The 2018 season at Homer High School was an expected challenge. We were coming off a head coaching change which moved our defensive coordinator into the head coaching role and moved me from the JV Head Coach into a varsity coordinator role. We were currently in undoubtedly the most successful decade in our school history with five straight playoff appearances (only three all-time before that decade). The head coach and I were the only returning coaches from the previous staff and were taking over a team that lost five All-State players. We only had three soon to be seniors projected to be on the team. We knew it was going to be a massive challenge with losing 18 of our 22 starters and two different directions on offense and defense (our head coach switched to offensive coordinator and I became a first year defensive coordinator).
The year was a challenge. We started off the year playing two conference champions and then in week four were a part of the worst defensive performance in nearly eight years (64 points allowed). It wasn’t before long that the playoff streak was no longer a possibility and community whispers began to circulate about the coaching change and whether or not things were moving in the right direction. We finished the season 3-6 and allowed 28 PPG, 211 rushing yards per game, 65% passing completion, and 60 percent third down completion. Worst defense in eight years. At first, selfishly, it was easy to make excuses for what had happened that first season and even easier to blame the kids. We started six sophomores on defense and 9 of the 11 starters were first time varsity starters. New scheme, inexperience with me being a first time play caller, all of those factored in, but..at the end of the day, it fell on me. It fell on my vision, or my lack of one.
One year later...2019 ended up being the second best statistical defensive season we had in the decade behind our semi-final appearance. We went 7-3 with two of our losses to state finalists. The following are the three big ideas, philosophy and scheme wise that allowed us to finish the 2019 season dropping our average 15.5 PPG, 120 rushing yards per game, 43% completion percentage, 25% third down percentage.
Dropping the Average: Scheme
This isn’t going to be a huge scheme study. I am going to talk more X and O philosophy than details. I love all of the twitter chats and zoom clinics, but I am going to be honest, I just don’t see some of the stuff you guys see. We play a run heavy schedule outside of one team and this year due to personnel they ran the ball more than normal. As bad as we were in 2018 we only allowed 110 passing yards per game, because no one passes in our league. In 2019 we allowed 61 yards per game for reference on 10 pass attempts per game.So my scheme had to match our opponents. We might not see a ton of passing, but see a variety of offenses, so I needed to move to something that I thought was versatile. We got away from the 4-4 Cover 3 that we ran at Homer for the last few years and installed a 4-2-5 quarters base defense. The transition didn’t go so hot. It wasn’t the scheme, but my understanding of the scheme wasn't there yet. I was trying to find a perfect system, a magic fix. I decided to study concepts that could fit my structure. Whether through their articles or e-mail, I reached out to coaches like Cody Alexander, Logan Rebstock, Peter Pappas, and took in every bit of information I could, sorting out what fit and what didn’t. No matter how much I learned, I had to make it work for our kids. Using what I learned and what I knew of our kids we did the following: dialed up our pressure, pressed our corners, and manipulated our box.
We became a pressure team in 2019. Being a pressure team isn’t just blitzing more, it's making it a part of the culture. We already did turnover and tackling circuits so we added a blitz circuit. During this time all positions worked on blitzing concepts with their position coaches. That also meant I had to call those corner blitzes and safety blitzes in a game, which our kids loved. 2018 we blitzed (brought at least 5) 45% of the time, 2019 we moved that up to 70%. This led to a huge jump in TFLs and ultimately to more stalled drives. Our school for whatever reason has produced smaller bodied kids compared to most teams we play, so movement and pressure was an equalizer for us. It may be a meatheaded concept but if I am going down, I am going down swinging. It also gave us an identity, if you asked any kid in our program what we were going to do on any given down, they would tell you...punch the other team in the mouth.
With pressure we knew we needed to match coverage behind it. We went from MOD quarters to Michigan State Press Quarters. Our corners went wherever their guy went. We were still split-field but more press coverage based. This allowed us to have a man coverage mentality and easily translate to cover zero if we wanted to bring 6. Our school has won and been to multiple state baseball championships, our kids want to compete...so we let them. Wrong or right when we were a cover 3 squad in years before me I felt we had too many guys just getting to a spot and becoming trees. We still run some cover 3 concepts but for the most part I wanted to take the air out of coverage, and with that man mentality we did. A throw completed is a throw earned. When I draw up my defense, for the most part, I don’t even think about my corners. They X out their receivers and allow our safeties to be the ultimate force players. We ended up with an all state corner and as mentioned above...dropped the average in yards and completion percentage.
