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Florida vs. New Mexico State, Theater of Operations: Breaking down Gators' D, tight ends

Our film review returns to look at some little-discussed things from Florida's opener.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The day following Florida's first victory of the season, a few friends and I went out for Sunday brunch (as everyone should). During said brunch, we discussed the previous day's college football games (also, as you should). Seated at a table full of Gators fans, you could tell there was a refreshing excitement within the tone of conversation.

And someone said: "It's incredible how 61-13 this year feels so much better than 65-0 did last year."

Jim McElwain took over as the leader of an exhausted fan base. For the last two years, we'd been forced to watch the rest of college football make moving the ball and putting up points so easy while our own team spun their wheels in mediocrity, and even below that at times. When people asked me what I though of Florida's future at the beginning of the year, I told them that I thought this program was two or three years away from a true SEC title shot.

I still believe that. But I think I speak for everyone when I say, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was watching college football in The Swamp again.

It's a work in progress, and it will be for a while. But you always take the good with the bad; you have to look at things as a whole and in perspective. That's what I'm going to continue to do this season as I bring back the post-game film breakdowns. We're going to dive into the game tape and go through some of the plays that made a difference. We'll understand not only what worked and what didn't, but why it netted that result. Plus, we'll get a better look at player progression and points of emphasis moving forward. So, without further adieu, let's press the play button.


This is a screen grab from last year's Birmingham Bowl. The reason I'm showing you this image first is because there's a subtle (but meaningful) difference between how defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is going to line up his front versus what Gators fans have been watching for two years.

Last season, the defense ran through Dante Fowler. Each defensive set up was base around getting him the best matchup to put pressure on the quarterback. As you can see above, the line is shifted towards your side of the screen in order to assure Fowler gets a on-on-one matchup and will avoid a double team.

You'll also notice he's standing up instead of putting his hand in the ground like the rest of the defensive line. This is a sign of a signature Muschamp 3-4 formation. Even though the defense is in nickel formation -- meaning only that there are five defensive backs on the field instead of four -- Muschamp still treated Fowler as a BUCK/JACK linebacker opposed to a true defensive end. The reason for this could be a number of things, but the main reason is so Fowler could readily use his long arms.

This season, Fowler is collecting paychecks from the Jaguars, and is not a weapon Collins can use. So who's his go-to pass rusher? On Saturday, it was Jonathan Bullard.


Florida will continue to base their defense out of the nickel formation due to their speed advantage and talent overload at defensive back; that part won't change, especially against spread teams like New Mexico State.

What will change is how they now line up their front four. Here, we see a more balanced set than what we saw last year. The defensive line is evenly lined up with the opposing offensive linemen. Bullard is on the top side of the formation on the screen, and there's no special shift to his advantage. The reason for this is because of both what he is and what he isn't.

Fowler was what football analysts are now calling an EDGE player. This is a player, normally in a 3-4 system, who solely plays off the edge, whether standing up or with their hand in the ground; the point of calling the position an EDGE is to signify that he's on the, yes, edge of the defensive line, whether in a 3-4 or 4-3.

Bullard is not an EDGE guy; he's more of a true 4-3 defensive tackle, or a 3-4 defensive end. At 6'3" and 285 pounds, Bullard is, as is fitting for his name, a bull rusher. He uses a quick snap reaction and strength to knock both offensive tackles and guards off their balance. Because of this, Collins won't try to maximize Bullard by getting him one-on-one matchups, but by moving him along the trenches instead.

Here we have Bullard lined up on the inside of that 4-3. Bullard makes his money as a run stopper, but Florida is going to need both him and Caleb Brantley to get pressure on the quarterback, too, if it wants to have defensive success this year. The Vine above is textbook pass rush from the inside. Bullard gets low, hits the gap and forces his way to the ball before the QB has a chance to move.

When rushing from the outside, timing the snap count is everything. Here we see Bullard jump forward the second the ball is moved; he's already engaging the right tackle before he has a chance to get balanced and before the ball even reaches the quarterback. That's how you win match ups on the outside.

I have some simple numbers I use to chart defensive lineman. As a defensive tackle, Bullard had a 41 percent impact rate (five successes in 12 tries), meaning his actions forced the offense off their intended play design, either by a little or by a lot. In that 41 percent, he had three QB pressures (meaning he forced the QB to move out of the pocket), one hurry (he forced an early throw) and two tackles, with one doubling as a sack. As a defensive end, Bullard had a 22 percent impact rate (2-for-9), but he also played fewer downs at DE. In those two impacts, he had two QB pressures and a tackle.

