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2010 Position Analysis: Linebackers and the Defense under Kevin Steele

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. 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 before. This post will not revisit the schematic information.

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

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, Georgia and SE Florida. 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 is something we agree with, but it does keep a good recruiter off the road.

Last year we were very disappointed in Steele's recruiting results. He only pulled in CB Martin Jenkins, who avoided redshirting because of his speed and for the same reason someone like Daniel Andrews avoids a redshirt.  I was quite surprised to only rarely see Steele even mentioned anywhere in the 2010 class cycle, despite joining the staff almost immediately after Dabo was hired.

This year, however, he delivered. Steele and Brooks tag-teamed on LB Stephone Anthony, and Steele landed Lateek Townsend and B.J. Goodson to satisfy a glaring need on our defensive depth chart. Clemson's staff decided to back off Tacoi Sumler for unknown reasons, taking Adam Humphries instead, but Steele probably would've had another 4-star WR committed if allowed to continue recruiting him. Steele entered the Tony Steward recruitment a bit later and he is credited to Jeff Scott.

Now Clemson could have a glaring strength at a position that was a glaring weakness in 2009.

Major Clemson Defensive Statistics under Steele
Category/Statistic 2009 2010 NCAA Rank Change
Run Defense 151.10 128.46 (3.5ypc) 67th --> 28th
Pass Efficiency D 110.88 116.24 21st --> 27th
Pass Defense 162.79 191.85 7th --> 22nd
Scoring Defense 20.43 18.77 25th --> 13th
Sacks Per Game 2.57 2.38 27th --> 32nd
Total Sacks 36 31 13th --> T-28th
Tackles for Loss 7.29pg  7.38pg 12th --> 10th
Interceptions 21 15 5th --> 34th
Total Defense 314 320.31 20th --> 19th
FEI Defensive Ranking 19th 7th
Defensive Efficiency Ranking 32nd 13th

If we took out the horrific play of the defense against North Texas, and replaced it with a general average performance given the rest of the schedule, Clemson probably would've finished Top 15 in NCAA total defense, which is where I thought we would be in 2010. I did however expect our scoring defense to be a point better this year.

There are two things that jump out from this table. For one, the loss of Chancellor and Butler shows you how good they were in man/man coverage compared to the 2010 starters. Its apparent there that Clemson plays man defense too, as the yardage goes up but efficiency is not terribly affected. Man/Man defenses are geared to apply pressure and give up fewer completions (53.7% opponent completion in 2010), but when there are coverage busts the yardage is higher compared to zone teams. This is a given and will happen so long as Clemson plays man/man defense primarily. The second is related to the first, and that is that Steele blitzed a fair bit less in 2010 and allowed his DL to get the pressure themselves. If he felt the secondary missed their cover corners, it makes sense to lay back with the Linebackers.

Overall I'd say this is a good performance difference and shows improvement despite having no talented depth at the critical LB position. Refer to the link for the definition of the FEI statistical measures.

Gameplanning/In-Game Adjustments

We watch and re-watch Clemson's games each week as well as our opponents. We noted last year how well Steele manages in-game adjustments and cited the points per quarter allowed to illustrate his ability. 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 in 2010:


Opponent Scoring by Qtr, 2009 vs 2010
Opp 1st Qtr 76 pts, 5.4 ppg (2009) 43pts, 3.31 ppg  (2010)           
Opp 2nd Qtr     80 pts, 5.7 ppg       80pts, 6.15 ppg
Opp 3rd Qtr 69 pts, 4.92 ppg 88pts, 5.23 ppg
Opp 4th Qtr 58 pts, 4.14 ppg 57pts, 4.38 ppg

Note that this is not entirely defensive points allowed, I've not subtracted anything out.

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. This shows in the 1st quarter statistics in 2010. It does show up as well for 2009, but the scoring there is heavily influenced by Georgia Tech's Thursday night victory. If you take out that game, the 76 drops to 55 (also recall the way they scored, it was not all defensive points allowed). 

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 culprit this season was Miami, who ran the score up quickly due to botched coverages (since our SS had his teeth knocked in on the first TD drive). The 2nd culprit was BC with 13 points scored on us in the 2nd Qtr.

The 3rd Quarter scoring this year vs. 2009 is mostly due to Auburn's 21 point comeback as our defense forgot how to play gap-sound and the general lack of intensity from the team as the Barners gave us their best shot. In the 4th, only Presbyterian scored more than 10 points on us, against walk-ons and 3rd stringers.

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. This shows up somewhat in the Methodical Drive FEI ranking of 70th, as several opponents were able to just churn the clock and multiple-play scoring drives resulted. 3.5 ypc is good but if they'll just keep taking that, they can still get 1st downs.

Last year we said that Clemson needed to improve its rush defense and 3rd down efficiency defense the most to really make a stride forward. We got better, but there is room for improvement here. The ideal goal, for outstanding defense, is about 3.3 per rush. Clemson allowed 3.5 in 2010 overall. We held the last 5 opponents under the 3.3 mark, and 7 overall. 6 of those under 3.0ypc. We let 3 opponents average more than 4.0. We held 6 overall under the 3.3 mark in 2009, but only UVA down the stretch. That shows improvement, primarily from the DL and LB corps.

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. Clemson held 4 opponents under 30% in 2009, 7 under 40%. We held only 3 under 30% in 2010, 7 under 40%. We just don't get off the field well enough yet. Many times we would extend a drive due to a big penalty on 3rd down. That is lack of composure under pressure and overall discipline. This is coaching too. Most disturbing is the North Texas game again, where we allowed 50% conversion on 3rd down to a pitiful opponent. South Florida got 64% and FSU is next highest with 46%.

