Under John Jancek’s watchful eye, Cincinnati’s defense became an unstoppable force in 2013. Despite losing major playmakers along the defensive line in Derek Wolfe and John Hughes and at linebacker in J.K. Schaffer, UC’s defense was still as suffocating as ever. The Bearcats finished 2nd in the Big East in points allowed per game (18.5), 2nd in interceptions (16), 2nd in sacks (30) and 3rd in rushing yards allowed per game (135).
Jancek’s bread and butter was his “fire” zone defense. In essence, it created confusion in the offense on nearly every snap. The key was deception and speed. Pre-snap, the defense would line up in a standard formation, either 3-4 or 4-3. But post-snap all hell broke loose. A defensive end or tackle on one side of the line would drop back into coverage. Simultaneously a linebacker or safety on the opposite side of the line would rush the quarterback. As such, the blocking schemes got out of whack as offensive linemen and runningbacks scrambled to figure out who to block. Ideally if the linebacker/safety could conceal their intentions pre-snap, the blockers upfront would never see their blitz coming, and after the snap the defenders could then use their speed to get to the quarterback.
A more detailed explanation, complete with snapshots, game highlights, and maybe even a kitten can be found here.
But the fire zone defense isn’t without weaknesses. It’s the epitome of a do-or-die scheme in which they have equal chance of coming up with a big play and getting burned with the pass. When it’s working to perfection the fire zone creates chaos on offense, like against the Pitt Panthers this past season when Cincinnati piled on quarterback Tino Sunseri 6 times and held Ray Graham to just 5.4 yards per carry. But when it’s held in check, the defensive coordinator becomes the fans’ worst enemy.
Such times include Cincinnati’s game against Tennessee in 2011. While young and inexperienced, the Volunteers’ offensive line was extremely talented to go along with as pure a passer as there was in the SEC in Tyler Bray. They easily nullified the Bearcats’ blitz and the Tennessee quarterback picked apart the soft parts of the zone coverage on nearly every pass. Bray was never sacked, hell he was barely even touched, and as a result he passed for over 400 yards and 4 touchdowns. Both were season highs for the Vol signal caller.
The issue is that Jancek wasn’t flexible in his scheme. Good or bad, Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator stuck to the fire zone. Clearly it wasn’t working against Tennessee as Tyler Bray had eons to throw and his receivers were free to find the soft spots in the zone coverage. The Bearcats should have flipped to man coverage to at the very least give the offense something more to think about. Sure they risked their defensive backs getting beat one-on-one but Bray was already putting up video game-like numbers and the switch would have gotten the Volunteers out of their rhythm.
But Cincinnati didn’t make the necessary adjustments, Bray had one of the best games of his career, and Tennessee annihilated UC 45-23.
Then at the end of the Bearcats’ 2012 season Butch Jones left for Knoxville and with him went John Jancek. Enter Tommy Tuberville and Art Kaufman from Texas Tech.
While coaching changes are never easy in the first year, Cincinnati’s defense has a real chance to thrive under the new staff. Tommy Tuberville and Art Kaufman are bringing a wealth of knowledge to the Bearcats. For Kaufman himself, 2013 will be his 30th year coaching the defensive side of the football in some capacity. This is the third team he’s coached with Tuberville after first joining him at Ole Miss in the mid-90’s. After about a decade and half Kaufman hooked up again with him, this time at Texas Tech, and vastly improved their defense.
The raw numbers don’t paint a pretty picture but in the context of the Big 12, the Red Raiders’ defense was quite strong. Remember, the Big 12 is all about offense. The word “defense” is as foreign to them as putting cinnamon in chili and pouring it over spaghetti. Last season the Big 12 boasted 3 of the top 5 scoring offenses in the country and 5 of the top 10 passing offenses. Clearly any coach looking to make a name for himself on the defensive side of the ball in this conference has his work cut out for him.
But last year Kaufman and Texas Tech boasted the #1 passing defense in the Big 12. And when you compare their numbers between 2011 and 2012, when Kaufman was hired by Tuberville, the improvement is dramatic. The Red Raiders allowed one whole touchdown less last season than the year prior. They also allowed 30 less yards through the air and 80 less yards on the ground in 2012. Tech was actually the 2nd best team in the conference in total defense.
The reason is that Kaufman has a been around the game coaching defense for three decades now. He’s seen it all, from triple-option to spread, and knows the schemes to play and buttons to push to give his defense the best chance to succeed. He’s also a man who’s highly adaptable. One does not survive in the game of coaching college football without constantly being on his toes and Kaufman, like Tuberville, knows how to make the necessary tweaks and changes.
Unlike Jancek, Kaufman seems to understand that defenses must have spatterings of both man-to-man and zone to excel. They can’t be hogtied to one or the other or Tennessee happens and they get embarrassed. And Texas Tech’s defense did seem to implement both theories a good amount in 2012. He used man-to-man and zone pretty evenly against Oklahoma and Texas last season. But the key for Kaufman was that he used both wisely and would lean more heavily towards one or the other depending on the opponent or flow of the game.
Case in point is when Texas Tech hosted 5th ranked West Virginia.
When Dana Holgorsen was hired to lead the Mountaineers he completely overhauled their offense. With Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, and Tavon Austin at his disposal Holgorsen constructed one of the most dangerous passing machines in the country. Stopping or even slowing down this attack wasn’t easy but the common error that defensive coordinators made when trying to contain the three headed monster was to man them up. Tavon Austin runs a 4.34 Forty, Stedman Bailey a 4.52, and Geno Smith was one of the most accurate passers in college football last season. Leaving one’s defensebacks on an island against these guys is a horrible idea.
Then in October of 2012, Holgorsen tried to unleash that same aerial assault in Lubbock and was completely bamboozled. The reason? Art Kaufman told his players to keep everything in front of them. He basically abandoned the man-to-man defense that day in favor of implementing 2- and 3-deep zone coverages. The idea was the Texas Tech would allow Smith, Bailey, and Austin to gain a few yards off the snap but they would never be able to find the “home run” play. And wouldn’t you know, it worked! The Mountaineers scored just 14 points that game, one of their lowest totals for the season. Geno Smith passed for just a single touchdown, completed just 53% of his passes (that’s considered a bad day for him), and posted his worst quarterback rating of the season.
While at his core Kaufman sees the benefit of both man-to-man and zone coverages in his defensive philosophies, he understood that he had to adapt to his opponent to give his defense the best chance to succeed. And his mettle was clearly tested in the Big 12 with offenses like West Virginia, Baylor, and Oklahoma putting up monster numbers every weekend. But Kaufman’s adaptability fostered the turn around of the Texas Tech defense and transformed it into one of the most formidable units in the country.
Again, for the doubters, don’t focus on the raw numbers that the Red Raider defense gave up in 2012. Big 12 offenses are otherworldly and Cincinnati won’t be facing that caliber of skill in the AAC. As of now it’s best to trust in Kaufman because of his track record of turning around Texas Tech’s defense and his years of knowledge coaching that side of the football.
So for the Bearcats, they have an opportunity to become even better on defense in 2013. Tuberville and Kaufman are scholars of the game and will be coaching a unit that boasts the best linebacking corps in the AAC. The defensive line and secondary are dealing with turnover but are infused with talented youngsters who simply haven’t had the opportunity to show what they can do. When it all comes together Cincinnati’s defense could really be something special this season.
FYI, I may have lied about that kitten.