Overall, I was encouraged by Bullard's first game; he showed a nice foundation to build upon. As we go forward, note where he's playing when he makes his impact. Is it inside at DT or outside at DE? That should tell you something about what Collins sees from the opposing offense.

Moving to the deep zone, let's talk defensive backs for a bit.

When you put five or six defensive backs on the field, you're looking to either counter an opponent's speed or take advantage of your own. A good reason to counter would be the opposing team possessing a dual-threat QB with a fast RB, or a penchant for bubble screens and slants. A good reason to take advantage would be a defensive coordinator's preference for cornerback blitzes to throw off an offensive line or challenge a running back who can't block well. Florida will do both, and did both last Saturday.

On wide receiver screens and West Coast passes (passing plays that have the QB throw the ball in under two seconds), Florida allowed just 3.1 yards per pass against New Mexico State. On option plays to the outside, they allowed just 2.4 yards per run. That's what you want to see. I know they gave up some big plays including a long pass and a few options up the middle (one for a touchdown), but in terms of not letting the speed plays gash them on the perimeter, Gators did their job. That's a credit to their tackling, too.

With Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal returning, look for more solid coverage on developed plays, and look for Collins to unleash Brian Poole as a blitzing corner at least once per game.

Now let's get to some offense.

I'm sure many of you are looking for me to break down Treon Harris and Will Grier performances (I did a bit of that here), but we actually have a more extensive article on that coming later this week, so I'll let that be that. (You could probably convince me to do a film session breakdown of just those two after ECU this week if you ask nicely.)

What I am going to break down here, however, is something I alluded to when I wrote the "what to expect" article during the offseason on what Gators fans should look for in a McElwain offense, and that is Florida's heavy emphasis on tight ends.

Jim McElwain's a pretty smart guy. He figured out early that if a 6'5" tight end who runs a 4.7 40-yard dash is lined up against a 6'0" linebacker who runs a 4.9 40-yard dash, his tight end is going to be open more often than not.

If a 6'5" tight end who runs a 4.7 40-yard dash is lined up against a 6'0" linebacker who runs a 4.9 40-yard dash, his tight end is going to be open more often than not.

That's what we see in the Vine above with DeAndre Goolsby. In the pre-snap, Goolsby slides to the strong side on the formation. At this point, he could either block or go out for a pass. With both options available, the strong safety covering him not only has to worry about Goolsby, but also keep his eyes across the field in case the tight end is blocking and he has to pick up a zone.

The ball is snapped, Goolsby takes off, and the strong safety freezes to check the run for a split second. That's all McElwain's play design needs. Goolsby is then a full step ahead of his man (who overpursues), and Grier delivers a great pass down the sideline.

Another tight end concept we'll see McElwain use is a simple vertical route straight up the field.

Anyone who has ever played Madden knows the concept of a TE vertical route. You hike the ball, wait for the TE to run just past the linebackers, and throw him the ball in the window between where the linebackers are and the safety is. That's exactly what we see on this touchdown to C'yontai Lewis.

It requires great timing by Grier, who, even though Lewis was contested at the catch, threw the ball in with zip and accuracy, permitting Lewis to use his body to shield the catch. But Lewis also did use his body to shield the catch, showing considerable skills that have been lacking from Florida's tight ends of late.

Along with it being a great concept to run in the red zone, a tight end on a vertical routes can be a safety valve during a blitz.




Do not blitz the house against a McElwain offense. You will probably regret it.

In the 2014 season, Florida's TEs had a total of 26 catches for 237 yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday alone, the Gators tight ends had seven catches, 100 yards and two touchdowns. This trend is going to continue, and the movement is only going to grow as McElwain starts to put a serious emphasis on recruiting high schools' top tight ends.

That's all for this episode of whatever we're calling the thing I do where I watch film and you all read about it. (IT'S THEATER OF OPERATIONS, C'MON, TREVOR. — Andy) We stayed pretty basic in this piece, but it's all a part of a foundation we'll build upon as the Gators build their own strategies throughout the year.

You can't learn the complexities without knowing the underlying components. So far, the main components for Florida's success are utilizing Bullard, staying aggressive in the secondary, and finding matchup nightmares with tight ends.