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Position Analysis: Linebackers and DC Kevin Steele

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When Steele was brought to Clemson late last December, I knew we had found a good one. He has a long history of good coaching and great recruiting, though he's rarely stayed in one place too long. His longest stops were at Nebraska and FSU, 4-5 years. His initial contract that lured him from Alabama was in the ballpark of 375K, and after Tennessee's overtures last month, it appears he'll get a bump to the mid 500K range.  

Many of you think he's overpaid for his results. I think you cannot properly evaluate a defensive coordinator until after his 2nd year installing his system, and the system is quite complicated. We've covered Kevin Steele's defensive philosophy considerably here at STS, all available on the right sidebar under defensive strategy, and its basically carbon-copy Saban. FYI, Saban ran a 4-3 at LSU and runs a 3-4 only 40% of the time at Alabama. This post will not rehash much of that information.

The Season review highlights the final rankings of the defense.

How we will evaluate Kevin Steele, as LB Coach and Defensive Coordinator.

  • Gameplanning/In-game adjustments.
  • Recruiting
  • LB discipline and gap control
  • LB pass coverage skills
  • Tackling
  • Turnovers, roughly 3 points per fumble forced and 0.9 per interception. Yet we do not have the statistics for this.

Steele was named 2005 Recruiter of the Year by Rivals while at FSU and has a long distinguished record in recruiting. Look at all those players he pulled in at various places. His assigned regions are the PeeDee where his family is from, with parts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. Unfortunately, it appears as though Dabo Swinney prefers to hold his coordinators off the road more than Bowden, and during the season they are essentially nonexistent in recruiting. This year was a bit of a disappointment for me with Steele's results. He snabbed only CB Martin Jenkins, an undersized speedster CB out of Roswell GA. I was quite surprised to only rarely see Steele even mentioned anywhere. In 2011 though, he'll be going out for some prime players in WR Tacoi Sumler and LB Lateek Townsend and Sam Merriman, so we'll have to reserve judgement on recruiting for Kevin Steele. I expect much better in the future however.

Watching through the film of every game this year, I noticed that Steele was quite good at making in-game and halftime adjustments. Often times the defense would have just one or two bad drives in a ballgame, with a key 3rd down penalty to give the opponent better field position and extend drives. Lets look at how Clemson adjusts from a scoring standpoint.

Opp 1st Qtr - 76 points, 5.4ppg

Opp 2nd Qtr - 80 points, 5.7 ppg

Opp 3rd Qtr - 69 points, 4.92ppg

Opp 4th Qtr - 58 points, 4.14ppg

Note that this is not entirely defensive points allowed, I've not subtracted anything out. Another 3 points was given up in OT to Miami (i apologize for the mistake).

In the first quarter of every game, an opposing offense is adjusting and reading what the defense shows them, and theyre not in any rhythm, so rarely do many teams consistently rip up their competition from the opening snap. If you take out the first game against GT, those 76 drop to 55. Recall 1 of the 3 TDs for GT that first quarter was on special teams, registering as a return, while the other trick play had the defense on the field. As evidenced by our defensive points allowed in the 2nd, the opponents do a good job of reading our scheme and adjusting and attacking it. The biggest culprits were Maryland, where the defense basically slept 2 drives with bad coverage and poor tackling; Virginia, who ran trick plays and Wildcat to great success; and of course GT in the ACCCG.

Judging by the 2nd half points allowed, its quite clear that Steele makes excellent halftime adjustments. Only 2 teams, GT and Miami, scored more than once against us in the 3rd quarter all season. If not for dirt minutes against NC State the 58 would drop to 52. For comparison sake, since Alabama runs the same scheme, the Tide only let Auburn, Florida, and VT score 10 or better in any single quarter this year.

Its in the area of 3rd down conversions and rushing stats where Clemson's defense can improve the most.

Clemson plays a schedule where our opponents generally ran the ball nearly 1.5-2x as much as pass.  The ACC is a very defensive-oriented league, meaning there are more conservative coaches who prefer to run the ball and play defense/field position battles. Only TCU, Maryland, BC, Miami, and FSU attempted to pass nearly as much as rush. Clemson only allowed over 4 yards per carry or better against GT (twice), Miami, and Kentucky. (Note that sacks do count as rushing attempts) Only two more opponents averaged more than 3.5, SC and FSU. The ideal goal though, for outstanding defense, is about 3.3 per rush. We held 6 opponents under that mark, but only UVA down the stretch. Alabama allowed better than 3.3 only 3 times this year.

