begun to see evidence of the change, too. It lies in one of David Morrison’s recent camp updates:
"It's kind of just letting the dogs loose," [Clarence] Green said. "Me and" [Donavin] "Newsom, we both can play the run very heavy and physical. We like to make the impact plays, the big hits. Instead of just engaging and holding the gap, we can shoot it and the safeties make us right. It's very good to make us more versatile."
Versatility is good, especially in college football’s constantly evolving on-field environment. Versatility is also vague. We know that it means Missouri’s defense will play differently, but we have no means of determining the degree of difference.
Odom has played things close to the chest during the summer and fall scrimmages; only lining up in base formation defense and refraining from calling many actual plays. This is to be expected. It would be foolish of him to reveal his cards before the hand even starts. During the offseason, vague is the goal.
Unfortunately, it still leaves us guessing at how he’ll be attacking the pocket. Luckily, Odom established a clear identity at Memphis. One that he will almost certainly be bringing with him to Columbia. Looking at his work history, it becomes much easier to ascertain an idea of what versatile will mean for the Tigers in 2015.
SPOILER: This defense is going to be fun as hell to watch.
At Memphis, versatile meant lots of blitzes from lots of positions with lots of different paths for the blitzing player to take to the quarterback. Creativity was the name of the game. Taking into considering how often Odom blitzed, it had to be. Keep sending the linebacker barreling through the outermost gap and the offense is bound to see a pattern eventually.
To avoid this, Odom was constantly mixing things up. One play, a linebacker would crash the edge. The next, that same player would start outside, only to have an end cut underneath him while he stunted inside. It isn’t a very complicated maneuver, but it can be incredibly effective. Essentially, the defensive end is tasked with drawing his lineman to the outside so that the linebacker can dash through what should be an offensive tackle-sized gap.
In the above example, you can see the plan in action. Defensive end Latarius Brady (No. 14) starts lined up to the inside of outside linebacker Jackson Dillon (No. 34). Both players’ first step is to the outside, but after that their paths diverge. Brady maintains his course while Dillon jukes to the inside and heads for quarterback Christian Stewart, who was (briefly) saved by a nice blitz pickup from his running back.
The pass-blocking running back is a useful means of countering a defense that blitzes frequently. It’s also a tactic that Odom has an answer for.
Once again, BYU’s right tackle falls for Dillon’s first step outside and can’t adjust to the inside rush in time to stop him from beelining toward Stewart. This time, the running back who would normally be there to pick up the blitz isn’t there to stop Dillon either, thanks to the rusher who cut inside Jackson and pushed straight upfield. Algernon Brown sees the initial threat and blocks it; which is exactly what Odom was counting on. With the blocking back out of the picture, Dillon is free to barrel-roll Stewart to the ground.
This is where the definition of versatility becomes a bit more clear. It means lots of moving parts. The linebackers are going to blitz, and they're going to blitz in a lot of different ways. That's not all Odom does to keep opposing offenses on their toes, though. He is as giving as he is aggressive. He doesn't restrict the fun to just his linebacking crew, he'll also invite his cornerbacks to the party.
Against BYU, Odom sent his cornerbacks a'blitzing on downs where the Cougars were most likely to run the ball. Second and short, first down, and all that. It makes sense. He wants to be aggressive, but at the same time he doesn't want to have his secondary playing a man down if the blitz doesn't get there. He also seems to attempt to send the play-side corner, so as to heighten his chances of blowing the play up.
I can't definitively say that Odom only sends his corners on downs where the opposing offense is likely to run the ball. I can say that he did so against BYU, but that could have been a Cougar-specific plan of action. Corner blitzes can be risky, so it would be smart of Odom to minimize that risk. Aggression with a plan, that's his style.
Until he cranks it up to 11, that is.
Blitzing five defensive players isn't cool. You know what's cool? Blitzing six defensive players. With a surprising frequency, Odom attacked the offense by sending more rushers than BYU could block. (Well, in theory. That running back sat stubbornly in the backfield picking up blitzes for the majority of the game, which evened things out.) This is Odom at his most aggressive. It's more risky than blitzing the corner, because it spreads the rest of the defense paper thin. You'll see what can happen in the example below. Odom sends six, and Stewart gets a quick pass off to beat the blitz.
The completed pass is troublesome, but I'm more interesting to me is what six players Odom blitzed on the play. Instead of sending the six defenders closest to the line, he sent five of the six right at the snap. Then, after waiting a beat, middle linebacker Bronterrious "Tank" Jakes joins the party. His tardiness may have allowed Stewart to make the completion, but it's still a wrinkle that can be very effective. On a play where the quarterback needed more time for the route tree to develop, it's quite possible that Jakes runs unblocked through the offensive line for a nice sack. Later in the game, Odom once again sends six players hurtling towards the quarterback. This time, none of them delay their rush. The resulting pressure is enough to force Stewart into a quick, inaccurate pass.
What sealed Stewart's fate was the move the rightmost outside linebacker made. After allowing the defensive end beside him to drive the offensive tackle five yards upfield, he cuts underneath and forces the errant pass. Odom doesn't just blitz six defenders, he blitzes six defenders and adds a stunt on top for flavor.
So nice, I wanted to watch it twice. Once again, Jackson Dillon allows his defensive end to drive the tackle up the field so that he can scoot underneath toward the quarterback. He get's picked up by the running back, sure, but the pressure forces Stewart to dash out of the pocket and into Donald Pennington's loving embrace.
It's a defense that isn't afraid of risk. One that aims to smack you square in the mouth from every direction. Odom will have an incredibly active defense. He's going to blitz the hell out of teams (which I'm sure has Kentrell Brothers' mouth watering), and he's going to do so in a wide variety of ways. It's a departure from previous Missouri defenses, but one that I think fans will come to welcome. Maybe even adore.
I'm leaning toward the latter. Like I said before, this defense is going to be fun as hell.