The Florida Gators enter their matchup versus Vanderbilt with both AP Top 25 votes and talk of coming out on top of the SEC East, (rolls eyes).
The 38-20 win versus Georgia not only felt good, but looked good, too. It was the feet of Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones that dominated the day for Florida, but was it just a great day and some good execution, or is it a trend that we should get used to seeing starting with Vanderbilt?
To answer these questions and more, I had the pleasure of Google Chatting Anchor of Gold's VandyTiger Phd for the inside scoop on life after James Franklin. (Also, Google Chat is impossible to find if you don't know what you're doing/have never used it before. I hadn't felt that technologically helpless since my GameBoy Color froze right in the middle of the eighth gym leader battle in Pokemon Blue.)
The story of Vanderbilt's defense this year is based on young players and new coaches. Following Franklin's departure, the Commodores are in the beginning stages of a program transition under Derek Mason, and that includes moving from a 4-3 formation to a 3-4, to get size at the initial point of attack at the line of scrimmage.
However, because this is the first year of the transition, Vandy's roster is filled with mostly 4-3 players being forced to play a 3-4. As a result, most of what you'll see Vandy line up in will be what is called a 3-4 over, which plays the rushing linebacker so close to the line of scrimmage it acts as a 4-3.
Here's a 4-3 on paper:
And here's what it looked like last year for Vandy against South Carolina.
What's emphasized here are the four defensive players who have their hand on the ground at the line of scrimmage. The point of this formation is to get a snap-reaction rush from four players right off the bat, hopefully disrupting the pocket by combining power and push from the inside and speed on the outside. The 4-3 relies upon production from the front four, in .
Let's compare that to the 3-4, and what Vandy is trying to transition to:
Here's what that looked like during this year's Vandy vs. Kentucky game.
It's not a perfect example, because the second outside linebacker on the top of the box is actually a nickel corner, but this screenshot works to highlight the shape of the defense.
In the 3-4, the purpose is to emphasize the linebacker positions, using "smarter" players as the focal points. The front three players are generally called upon to take up blockers which allows the linebackers make plays freely. It gives a defense more of an athletic edge, but it's been a problem for Vanderbilt because in order to have success at the second level with the linebackers, those three defensive lineman have to eat up most of the five offensive lineman by themselves.
That requires a lot of size and strength, and unfortunately for Vanderbilt, only two of their interior starters weigh over 300 pounds. And so we get to talk about talented edge player Caleb Azubike ... who's playing out of position. At 6'5" 265 pounds, Azubike should be the star players at the JACK outside linebacker position (used as a walk-up linebacker who rushes the passer standing up, not with his hand in the ground).
However, because of the 3-4 transition, he's being forced to play at the 3-4 DE position more than his skills should allow. He still gets it done on the line, but he's not nearly as effective as he could be. You'll see him mixed in and off the line of scrimmage, but his motor will be evident each play, even if he's getting overwhelmed with size and double teams.
What's more of a problem than Azubike being out of position is the lack of consistent push from Vince Taylor and Adam Butler on the inside. When you watch the tape, they're actually nice assets in the pass rushing game, but that's again an example of how they would fit well in a 4-3. In the attempted 3-4, if they get pushed around, HB blasts, dives and anything else up the middle can be costly.
Yes, that's Todd Gurley, I know. But Kelvin Taylor was able to burst through the middle against Georgia just like that the week before. If there's speed and power up the middle, there's trouble for Vandy.
Here's another snippet showing how getting bullied up the middle can hurt.
Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham have some speed and talent as the Commodores' two inside linebackers, but they're also both redshirt freshmen -- side note: Vanderbilt plays 31 freshmen, most in the FBS. UK's Patrick Towels was able to put the moves on these two a few times this game, and Treon Harris has the same kind of mobility. Containment seems to be an issue.
If there's a bright spot in the darkest place, it's in Vandy's secondary with sophomore Darius Sims. The back line seems to be the weakest spot in Vanderbilt's game, again mostly because they're starting two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, but Sims has been able to do some damage at the nickel spot.
You won't see Vanderbilt take too many chances on defense. They're not going to be a team that leaves their outside corners to win one-on-one matchup alone. You'll mostly see some sort of Cover 3 or Cover 2 with help over the top depending on where their linebackers will be in relation to the extra defensive back they like to play. That brings us back to Sims.
Used also as the Commodores' kick and punt returner, Sims shows good instincts in space and more playmaking ability that I saw from the rest of Vandy's DB unit.
In the play above, Sims goes all out after reading the body language and eyes of Patrick Towles and it pays off for him. VandyTiger noted that he hasn't seen as much of Sims lately, maybe that's because he took one too many risks like this one, but they haven't been paying off. We'll see him in the return game, but it's yet to be determined how much of an impact he'll be left to have in the secondary.
In the end, I know things looked bad for Florida coming into the second half of the year, and I'm trying not to overreact like this is a new, championship-bound Gators team, but Vandy is just ... not ... good. They have the perfect storm of circumstances conspiring against them on defense, with the transitioning formations and loss of a few key upperclassmen last year. VandyTiger admitted as much: With a formation change on defense, he said, you usually just forfeit the year.
That's kind of what it's looking like Vandy might end up doing on Saturday, and if the Gators make this Vanderbilt defense look anything like a top-half SEC defense, I'll be shocked.
But, hey, I've been unpleasantly shocked before.