3rd down percentages are ideally under 30%, yet only the best teams get near it. Most coordinators will kill for that number, so 40% is a little more realistic. Unfortunately we're not there yet either. Clemson held 4 opponents under 30%, 7 under 40%. Most disturbing is that MTSU got 45%, and a 2-10 MD team got 41%. Miami, FSU, and GT (the 2nd time) all got over 55%. Alabama only allowed better than 40% conversions twice this year.

If the rushing stats come down, the 3rd down percentages will come down. This leads us into a look into what actually makes a team good against the run: gap control/discipline and tackling.

Generally Clemson tackles well. The secondary is adequate in run support, particularly DMac and Gilchrist. The DL and LB corps should be doing the bulk of the tackling though, and we can improve here. I would not say that our rushing yardage allowed is a big indicator of bad tackling (other than GT and UVA); it is bad angles, poor gap control at times, and not getting off blocks more than anything else.

Turnovers and scoring defense: a rule of thumb for measuring turnovers is to measure it against the points allowed by the defense. Clemson allowed 279 points (subtracting the lone punt return TD) this year, for an average of 19.93 ppg overall. Clemson garnered 21 INTs this year with 9 recovered fumbles: thats Top 20 in terms of Turnovers forced. Top 5 in interceptions. 9 FFs is middle of the pack in the NCAA, the best teams are in the 17-19 range.

For anyone interested, the home scoring defense was a stellar 12.3ppg.

Unfortunately I dont have the statistics to properly make a comparison here. You need to look at each drive where a turnover was made and the result. For example, the defense forces a INT, and the offense scores 7 points on the ensuing drive, you get 7:1. If the offense scores 3 on the ensuing drive, its 3:1. If none, its 0 for 1. The rule is 3 points per fumble recovery on average, and about a point for each interception. This is a coach's measure.


Now I'll diverge from reviewing our defense as a whole and look at the LB Corps in particular. The chart below shows the most important LB statistics for 2009 via the NCAA official site.

2009 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Total Tackles     TFL     Sacks    FF  
Kevin Alexander    54 6 3.5 1
Daniel Andrews 4 0 0 0
Jeremy Campbell               15 2 2 0
Scotty Cooper 12 0 0 0
Corico Hawkins 18 3 2 0
Brandon Maye 95 7 3 4
Kavell Conner 103 7 2 2
Tig Willard 15 2.5 0 0

Getting off Blocks: We don't do it well, that much should be obvious and particularly for Maye. He takes on far too many blockers head-on and has not mastered techniques at block evasion, a critical need for a Middle LB who regularly takes on uncovered Centers and Guards. If he has poor technique, his lack of size is truly detrimental to his play. Conner has better technique, and Alexander is fair at getting off blocks, yet KA didn't make the impact I expected him to make. Coach Steele will need to work some magic with these talented underclassmen coming into starting roles next year. I didnt see enough of anyone but the starting 3 until the last game against Kentucky, where Hawkins and Campbell did well in relief of Maye.

The video below via displays several drills that linemen and backers practice at block evasion. It would be easier for you to watch it than me explain it.

When a defensive scheme is laid out on the blackboard, a particular gap is assigned to a player to watch and cover. A DL will usually have a gap assignment thats easily read from his initial alignment at the snap. A LB will have one or two depending on how the DL lines up, usually.

For example, a DT playing a 3-Tech, which means he aligns on the outside shoulder of the Guard across him, will usually have the B-gap (between G-T) assigned to him to control. Nobody should make it past him in that gap. If he's playing the B-gap to that side, the MLB will have the A-gap between the C-G on that side to control. The MLB will have a "key" to read, meaning he's watching only a few players at any time. He'll be watching the Guard-Center, the QB and the nearest RB in general. Whatever these guys do, he reacts to them. If you wish to understand better, read our explanation of the Under front on the sidebar.

(Just to clear up confusion, the 3T is the Weakside DT, Mike is playing Strongside B-gap when the ball comes to him, Weakside-A if it goes away. Will plays behind the 3T 5 yards off the Tackle, and covers the D-gap around the DE to the Weakside A-gap if ball away.)

