Xs and Os on Saturday’s Florida-LSU showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
There’s another side to the will-he won’t-he drama surrounding Tim Tebow’s prospects of suiting up this Saturday when Florida takes on LSU: Will this be the coming-out party for quarterback John Brantley, not as just as the Gators’ quarterback of the future, but, as some believe, college football’s next great quarterback? This week provides the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at how Urban Meyer might readjust his offense to take advantage of Brantley’s more traditional set of skills if he’s the man at LSU, and how Tebow’s absence changes how the Gators will attack.
To use Isaiah Berlin’s phrase, Tim Tebow is a fox: He does everything well. No running quarterback on the college level has ever been a better passer, or if you prefer, no passing quarterback has ever been a better runner. In 2007-08, Tebow passed for more than 6,000 yards and accounted for 97 total touchdowns (62 passing, 35 rushing) while finishing in the top four nationally in pass efficiency and leading his team in rushing both seasons. Such extreme versatility is the key: Tebow lacks the kind of breakaway speed of past great running quarterbacks like Tommie Frazier, and though I think his passing abilities are often underrated, no one would say he’s a truly polished passer. His proficiency in both areas, though, puts defenses in binds attempting to defend the range of his skills. More than anything, it’s that incredible ambidexterity that fuels the Gators offense: It can do it all, because Tebow can.
But if Tebow is a fox, Brantley is a hedgehog: He is a classic pocket passer, and that’s what he does well. A star recruit out of Ocala, Fla., Brantley has inspired not only early faith among his teammates, but also hyperbolic commentary from the faithful that, had Tebow left for the NFL, Brantley still would have been the second-best quarterback in the SEC coming into the year, behind only Jevan Snead at Ole Miss. Yet, no matter how talented he is, Brantley still has to find a way to fit into Urban Meyer’s run-first spread, designed for foxes like Tebow.
Scheme stability. While Meyer and offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will tweak the system for Brantley, anyone who expects them to download the nearest NFL playbook and go "pro-style" is fooling himself. Florida’s offense will look much the same: Plenty of shotgun, plenty of varying formations, plenty of motion, and, yes, even plenty of option. I haven’t seen a lot of Brantley but he’s not a total stiff, so I can’t imagine that Meyer will simply throw all of that stuff out — too much of his offense is built on making the quarterback some kind of threat to run.
But there will be different points of emphasis: The speed option will become less a way to get the quarterback in space, as it is with Tebow, than as a cheap way to get Chris Rainey or Jeffrey Demps on the perimeter. (This is similar to how Gus Malzahn uses the speed option at Auburn with non-running threat Chris Todd.) The "veer" plays will likely be set up so that the defense will be more likely to take on the quarterback and thus free the runningback; and expect Meyer to use a healthy dose of his famous shovel play, as the defense tends to go for the quarterback, thus allowing him to shovel it upfield to either a trailing running back or even Aaron Hernandez, the Gators’ talented tight end.
If he starts in Baton Rouge, Brantley’s role in Florida’s offense will harken back to the traditional role of the spread quarterback as distributor, where the premium is on getting the ball to speedy guys in space, as opposed to Tebow’s role as rhinocerous-in-chief. Addazio, who took over for Meyer’s longtime right-hand man, Dan Mullen, has served as Florida’s offensive line coach throughout his tenur in Gainesville, and I’d imagine he will put the onus on those front guys to carry the day.
New horizons. The most intriguing Gators staff member is not Addazio or even Meyer: It’s quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler, a transplant from Michigan by way of the NFL. Some of the preseason talk was that Loeffler was there to help Tebow get ready for the pros, but the smart money guessed he was really there for Brantley, the type of pocket guy he was used to dealing with. Loeffler is considered one of the game’s better teachers of a timed, rhythm passing game, an area the Gators haven’t focused on, but at which Brantley will have to excel. Tebow, hampered by a depleted receiving corps, struggled in the one game this season against a defense determined to give Florida the outside pass and take away the inside game. To exploit that tendency, Brantley will not only have to employ his considerable arm strength and accuracy, he will also have to use his ability to read defenses and throw on time.
An example: One of Loeffler’s favorite plays also happens to be one of Peyton Manning’s favorite plays in Indianapolis: The levels pass. (The irony of the Gators winning with a Manning favorite is either subversive or delicious, take your pick — though Meyer’s good friend Bill Belichick also uses the play in New England.) The concept itself is quite simple: Various receivers run a "square-in" route at different depths — i.e. different levels. The innermost receiver (in the example below, the tight end) runs the square-in at around 12 yards, though it can be as deep as fifteen. The two outside receivers run square-ins at about five yards deep. To the single receiver side Loeffler likes to package another concept with levels, in this case, the curl/flat.
The tricks to making the play work are, first, the routes are all timing based, and so they must be thrown on true rhythm — the quarterback must take his drop, his back foot must hit and he must throw the ball to his first read or else reset his feet and look for his second read; there is no time to sit there and wait and wait for a receiver to break open. The second is that the quarterback’s progression is actually dictated by the coverage, meaning that he will look at a completely different set of receivers depending on how the defense plays. Indeed, while much of Urban Meyer’s run game is based on how many deep safeties the defense employs, this is an even bigger part of Loeffler’s pass attack. This is not to say Meyer ignored "counting the safeties" before, but Loeffler puts a big premium on it. So if the defense plays a two-deep — i.e. cover two — then Brantley must read the levels side: (1) The tight-end on the deep square-in; (2) The innermost short five-yard in; and (3) The outside receiver on the five-yard in. The diagram below shows why: Against cover two, Brantley would first read the middle linebacker. If he stays shallow, the deep in is open behind him. If he drops back, then Brantley throws the quick route to the inside receiver. If the middle linebacker drops but the strongside linebacker ("S") collapses down to take away the inside receiver, then the outside receiver should be open. It’s that simple, and notice how basic the throws are: All right in front of the quarterback.
But what if the defense plays with a single-safety back? Brantley’s reads change considerably. Now he only will throw the square-in if it is wide-open for some reason, and really he looks at him as he begins his dropback simply to hold the safety as well as any interior defenders who might be keying his eyes. But instead of looking at the short in routes, Brantley would look to the backside curl-to-flat combination. The idea is that the running back, by running wide to the sideline, would force the weakside linebacker to widen, thus opening up a passing window to throw the ball to the split end on a curl route, as shown below. The curl receiver’s job is to sell like he is going deep either on a go or to the post, and to keep his body between him and the quarterback. If Brantley makes his reads right, it’s that simple.
Of course defenses in the SEC try to disguise their coverages so it is not always so obvious if they are in one-high or two-high, which is what makes quarterbacking a challenge. But the Gators coaches are high on Brantley’s ability to make these reads, and if he is the pro prospect they say he is, he’ll have success.
Of course, all this might become moot this weekend if Tim Tebow is cleared or pulls off some kind of "Hoosiers" moment by running out of the tunnel at the last second to take command of his team — or, better yet, emerging fully dressed just before the second-half kickoff with his team trailing 17-7, only to lead them to victory. Theatrics aside, and going beyond this weekend next, Florida will be John Brantley’s team next year, and the above quick distribution spread with a heavy dose of sophisticated passing will likely become the team’s hallmark in a post-Tebow era, as unfathomable as that might sound after the last three years. If Tebow’s not ready to go Saturday, it may have to be the hallmark now to get out of one of the toughest environments in the country with all the season’s lofty goal intact.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.