September 1st, 2007. A date that many die-hard college football fans remember well.
It was on this day that massive underdog Appalachian State went into Ann Arbor, Michigan and knocked off the fifth ranked team in the country. The Mountaineers were undoubtedly a strong team that season as they ranked number one amongst the football championship subdivision. But, no one could have predicted that an FCS school would best a national championship contender playing on the road. In fact, the odds were so in favor of Michigan that there wasn’t even a betting line for the game.
What does that game have to do with Tennessee’s match-up with Georgia State on August 31st? More than you might think.
No, Tennessee isn’t ranked in the Top-5 nationally. And no, Georgia State is not an FCS school — having made the jump to FBS in 2013. Still, the Panthers will be looking to pull off what would be considered a major upset in the season opener. To do so they may adopt an offensive strategy similar to that of the 2007 Mountaineers.
Shawn Elliott is entering his third year as Georgia State head coach. After a bowl victory in his first season the Panthers took a huge step backward in 2018 by going 2-10 overall. Following last season the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, Travis Trickett, left the program to pursue a vacancy on West Virginia’s staff. This made room for Elliott to bring in Brad Glenn, Western Carolina offensive coordinator, to fill the same role at Georgia State. Now if I’m starting to lose you hang in there — this is where things get interesting. Elliott and Glenn know each other well. They coached together on the offensive side of the ball for — you guessed it — the 2007 Appalachian State Mountaineers.
The use of empty formations, and the play of talented dual-threat quarterback Armanti Edwards, were critical pieces to the Appalachian State upset in 2007. In fact, all four of the Mountaineers’ touchdowns in that game came on plays run from an empty formation. Don’t believe me? See for yourself here. I suspect that Glenn will employ a similar approach in an attempt to upset the Volunteers in Neyland.
It wouldn’t be a bad strategy all things considered. Dan Ellington is a very capable dual-threat quarterback in his own right. He led the Panthers in both rushing and passing yards last season. A second factor is the difference in size along the lines. It is unlikely that Georgia State will be able to push Tennessee around up front. A spread attack focused on getting the ball out quickly may help prevent Darrell Taylor and company from living in the backfield.
Finally, the Tennessee secondary — which was supposed to be a strength of the defense this season — has recently taken some major blows. Starting defensive back, Baylen Buchanan, has a narrowing of his spine that will definitely keep him out of the opener. Bryce Thompson has had recent legal trouble and is currently on an indefinite suspension. Starting senior linebacker, Daniel Bituli, has missed time recently following a knee procedure that looks like it may keep him out of the opener as well. Ultimately the Vols may be forced to rely on youth in coverage, something Georgia State may feel that they can exploit.
Specific examples of Brad Glenn’s offense were hard to come by considering Western Carolina’s FCS status and lack of marquee games. But, I was able to find a couple plays from their game against North Carolina last year that I believe will illustrate how Glenn will attempt to attack the Vols with his new team.
The first example occurs after the Catamounts intercepted a pass and returned it deep into plus-territory. Following a gain of zero on first down they jumped into an empty formation on second down.
North Carolina brings boundary pressure on this play, and it’s actually a great call. The offensive line was in slide protection to the field, so the Tar Heel linebacker from the boundary edge has a free rush at the quarterback. But, the mobile quarterback is able to evade the rush while keeping his eyes downfield. The motion and crossing route by the receiver from the top of the screen leave him basically one-on-one with the safety with a ton of room to operate. The quarterback throws the ball to a safe area, and it’s a big gain down to the one-yard line.
A second example from this game came late in the second quarter as the Catamounts were driving into scoring position before halftime. In this situation the defense elected to play what looks like man-coverage underneath with a safety over the top and the middle linebacker spying the quarterback.
The quarterback is able to see the cushion that the #2 receiver to the trips side is getting prior to the snap from the defensive back over him. With 30-seconds on the clock and all three timeouts remaining Western Carolina is just looking to move the ball closer into scoring position. The hook route on this play is a smart place to go with the football. The line is able to give the quarterback time in the pocket, and it’s a relatively easy completion near the line to gain considering the off-coverage.
The empty formation is a great tool that Georgia State can use to be competitive against the Vols. The combination of Dan Ellington’s dual-threat capabilities, and getting receivers into one-on-one matchups, is a far more favorable strategy than trying to pound it up the middle against a much larger defensive line. The spread formation can open up the middle of the field for easier throws for the quarterback. An offense can run a variety of screens from this formation, too, which help alleviate pressure and prevent sacks. So how will Coach Pruitt adjust defensively to try and stop all of this?
