Many evaluators state that winning starts in the trenches. This is where the University of Kentucky will rely on a group of veterans to help lead them to a winning record in 2016. Mark Schofield breaks down the Kentucky Wildcats blocking schemes in both the run game and pass protection that will underpin a hopeful season in Lexington.
Under head coach Mark Stoops, the University of Kentucky has yet to break through with a winning record. Stoops took over his first head coaching job prior to the 2013 season, and the Wildcats limped to a 2-10 record, with their only victories coming against Miami of Ohio and Alabama State. But after successive 5-7 seasons, Kentucky is on the cusp of its first winning season since 2010. The Wildcats return 14 starters for their 2016 season, including nine on the offensive side of the ball led by four offensive linemen. This experienced unit, and their execution, are the key to this team getting over that seemingly elusive winning record mark. Under the tutelage of offensive line coach John Schlarman, this unit has shown the ability to excel in both pass protection and in zone blocking schemes.
Here is a very good example of the inside zone blocking scheme, and it gives a chance to illustrate the communication that is involved up front for each play. When a zone running play is called, one of the first decisions that must be made at the line of scrimmage, particularly against a four-man front, is which way the center is going to block. Depending on the technique of the defensive linemen, even though the play may have all the blockers moving to their left, the center might first work to his right to execute a combination block with the backside guard, depending on the defensive front. The center will read the front and execute a “left” or “right” call (the terminology will vary) and that decision has repercussions for the rest of the line.
On this play, the Wildcats face a 2nd and 9 against Louisville, and line up with quarterback Drew Barker in the pistol formation and 11 personnel on the field. Running back Mikel Horton (#4) stands behind the quarterback, and the offense has three receivers to the left with tight end C.J. Conrad (#87) in a wing outside the left tackle. The Cardinals’ 4-2-5 nickel defense lines up and shows Cover 2 in the secondary, and up front the interior uses both a 1 technique and a 3 technique:
Kentucky calls an inside zone play with the blocking flowing to the right. Before the snap, center Jon Toth (#72) sees both the 1 technique to his right as well as a 3 technique to the backside. He makes a “right” call, which tells the offensive line a few things. First, he will work with right guard Cole Mosier (#74) to execute a combination block on the 1 technique first, with the guard flowing to the second level to handle the Will linebacker. This call also lets the playside tackle know that he is now one-on-one with the defensive end. The center’s call also lets the backside guard and tackle know that they must work a combination block on the 3 technique, with the tackle flowing to the second level once the 3 tech DT is secure and blocking the Mike linebacker:
Two final things to notice pre-snap. First, the offense leaves the backside defensive end unblocked. On some plays that defender is blocked, but here the offense leaves first-round pick Sheldon Rankins (#98) untouched, as the quarterback will read him and decide whether to keep the football or hand it to the running back. Second, note the wide split the RT has from the RG. This, as we will show soon, is by design.
The ball is snapped and the blocking comes to life:
Toth and Mosier both strike the 1 technique nose tackle, while the LG and LT execute their combination block on the 3 technique defensive tackle on the backside. Also look at the playside tackle, George Asafo-Adjei (#64). Notice how he widens away from the interior of the line. This is a coaching point for the playside tackle in Kentucky’s zone scheme. As Schlarman stressed in the 2016 Nike Coaching Clinic, “[o]n the inside zone, we want the playside tackle to expand the hole whenever he can. If he splits and the defensive end widens with him, that gives us more room on the inside.” Now the pre-snap split comes into play, as it helps widen the hole for the RB:
Now we can see the hole being created, and the combination blocks starting to work to the second level. Mosier has come off the combination block on the 1 technique and is in position to handle the WLB, while the left tackle has extracted himself from the 3 technique, and is ready to take on the MLB. With Toth handling the 1 tech by himself and the RT taking the DE wide, you can see the hole develop.
Here’s the play in motion:
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The running back takes the handoff and delays a bit in the hole, before plunging forward for a solid 5-yard gain. The safety does a good job of filling the hole and forcing the cut inside, but this play is blocked extremely well at the point of attack.
Another coaching point that Schlarman stresses to his group is that any blitzing edge defender must be blocked when Kentucky runs inside zone. “I would rather get the play started than have the blitzer come off the edge and tackle us for a loss. If the blitzer comes flat enough, he can kill the play … I believe you must be concerned with the edge blitzer on the inside zone play. If you do not block the most dangerous defender, you are going to have issues. If the inside linebackers are making plays you are gaining yardage.”
Here is this coaching point brought to life.
Against the Cardinals, Kentucky faces a 1st and 10 on the Louisville 30-yard line. The Wildcats line up with 11 personnel using the pistol formation, with Horton again behind Barker. Conrad is in a wing formation to the right, just outside the RT. Louisville has its 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field and show two high safeties before the play:
This defensive front, with a 0 technique and a 4i technique on the weakside, and a 3 technique and a 7 technique defensive end to the strong side of the field, changes the call structure. Kentucky uses a split-zone design here, with the offensive line flowing to the right while Conrad cuts across the formation to the left:
Once the center sees a man lined up across from him, he calls that out to the rest of the OL, and the next call comes from the playside tackle, in this case the LT. He decides based on the pre-snap alignment whether he will block the defensive end to the inside, or try and ride him outside. Here, the LT faces a 4i technique, and the tackle cannot let the defender get inside. So the LT blocks him and prevents penetration. This signals to the center and left guard that they will execute a combination block on the 0 technique, with the center working to the most dangerous linebacker. The backside guard and tackle are one-on-one then with the 3 technique and the 7 technique.
