Alcorn State faced third-and-12 early in the first quarter of its game against Georgia Tech on Saturday. It seemed a logical place for Victor Alexander, Tech’s Jack linebacker, to attack the pocket from his position a few steps to the left of defensive end Desmond Branch.
This was Tech’s sixth defensive snap, and he had rushed upfield on the first five. But, at the snap, Alexander slipped back into zone pass coverage, creating an overload of blockers on the right side of Alcorn State’s line. The Yellow Jackets now enjoyed room to exploit two one-on-one matchups on the other side, and both defensive end Anree Saint-Amour and Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson created enough pressure to squeeze quarterback Noah Johnson out of the pocket, resulting in a scramble short of the first down. Alcorn State’s offense returned to the sideline after a three-and-out series.
It was not an attention-demanding play for the Jack position – considered to be a primary playmaking position in new defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s 3-4 defense – but it was evidence nonetheless of the sort of disruption that Tech hopes to create defensively.
The Woody era is only one game old, and, as coach Paul Johnson said on his Sunday teleconference, “I’m not a guy to jump to conclusions after one game or one quarter or a guy doing something. I want to see a little bit of a body of work, and then I’ll figure it out.”
That said, a review of the Jack position’s play from the first half of Tech’s 41-0 win over Alcorn State gives some indication of what may be to come from Woody, the Jackets and the Jack.
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In the 3-4 – three down linemen, four linebackers – the Jack lines up outside one of the ends, standing up on the line of scrimmage, bent at the hips and knees. He typically comes after the quarterback as an edge rusher and figures to have a speed/quickness advantage against most offensive tackles, which is what makes him such a important player in Woody’s defense. Last season at Appalachian State, Jack linebacker Rashaad Townes contributed seven tackles for loss (including five sacks), four quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles.
In 27 first-half snaps against Alcorn State, the Jack – Alexander, followed by Jaquan Henderson and freshman Jordan Domineck – rushed upfield 20 times, 74 percent. The other seven times, the assignment was typically to drop back into zone pass coverage.
That uncertainty is one of the strengths of the 3-4. In the 4-3 – four down linemen, three linebackers – offenses can generally count on the four defensive linemen to rush upfield. In the 3-4, the three defensive linemen will rush, but the identity of the fourth (or fifth) rusher is less clear. Usually, it’s the Jack, but it could be the stinger linebacker, who usually lines up opposite the Jack a few steps off the line, or an inside linebacker or perhaps a defensive back.
In the aforementioned play, Alcorn State blocked Branch and nose tackle Chris Martin with its right guard, center, left guard and left tackle, the last of whom appeared ready to take on Alexander, but instead re-positioned to double team Branch. Saint-Amour and Johnson took advantage of their matchups (against the left tackle and a running back, respectively) to close in on the quarterback.
At Appalachian State, Woody employed advantages like that to rank among the nation’s best in third-down defense, sacks and interceptions.
Alexander had a relatively quiet game – he was credited with one assisted tackle – but in the first half he beat left tackle Chris McCrea on one pass rush, helping chase Noah Johnson out of the pocket, and defeated a cut-block attempt to bring down Johnson on a read-option keeper.
Woody also showed his willingness to rotate players, putting in Henderson in the fourth possession and Domineck for the fifth and sixth possessions. Using multiple players at one position keeps players fresh and also helps develop the roster. Woody has indicated that he intends to use the roster in such a way. By the end of the half, Alexander had played 14 snaps at Jack, Domineck nine and Henderson four.
Domineck demonstrated what appears to be another Woody hallmark – all 11 players chasing the ball.
Alcorn State threw a swing pass to its right away from Domineck, who was lined up over the left tackle, but the freshman rallied to the ball, chasing the play from the opposite hash mark nearly to the numbers on the far side of the field as running back De’Shawn Waller was brought down. (Nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson gets a star for the play, as he actually was the one making the tackle, hustling his 298 pounds from the center of the field to the field’s numbers to bring down Waller after he slipped out of a tackle attempt.)
There was plenty of room to improve, particularly in pass rush. And Tech’s level of competition will surely rise. But for a first game, it was an inviting glimpse of what could be.