Well, I think one particular quote from Monday’s press conference was very telling. Pruitt said, “we’re going to keep it simple on both sides of the ball and let our guys plays as fast as possible.” In his eyes there is no need to make things too complicated, or give away any tendencies ahead of BYU and the SEC schedule. Tennessee, despite some losses in the secondary, should still be athletic enough to win this game with a straightforward game plan.
Keeping it simple is certainly what the Vols did when confronted with empty formations last season. Although the Vols rarely saw the formation in Coach Pruitt’s first season as head coach — less than 15 plays by my count, not including Wildcat or running back quick motions to empty before the snap — they defended it with a simple approach.
They used what Nick Saban would call Cover-5. I’m not sure exactly what Coach Pruitt calls it in his system, so I’m sticking with Cover-5 until I learn his terminology. This is a man underneath, two-deep coverage. The two deep safeties are responsible for one half of the field deep in zone coverage. The corners, star, and linebackers — or an extra defensive back in the Dime package — man-up on the eligible receivers. We’ll go through a couple of examples of this Cover-5 concept from last year against empty formations next.
The first example comes from Tennessee’s game against the Florida Gators. The Gators were aligned in a trips-closed formation originally, but motioned the running back out — bottom of the screen — prior to the snap. The defense adjusted to this with an interesting rotation, leaving three defensive backs on the receivers to the top of the screen, and a linebacker on the running back to the bottom of the screen. You can tell the underneath coverage is man-to-man by a couple of factors. First, prior to the snap the defenders are aligned in an inside leverage position on their respective receiver, as you can see below.
Secondly, after the snap you can see the defenders turn toward their respective receiver. On this play the #3 receiver is able to run a seam and get on top of our defensive back. Then he bends his route inside slightly, putting him between the safeties and in good position on our defensive back in coverage for a big reception.
Next is an example from a few games later against South Carolina. Before the snap Baylen Buchanan is caught out of position, but as you will see in the clip he is able to recover nicely. Below is the alignment at the snap. Note again the inside leverage position, man-turn, and two deep safeties.
Quarterback Jake Bentley finds a major speed mismatch with #3 receiver, Deebo Samuel, against Vols middle linebacker Darren Kirkland Jr. Despite the speed disadvantage Kirkland Jr. stays plastered to Samuel, and makes a huge play on third down to get the defense off the field.
The final example comes is taken from the Kentucky game. Again, you can notice the inside leverage position of the Tennessee defenders, the man-turn in coverage, and two high safeties.
On this play Tennessee is again confronted with a speed mismatch as Kirkland Jr. is aligned to the bottom of the screen over Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden. However, Terry Wilson elects to throw, like the previous examples, to the #3 receiver over the middle. This is a nasty juke route by the slot receiver, which puts our defensive back off-balance enough to move the sticks.
I suspect we will see much more of this defensive look against Georgia State on Saturday should they align in an empty formation. I will be extremely interested in watching the match-up of our defensive back on Georgia State’s #3 receiver. Like we’ve seen in the examples above this player could be a linebacker or a defensive back depending on the package. We have a ton of promising young talent, and I’m excited to see who will rise to the occasion.
My expectation is that the Vols will look much more like the South Carolina and Kentucky examples above than the Florida example. Our linebackers and defensive backs should be fast enough to stick with their man in coverage — as we saw in the South Carolina example. Also, in the Kentucky example Tennessee is in their Dime package, and you can see Deandre Johnson drop out from the rush to spy the quarterback. This is because of Wilson’s mobility, compared to that of Franks and Bentley previously. As we have already discussed Dan Ellington is certainly a capable runner. I anticipate that the Vols will get the Panthers into 3rd and long quite frequently. Watch for Tennessee to use a sixth defensive back and a quarterback spy to maintain solid coverage without allowing the quarterback to scramble for big plays.
Of course, in college football everything is subject to change. If Georgia State is carving us up Coach Pruitt and Coach Ansley have multiple adjustments they can make. But, if we want to keep things simple and allow our athletes to play fast, Cover-5 against empty seems like the answer.
Watch for Georgia State to attack the Volunteers with the empty formation on Saturday, and pay attention to how Tennessee responds defensively. Stay tuned for more information on Georgia State’s defense coming out later this week! If you’ve enjoyed the article, and think someone else would too, please feel free to share. And, as always, Go Big Orange.