Conrad throws the critical block here, as he comes across the formation. As indicated, the edge blitzer is a point of emphasis for Kentucky, and the free safety drops into the box and blitzes. You can see Conrad’s thought process play out as he comes across the field:
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Initially, the TE is thinking he will help the LT with Rankins. But once Conrad sees the blitz, he makes a last-second adjustment, diverting his course and getting enough of a cut block on the safety. Horton explodes through the interior hole, and quickly into the secondary and the area vacated by the blitz. The blocking comes together for a huge gain for the Wildcats.
Here’s another wrinkle to the zone blocking designs, as this time Kentucky runs zone with both a tight end and a fullback on the field. Against Eastern Kentucky, quarterback Patrick Towles (#14) is in the pistol with Horton behind him, and fullback Will Thomas Collins (#48) standing to his right. The offense has 21 personnel on the field, with Conrad lined up as a tight end in a three-point stance next to the right tackle. They run inside zone toward the left on this play with Mosier lined up at LT. Look at the split he has from the left guard:
Remember, they want to widen the playside tackle as much as possible. Here is how the blocking looks:
On the backside, Conrad and right tackle Kyle Meadows (#73) are responsible for a combination block on the defensive end, while RG Ramsey Meyers (#69) handles the defensive tackle. Toth and left guard Nick Haynes (#68) execute a combination block on the playside defensive tackle, with the center moving to the backside linebacker once the DT is secured. The little wrinkle here is the use of the fullback, who flows to the playside and is responsible for picking up the most dangerous defender, be it the linebacker scraping over or the slot cornerback trying to fill the hole.
Here’s how the blocking comes together shortly after the snap:
The backside of the play is sealed perfectly, and because of his wide split Mosier is able to move the playside defensive end wide and away from the eventual hole. Toth and Haynes get control of the DT, before the center peels off and looks to pick up the backside linebacker flowing toward the play. Now it’s the fullback’s turn, and Collins cuts into the hole that’s created and picks up the linebacker. This creates enough of a crease for Horton, who is able to break through the tackle attempt of the defensive back, and pick up 8 yards on first down:
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Now I want to highlight just two examples of pass protection that illustrate the promise of this young, but experienced, offensive line. Against Louisville, the Wildcats face a 3rd and 10 on the Cardinals’ 45-yard line. Barker stands in the shotgun and the offense has 10 personnel on the field, with dual slot formations. Louisville has its 4-2-5 nickel defense showing Cover 2 Man Underneath:
Rankins (#98), selected in the first round by the New Orleans Saints, lines up at defensive end, outside of the left tackle. He executes a T-E Exchange (TEX) Stunt up front with the defensive tackle:
Johnny Richardson (#90) aligns head up on the left tackle, and at the snap he crashes into the B Gap between the LT and Haynes, the left guard. His goal is to try and occupy both the guard and the tackle, and create a lane for Rankins behind him. Big #98 explodes forward off the snap, before cutting behind Richardson and aiming for the A Gap. But watch the exchange between the left tackle and Haynes:
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The LG plays this perfectly. He strikes the inside shoulder of Richardson but he trains his eyes on Rankins, knowing full well the TEX stunt is coming:
Haynes deftly passes off Richardson, and sets to anchor against Rankins. He gives up a little ground, but is able to stop the penetration attempt by the stunting defender:
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The play eventually does go for a sack, but not because of the effort up front.
Here’s one final example of the work being done by this offensive line, again in pass protection. Against Eastern Kentucky, the Wildcats face a 3rd and 8 in their own territory, early in the first quarter. They line up with 10 personnel and Towles in the shotgun, with running back Jojo Kemp (#3) to the right of the QB. EKU shows Cover 3, but sugars the A Gap with the WLB before the play:
Because of the blitz shown pre-snap, and the alignment of the RB, Kentucky slides its protection to the left:
This means that defensive end Noah Spence (#9) is unblocked, and the responsibility of Kemp.
The defense does blitz, but it is not the WLB who comes after Towles. He drops, but it is the MLB who comes:
As you can see, the initial blocks are setting up, but RG Meyers is yet to find work. The guard is checking to make sure that the block to his right is being executed, but little does he know what is coming his way, in the form of the blitzing linebacker. But before you know it, the guard does a tremendous job of snapping his head and finding someone to hit:
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Meyers absorbs the initial blow from the LB, before getting a bit of assistance from Toth. The protection holds, giving the quarterback enough time to deliver a throw and convert the third down.
This offensive line is a unit that has combined for 87 career starts as they enter the 2016 season, and they look to be starting an experienced group of juniors and seniors. Under Schlarman’s guidance, this group will only improve, and will play a big role in attempting to get this Kentucky team its first bowl berth since the 2010 season. Fear not Wildcats fans, brighter days are right around the corner.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, or how Connor Cook is like comfort food, or potential 2017 NFL QB draft picks.
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All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.
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