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