Without going further to bore you, I'll just say that at many times, Maye misreads his key, and ends up not being in the gap he's supposed to protect. He likes to ready-charge-aim instead of ready-aim-charge. He runs before he thinks, then gets nailed by a Guard weighing 100lbs more. The other LBs are varying levels of middling ability at gap control. Conner was much better at it this year. The DL suffer some of the same problems, mostly due to them wanting to charge upfield and they outrun the play, so all of this is not on the LB group. Gap control and discipline is the biggest thing we'll need to see from Maye and the young guys this year to get any better.

The LB position is unique and probably the toughest on the field to play because of having both run and pass responsibilities on every play and coverage call. Players have to be smart, disciplined in reading keys, and with enough size to tackle big backs and handle linemen blockers, and still cover smaller RBs and TEs in man/zone coverage. Clemson primarily plays a mix of Robber and 2-Man coverage. Robber I've explained here, and its basically man-man with a deep FS and a "robber" or underneath LB playing a zone over the middle. This is what Maye ends up doing alot, and he's pretty good at it. His speed definitely helps him keep up with the backs and we did not get eaten up by crossing routes this year (which is a tactic used to beat M/M coverages). Many times you would see him delay blitz when he was really playing Robber.

Kevin Alexander does such a good job at jamming TEs in man/man that we weren't beaten by them over the middle due to his lack of speed. Since KA is not going to go step for step with slot WRs in spread formations, Steele usually pulls him out for a Nickelback. Ideally you would want more speed there than he has, but still enough size since most teams predominantly run to the Strongside. Conner at times was late getting to his RB in man/man coverage this year, so a LB with better speed at WILL would be preferable. He at least has a high motor, which saves him at times. Height is not an essential requirement at WLB like it is at SLB (because SAM must run with the tall TEs). This is one reason why I believe that Maye could end up playing weakside someday.

Redshirt Players

Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey are both coming off RS seasons. Shuey will definitely play MLB and is up to 250 lbs. If he has the quickness and smarts, I wouldnt be surprised if he seriously pushes Maye at MLB, and could free Maye up to move to WILL. Christian has grown nearly an inch and weighs in at 215-220. He has the speed to play outside, but I'd prefer a few more pounds on him to play SAM.

Of the lesser players, I believe Hawkins could step up bigtime in 2010, as could Willard. However, I haven't seen enough of them to rate their on-field performance. Hawkins and Campbell did admirably well in reserve duty for Maye in the Bowl game at MLB, and Shuey will step into the 3-deep at MLB. Willard and Christian are probably going to crosstrain, with Andrews, outside. Cooper will be back in the mix at SAM as well.

I hesitate to predict a starting 3 simply because I have not seen these other guys play, but I would not be surprised if its Maye/Hawkins/Willard going into Spring ball. This position is in total flux.

Incoming Players

Justin Parker was a national recruit at Linebacker, displaying good range and football smarts. Parker is expected to compete somewhere for considerable playing time. However, given the amount a LB must learn, only a truely gifted player will come in and start right away. If Maye is moved outside, I could see Parker playing MLB this year. At 230lbs he has the size to play at any of the 3, but likely lacks the strength to play at SAM just yet.

Ricky Chaney was offered initially as a LB by David Blackwell, and committed as soon as he got the chance. If he makes it into Clemson though, he's said that the staff will slot him at SS initially. I expect he will RS either way.

The Verdict - Steele has a long record as a great recruiter, and he makes great in-game adjustments for the most part. Some games stick out in everyone's mind that we lost, and it colors your opinion of him. I do blame him for Georgia Tech in the ACCCG. I did not like his scheme at all in this game, nor the adjustment he did make. It was a different scheme than in game 1, and the LBs did not execute at all.

I would put more blame on the offense for TCU (2 fluke plays led to their scores) and of course Maryland. He did make significant adjustments in game 1 vs GT, and the adjustment he made to the Midline that they beat us with in the 4th quarter of that game was just a few plays later than we needed, but he did make the adjustment.

SC I would call a complete team loss. Bad gap control and discipline, just bad all around.

But given his track record at LB, I'd have to give him the benefit of the doubt and more time to make the needed upgrades in talent and skill. Also, year 2 of a scheme usually shows the most improvement, so we should be better on defense all-around in 2010.