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Tennessee Opponent Film Preview: Georgia State — Defense

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Will The Tennessee Offense Finally Explode Against A FBS Opponent?

Georgia State v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There is no way around it, the Georgia State defense was flat out bad last year. This unit ranked last in the Sun Belt Conference in total defense, and ranked 124th nationally in the same category. Much of Georgia State’s defensive struggles last year can be attributed to youth. The Panthers played a ton of underclassmen, including three true freshmen starting in the defensive backfield. Georgia State found it tough to stop the run, pressure the quarterback, and create turnovers. That is a recipe for defensive disaster.

However, there is room for optimism if you’re a Georgia State fan. They bring back a ton of experience having taken their licks in 2018. An additional year of offseason strength and conditioning, combined with an increased comfort level on the field, should translate to a less porous defense in 2019. So, what is their defensive philosophy?

Georgia State’s base defense operates as a 3-4 scheme — three defensive linemen, four linebackers. Like Tennessee when in their base package and base front the Panthers will play a nose guard directly in front of the center, and the defensive tackles will align head-up on the offensive tackles. The outside linebackers will align in an outside shade position of any tight end or wing in an effort to contain. Finally, they usually present with a two-high safety look. Below is an example of what the defense should align like against one of Tennessee’s most basic offensive formations.

Figure #1: Georgia State Defense Diagram

Saturday Tennessee should have a massive advantage at the line of scrimmage. Georgia State has just three players over 300 pounds on their roster, all of which play on the offensive side of the ball. The projected starters at defensive line all hover around 275 pounds. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re not skilled players. Georgia State will certainly be looking to utilize their speed along the defensive front. From their head-up alignment watch for the defensive linemen to slant into gaps looking to disrupt pulling offensive linemen and control gaps. That being said, Tennessee’s offensive line is big enough and strong enough to consistently move the Georgia State defensive line backward.

A simple offensive approach should be all that Tennessee needs to win this game. In the running game I would expect to see some basic plays that will be a staple for the offense all season. One of these plays is called Texas. I wrote about this play in our ‘Inside The Tennessee Playbook’ series, and if you missed that article you can catch up right here. Texas is a strong-side inside zone play that we will run without a lead blocker. Below is an an example of Texas against the likely Georgia State alignment.

Figure #2: Texas vs. Georgia State

Coach Chaney is able to dial up Texas from a number of personnel packages, but I suspect it will be mostly 11 and 12 personnel groups. With two tight ends this play is relatively straight forward. The backside tight end would be responsible for the C-gap, sealing off the ‘Jack’ linebacker from pursuit. If the offense is in 11-personnel on Saturday — like the above diagram — I think that our running backs will still be too fast to the hole for the ‘Jack’ linebacker to make a play. However, an easy way to account for this defender would be to have the quarterback read — or at least appear to read — the ‘Jack’ player. Most of the time the quarterback will give the ball, but if there is a clear and obvious opening to the outside due to the ‘Jack’ biting hard on the give the quarterback could keep the ball. Should Guarantano do this he will have to make sure he slides quickly to protect himself.

An additional adjustment on this play would be to run a bubble screen from the slot with Jauan Jennings, and flip it out to him in the flat if the ‘Jack’ linebacker over-commits the run. Tennessee would feel great about Jennings one-on-one with a safety — if he can’t run around the safety he will at least run him over. I expect the Vols the run Texas over and over on Saturday until they get it perfect, and then they may just run it some more!

There is a similar play to Texas in the Vols playbook that I could also see them running a ton on Saturday. It is a gap-scheme play rather than a zone-scheme play. The play-side looks similar, but the play-side guard down blocks on the nose guard with the center up to the ‘Will’ linebacker instead. This allows for the backside guard to pull around to the ‘Mike’ linebacker. When the Vols are set with their strength to the right this means Trey Smith will be pulling and blocking a linebacker. Just to be able to watch Trey play football again is a treat, and I can’t wait to watch him bury a linebacker on Saturday.

What I found interesting in my study of Georgia State’s defense is that they tend to stick with their base personnel. This is a major difference from Tennessee’s 3-4 defensive scheme. When Tennessee is confronted with 11-personnel and spread offensive formations they will swap out a linebacker and replace him with a defensive back. This moves the defense into a 4-2-5 defense, and creates for better match-ups defensive. Georgia State, however, will adjust to spread formations simply by bumping out their outside linebackers while remaining in a 3-4 structure. Below is an example from last season.

Figure #3: Georgia State vs. Spread

The circled player is outside linebacker, Victor Heyward, who usually aligns toward the offense’s strength. Rather than playing up near the line of scrimmage he has dropped back to what I would call an ‘Apex’ position between the #2 and #3 receivers of the trips. I believe the Vols will look to exploit this alignment should the Panthers adjust in this way on Saturday.

Obviously, Georgia State has more than one coverage they can call. But, from what I could tell they are often in ‘Quarters’ coverage and use a four man rush. This means that the corners and safeties are each responsible for sectioning the deep area of the field into four separate quarters. The ‘Jack’ linebacker typically rushes with the defensive linemen, leaving the ‘Sam’, ‘Mike’, and ‘Will’ linebackers in charge of the underneath zones. Below is a rough diagram frequent Georgia State ‘Quarters’ coverage.

Figure #4: Georgia State Quarters Coverage

Now, this coverage may have man-matching principles and not strictly be spot-drop zone the way I have it draw above — but you get the idea. Perhaps the most talented position group for the Vols heading into 2019 is the wide receiver group. With Callaway, Jennings, Palmer, and Johnson all returning — not to mention Tyler Byrd, Jordan Murphy, and Jacquez Jones contributing to depth— this group is a force to be reckoned with. An option against this coverage could be to run four verticals, giving each wide receiver a one-on-one match-up against a defensive back. Although this would be favorable for Tennessee I don’t think we will see too much of it on Saturday. As already mentioned I expect the Vols to be able to move the ball consistently on the run. This, I believe, will suck in the linebackers on the play-action pass, contributing to success in the intermediate middle of the field — think Dig and Hook routes.

Although the play below is not a play-action pass, I thought the this example from Georgia State’s game last season against North Carolina State illustrated the concept well. You can see that the #2 receiver to the top of the screen does an excellent job of stemming to the outside, and hooking around the outside linebacker in coverage. The receiver is able to find and sit in the open hole within the zone. This was an easy throw and catch for the offense, which led to a third down conversion.

Figure #5: Hook vs. Georgia State Quarters
Clip #1: Hook vs. Georgia State Quarters

In summary, Georgia State should be an improved team from a season ago. They bring back a great deal of experience to a defense that was extremely young a season ago. Still, I don’t expect the Panthers to give the Vols too much of a challenge from a physical standpoint on Saturday. Look for Tennessee to run it early and often, and use the play-action pass to connect on intermediate routes and keep drives alive.

That’s all we have for Georgia State. Hopefully you feel prepared for what the next opponent will throw at us. Please share the article if you enjoyed it, and feel that someone else would, too.

If you missed our article on Georgia State’s offense you can catch up on that right here.