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Florida vs. East Carolina, Theater of Operations: Gators find go-tos against Pirates

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Florida's offense is finding its way — but it's finding go-to plays, too.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Winning football games is hard. And sometimes, teams make it harder than it has to be. Unfortunately, Gators fans are used to that. It really took a complete effort for Florida to pull off their one-score win versus East Carolina last week, and as long as Jim McElwain continues to use a two-quarterback system, it might continue to be harder than it has to.

Let me start by crediting ECU for showing some guts; they played with nothing to lose, and that mentality let them take more risks, which did benefit them. However, let me also be honest: It should not have been that close.

Offensively, there's much more to take away from the game than McElwain's sideline explosion with Kelvin Taylor. How Mac is choosing to coach and plan with what seems to be two separate units led by the two quarterbacks has a lot more say in the result than the weekly depth chart.

Instead of going over certain players and statistics that you all can look up on your own, we're going to think outside the box and go over some play concepts you should keep an eye on going forward. The first is one we've already seen success from: The wheel route

Wheel Route

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In last week's contest, we saw Florida use the wheel route as a counter in many different forms. The first is probably the most common. It's a running back, usually found in a mismatch with bigger, slower linebacker out of the backfield going up the sideline and using speed to make separation. That's exactly what happens here.

Wheel routes work in layers. They tend to pick a part a defense by themselves if run correctly. Go back to the image above. Look at the play from Will Grier's perspective.

He knows where Powell is going and the speed he has. When he reads the defense, Grier should first notice OLB Joe Allely playing close to the line of scrimmage; he's either blitzing or covering Powell man-to-man. The next player to check is who could be the second option covering Powell. Look at the middle linebacker: He's all alone. If Allely does end up blitzing, and the middle linebacker is the one covering Powell's route, Demarcus Robinson's crossing route would've been wide open over the middle because the corner is playing so far off him.

On this play, the wheel route concept itself either causes a mismatch on the wheel route or produces an easy reception on the next option. It was one or the other, and it happened to be Powell for a big gain off a nice throw.

Moving on.

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Here, just two plays later, we see a basic two-receiver wheel route -- now, I know this is technically just a cross at the line, but it gives the effect of a wheel route because of where the tight end runs and what it does to the defense.

On this play, we're going to focus at the top of the screen, where C'yontai Lewis is lined up inside and Valdez Showers is on his right.

This is another play design that forces the defense to choose where they want to be vulnerable. With three receivers on the bottom side of the screen, and five total on the field, the safeties both move up and out of the deep zone to cover a man. Since Grier knows both Showers and Lewis are going down the field, he also knows one of them is going to be open with no defensive help beyond 15 yards.

Grier chooses Showers's post route, which was the incorrect choice, but the more important takeaway is showing what the wheel route forces secondaries to give up if they get close to the line.

Let's run though it frame-by-frame.

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First, we see the safety move up to cover Lewis.

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At the snap, we immediately see the play call pay off: The safety is delayed, not expecting Lewis to go outside. This also neutralizes the middle linebacker, who is moving towards a place where no receivers will be. That takes him out of the play.

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This is the point at which Grier has begun his throwing motion. There's only one man capable of making a play on either receiver Grier's looking toward, and his hips are completely pointed towards Showers. The corner reads Grier's eyes, and makes a play to break up the pass to Showers, but gets flagged for interference.

Still, it's hard to come away from that frame above with an incomplete and not a touchdown for Lewis.

It's frustrating looking back at a wide open touchdown, but plays like this show the game plan is working. Any time you see a team start to press Florida or use their linebackers in coverage as we see above, keep your eyes open for a wheel route coming from somewhere soon. When executed perfectly, it's almost impossible to fully stop.

Bunch Formation

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Bunch formation is another thing McElwain likes to use to throw the defense off, but he has used it sparingly. A formation is considered a bunch formation when three receivers are lined up in a triangle shape as we see on the top of the image above. A formation that stacks so many players to one side helps the quarterback identify if the defense is in zone or man coverage, and also forces the middle linebacker to shift one way or the other. If there's a blitz coming, it's often countered by the safety moving down to cover one of the receivers, which, as we've learned before, opens up the deep zone.

This play, however, starts in bunch formation to identify the coverage, then sends a man in motion and sets up chaos with linebacker assignments. leading to broken coverage.

Next time, you see the receiving triangle, look to see if the safety comes down near the line of scrimmage. That usually gives away a blitz, and it will also give away the type of coverage.

Two Tight Ends

We'll round out this week's offensive breakdown with a look at some of Florida's two-tight end sets. Let's start with how it affects the run game.

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We saw Florida completely change its game plan when Treon Harris came in. There were more wide receiver screens and quick-read plays, but there were also more two-tight end sets near the offensive line. When Grier was in, we saw more of one tight end at the line and another tight end out wide. I'm not sure if McElwain and Doug Nussmeier were trying to get more bodies up front to block in case Harris took off to run, but that's sure what it looked like to me.

This play is a designed run to Jordan Scarlett. It shows what a two-TE set can do off the edge.

When you see a two-tight end set on a run play, it's usually going to be a stretch run: The entire offensive line pushes either left or right instead of straight up the field. This gives the offense a numerical advantage towards the sideline and creates a running lane where a back can focus on breaking the tackle of a corner rather than a linebacker. Watch for more running plays to develop outside when multiple tight ends are involved.

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Finally, here we see both DeAndre Goolsby and Jake McGee on the right side. Both end up going out for a pass and both also end up taking the linebackers all the way down the field. It's a vintage McElwain tight end vertical play which sends McGee and Goolsby up the middle of the field as fast as they can. The window to pass the ball is when either of them gets a step of separation on the linebackers before the safety can step down and close the gap.

Watch and see.

Perfect play; perfect ball. With McElwain, we're seeing that it's not always about the players being better or more talented: If they trust the system, the advantages it bakes in for them can make them better and more talented, more or less.

So, what should you watch out for next week?

  1. Look for the wheel routes when defenses get aggressive in their linebacker coverage.
  2. When you see bunch formation, identify the safety and watch which players the defense shifts if there's motion down the line.
  3. Make notes of how UF uses one, two, or even three tight ends at once by comparing where they line up before the snap and where the offense is in relation to the end zone. They'll get more creative as we go.