When I wanted to become a 2-high structure my head coach was hesitant. He didn’t want us to become “soft” in the run. At first he wasn’t wrong. Our safeties were way too hesitant in getting into the fit, the whole “9 in the box” dream wasn’t happening. In 2019 I made them get involved. Through manipulation we were able to get those guys in the box. I didn’t get into 2-high to stop the pass but to stifle the run, two great tackling overhangs on both sides. We got more into invert concepts and choke concepts (tight man coverage on an attached receiver that frees up the safety behind them). So many times teams would try to run weak on us with our safety inverting post snap and adding in. Blitzing the safeties, corners, or rotating into cover 3 concepts from two high made sure our DBs got involved and they loved it. In our scheme there is no “pass coverage” only players, 11 must be prepared to stop the run.
Dropping the Average: Personnel and Buy-In
Jimmys and Joes...they absolutely matter, and ours got better. Our 2018 year we started six sophomores. They got older/stronger and opposed to only three seniors the year before our 2019 team had 10 seniors. It also helped that our conference wasn’t as strong as some years before. Part of their development was an effort to develop our young kids even in our bad year. We try like crazy to start kids one way when we can, and when we can’t...we get them in somehow. Our 2019 team for example had 26 kids, even with only 26 we had five different defensive packages where kids started. We didn’t always run them in a game, some weeks it didn’t make sense to run a certain package, but kids could tell their girlfriends that they were starters. Everyone had a dog in the fight and developed faster, because they had to and cared to know the rules. This slowly prepares our younger kids for bigger roles in the future.
This group of seniors also were much more involved in weight training than the class before them. They came together and had something to prove. In their four years at Homer a majority of their class had never won more than 3 games in a season (JV and Varsity). They bought into what we wanted to do and met a lot of their goals they set for their senior year.
A huge factor to that buy-in came from a personal buy-in from me. Our head coach is huge on Acronyms (which leads to some funny wordplay in coaching meetings). When he was defensive coordinator he came up with HAVOC. When I took over he wanted to keep that but I never really bought into it and used it, blame ego or whatever. In 2019 I decided to make use of the acronym and use it as a guide for our defensive culture.
Those pillars of HAVOC became represented in everything we did during our defensive practice. I told our assistant coaches if they can’t relate a drill to one of those standards then get it out. During drills and scrimmages we now all had a common language as coaches when addressing and coaching the kids. Did they show enough hustle on that play? Did they take advantage of an opportunity with the dropped interception? Were they violent on that bag during the block destruction period? This kind of attention to these words created an instant identity. The coolest thing is when you hear kids discussing why something went wrong using the words from our HAVOC mentality.
Dropping the Average: Preparation
You can take scheme, personnel and everything else you can think of and throw it out the window compared to preparation. The number one thing I did differently was increase the level of preparation that I put in each week. There are tons of great tools for this out there. Cody Alexander who I mentioned earlier has a great template for charting and breaking down opponents. No matter your resource or template, at the end of the day though you have to put the time in. I made a promise to myself before the season that I may not understand X and Os like other coaches, have the same players as other coaches, or even be as great of a teacher as some other coaches, but the one thing I would do...is out prepare every coach I faced. Having a family and coaching football is tough. The amount of stress that coaching puts on you is only quantified by the amount of stress the rest of a normal life puts on you when it all stacks on top of each other. Fortunately I have a great wife that understands this passion and supports me. At the same time I have two daughters that I love very much, so I had to juggle that as well. Being a father and husband must come first. What you spend your time on is what you prioritize in your life. It takes time and great time management to do it. I can say though without a doubt...preparation took us to the next level.
We don’t have Hudl assist so it could get tedious at times. However, putting in all of that data by hand made me a better play caller on game day. It also allowed us to develop auto-checks and design our third down defense. Auto-checks differentiated us from many of our opponents. Scheme is sufficient until strategy is needed. The ability for our kids to check into the perfect play call based on a tendency developed trust in me and trust in the scheme. Football demands attention to details and preparation allowed us to take advantage of those details.
I knew that we had to do something to drop the averages we were allowing. The stuff I mentioned above may not work for everyone, and for some of you it might be obvious. In a broad sense it is what we did to change the tide and hopefully continue our upward trajectory defensively. We will continue to add and tweak things going forward but the philosophies I listed above will always be a part of who we are. Dropping the averages isn’t an instant fix. I know a few teams that gave up way more yards and points than us and went much further than we did. Not every team or situation is the same. For some leagues allowing under 30 a game is an accomplishment. Our team wasn’t built that way and we needed to hold people to low offensive outputs to win games.
There is no quick fix out there. I thought before my first year of being defensive coordinator that since I knew some cool buzz words and had a Michigan State playbook that I was ready to go. After that first season I was really positioned with two realities...my kids failed my scheme or my scheme failed our kids. The first reality crossed my mind just long enough for me to kick myself in the ass and get in gear to become a better coach/mentor.