A few days ago my colleague here at Rocky Top Talk, Evan Winter, wrote an article highlighting the recent outstanding play of Tennessee’s senior safety Nigel Warrior. Evan’s inspiration for the piece came from a conversation former Tennessee coach, Doug Matthews, had with The Midday 180 crew on 104.5 The Zone. The theme of their conversation was that Warrior is playing at a higher level now than at any point during his Tennessee career. Evan took a look at the numbers and found that this is absolutely correct.
If you haven’t been able to read Evan’s piece yet I would encourage you to do so before reading any further. I was surprised to see just how good Warrior has been statistically over the last six games, and I bet you will be, too. You can find Evan’s article RIGHT HERE.
Nigel Warrior has established himself as a difference maker on this 2019 squad. The question is: how? What has happened, recently in particular, that has contributed to his jump in productivity? I believe there are two on-field factors that we can point to that help us answer this question.
What is evident from film review is that Nigel Warrior is a much more consistent tackler than he has been in previous years. Despite often ranking near the top of Tennessee’s tackle leaders in each of the previous two seasons — and again so far this season — Warrior has been criticized for his ability to tackle. If you don’t believe me simply head over to Twitter’s search function, type in “Nigel Warrior Tackle,” and scroll away.
To illustrate the growth Nigel has made in this area let’s take a look back at the first game of the Jeremy Pruitt era. In this example West Virginia has the ball up three scores and is driving with a little over four minutes left to play. Why did the Mountaineers run a reverse on first down with a three score lead late in the fourth quarter? I couldn’t tell you. It seemed unnecessary to me, but nevertheless, the Vols need to stop the opponent. Warrior — circled below in orange — can be seen rolling down from his safety position prior to the snap.
We do need to give Warrior some credit on this play. He does a nice job of “staying home,” and is therefore in good position to provide run support. Although he is not very physical with the lead blocker he manages to avoid contact and maintain outside leverage. Unfortunately, he does not do as great of a job at “breaking down” as he closes on the ball carrier and misses the open field tackle. Pursuit from Darrin Kirkland Jr. helped to prevent this play from going for an even larger gain.
A great contrast to the example above comes from Tennessee’s most recent game against Kentucky. The Wildcats were driving early in the fourth quarter looking to take the lead. On first down, almost identical to the previous example, the Kentucky offense is running a reverse play back toward Warrior’s side of the field. Warrior can once again be seen in his safety position rolling down before the play begins.
As in the previous example Warrior does a good job of not falling for the reverse and staying in position. This time, though, Warrior is much quicker to the point of attack. He is more physical with the lead blocker while maintaining outside leverage. And, he stays on his feet while wrapping up the ball carrier and bringing him to the ground. This is simply an exceptional job by #18.
Turn on a replay of one of Tennessee’s last six games and you will see plenty of examples like the one above from the Kentucky game. Recently, Warrior has been more confident in his ability, quicker in run support, and more sound in his technique than in past seasons at Tennessee. It’s no wonder two of his last six games have been 10-tackle performances, his highest single game total since the 2017 season opener that went into double overtime — against a triple option opponent.
2.) Coverage Skills
The second factor we can observe is Warrior’s improved level of comfort in coverage. In his first two seasons on Rocky Top the Vols weren’t really tested much through the air. Tennessee actually ranked third in the country in terms of passing yards allowed per game during the 2017 campaign. That’s because they struggled so much defending the run — in 2017 they ranked 125th in the nation in terms of rushing yards allowed per game — that opponents never needed to pass in order to win. It can be difficult to develop as a player when one is not tested in game scenarios. Then, last season, Warrior needed to adapt to a completely new defensive scheme and philosophy — one that places greater emphasis on man-matching concepts.
It hasn’t necessarily been an easy road, but the growth under Coach Pruitt and Coach Ansley has been obvious. Coming into the season Warrior had just one interception and four passes defensed. So far this season Warrior has four interceptions and five passes defensed. The key to Warrior’s improved coverage, in my opinion, has to do with his improved positioning and leverage.
We’ll begin by looking at his interception from this season’s Mississippi State game. The Vols were protecting a 10-point lead late in the third quarter when, on first down, the Bulldogs decided to pass. Quarterback Garrett Shrader lofted a pass toward his receiver breaking on a corner route. However, Tennessee was playing their Bracket coverage in this situation. Nigel’s responsibility on the play was to provide double coverage on the receiver with leverage inside and on the top of the route. He trusted that ‘Star’ defender, Shawn Shamburger, would be in coverage outside and underneath the route. It was an ill-advised throw to be sure, but Warrior was in perfect position to make the play when the ball came his way.
For a more detailed explanation of the above interception check out this article which breaks it all down: BRACKET COVERAGE.
We can see an additional example of Warrior’s leverage on his interception against UT Chattanooga earlier this year. The Mocs were attempting to move the chains on third down with a post/out concept. The corner carries the post with leverage outside and on top of the route. Because the #2 receiver runs a short out, which the Vols have covered, Warrior was free to cut underneath the post route, safe in the knowledge that a cornerback was over the top. The result was a great interception and return.
When a defensive back plays with sound leverage and position, and trusts the other defensive backs to do the same, it’s amazing how the ball tends to find them. That has certainly been the case with Warrior this year.
To close I would like to make two final points. For one, there are numerous factors that we’re unable to observe which have undoubtedly contributed to Warrior’s enhanced level of play. Things like leadership development, film study, and time in the weight room all play a major role in player development and should be recognized.
In addition, the purpose of this article was by no means intended to highlight negatives of previous seasons. It is easy to go back to a game from 2017 or 2018, forget the context of those seasons, and pick out plays that were not executed very well. This is true of every player. My hope is that this article simply helps to demonstrate the progress Nigel Warrior has made and the player he has become. We wouldn’t be on the brink of a bowl bid without him.