If the rushing stats come down more, the 3rd down percentages will come down further. 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 still improve here. I would not say that our rushing yardage allowed is a big indicator of bad tackling; it is bad angles, poor gap control at times, and not getting off blocks more than anything else.

Many folks put the emphasis on run defense on the linebacker group, but the run defense is a team effort from the front 7 together (actually 8, since the SS is tied to the front). If the DE is not covering the C-gap when he is supposed to, then you shouldn't expect the LB to be there -- it is not his assignment. Clemson's DL improved this year in gap control, and as you can see below from the snap counts, our defense didn't play a 4-3 all the time. Saying your run D isn't playing well just because the LB group sucks is not a fair or accurate characterization. Saying it is playing well just because your LBs have a good game isn't fair either. Everyone has a gap they are primarily responsible for and everyone must be there.


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 and 2010 via the NCAA official site. We don't have the snap count from 2009.

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

2010 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Snaps Total Tackles TFL Sacks FF
Corico Hawkins 692 73 9 3 0
Brandon Maye 312 45 1.5      0.5 0     
Quandon Christian 354 31 1.5 0 1
Tig Willard 153 29 1 0 0
Spencer Shuey 67 18 0 0 0
Justin Parker 56 8 0 0 0
Daniel Andrews 31 5 0 0 0

I bet most folks didn't realize that Christian got more snaps this year than Maye did, and that Maye's were essentially cut in half from the year before (over 700) due to a combination of injury (out 4 games) and his performance.

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 played a mix of Robber and 2-Man coverage in 2009, but played much more matchup zone in 2010. We've covered these coverage schemes before so we will not go further here.

We plan to spend significant time this offseason going into the LB positions and their requirements. It will be one of our offseason football series with Chad Morris' offense.

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. If he has poor technique, his lack of size is truly detrimental to his play. This is why his move to Weakside was the best fit for him. In the 4-3 Under front, the WILL backer is protected (or nested) behind the 3-technique DT (see below diagram). That means his read of the near Guard is a bit tougher, but also means that no one has a clear path from the LOS to hit him and take him out of the play.

For MIKE its not that simple. He is not protected by anyone and has a clean read of the Guard, but both the Tackle and Guard have clearer paths to block him.

We discovered this fall that Clemson does not practice shed drills with the #1s vs #1s. This is why our Linebackers sucked at getting off blocks last year, and didn't do anything to help us this year. Its no wonder your LB group is weak when they don't practice against the best. This is one of the things that Coach Ford was talking about in his Corey Miller interview.

A diagram of Clemson's Undershifted front is below, showing the usual alignment of the linebackers. We've covered the Over and the Undershift here extensively before, so refer to those posts for details about the fronts and 4-3 defense in general. A "bubble" is a weakspot, or uncovered gap in the front, and for the Under the bubble is the strongside B-gap. Clemson plays the NT in a 1-shade over the Center's shoulder in the strongside A-gap. In this case there is technically another bubble in the weakside A, but its a tighter bubble.


In general, the Over is a more adaptable scheme to spread offenses, and the Under to pro-style offenses. To run the textbook Jimmy Johnson/Miami Overshift, you create 3 bubbles (as opposed to 2 in the Under), and its a weaker front against power running teams. There is always a trade off in a defensive scheme, you must give something up as the coach on the blackboard and believe that your player's athleticism and ability can make up for what you give up. Steele prefers to check out of a 4-3 personnel group and go 4-2-5 and 4-1-6. That much should be clear simply by viewing the snap counts above.

Clemson rarely used the SAM backer before playing UNC 4 games into the year, and the reason why is personnel based. UNC was the first opponent we faced that used an old-fashioned pro-style system that goes 1-back/2-back with a TE. Miami's is a derivative of the West Coast offense, which is pro-style, but Miami poses enough matchup issues for our linebackers that we were primarily nickel against them. Most of our regular ACC opponents are pro-style, so it makes sense to run Under as your base.

Another thing that may not be apparent to many is that we often drop one safety down in the box and have him line up like a LB. We show 4-2-5 alignment but play with a dime package. The extra backer/safety position is sometimes called "Money" ($), and its a check that lets you maintain a 6-man box against the run but have the Safety down for weakside/slot coverage problems. Rashard Hall did this quite a bit more this year, as has Marcus Gilchrist. That is where many of Maye's and Willard's snaps went, when their injuries weren't so bad they could not play.

Player Reviews

Corico Hawkins doesn't do a bad job at MLB, but he isn't a playmaker. He sets the front correctly and adjusts to the formation like he is supposed to as the signal-caller for the defense. 73 total tackles in nearly 700 snaps is disappointing to me though, and while he doesn't charge into the wrong gap or lose keys like Maye did as the MIKE, he has to work on getting off blocks. Like Maye, the size thing becomes an issue if your base isn't set correctly and quickly enough. That is when the short armspan becomes a detriment. If an OL can get close to you, he can grab you and pull you to his body, and you're out of the play. Its extremely important (and obvious from the diagram) that MIKE be able to read blocks by the linemen, get off anything coming to him or evade them altogether. He'll need to shore his pass pickup and become a more competent Robber as well. Hawk will be the #1 MLB again next year, and because of the complexity of this defense I could see him staying the #1 all season. Eventually though, unless he becomes a true leader on the field, he'll lose the starting spot at MLB to the talent behind him.

Justin Parker's freshman campaign was a great disappointment to us here. We certainly never expect a true freshman to come in and set the world on fire, especially at the toughest defensive position, but 56 snaps is a joke. Parker nabbed 9 snaps in the opener against North Texas and 18 against PC. 12 against MD and 17 against WF, and thats it. 56 snaps is a complete waste of his year. There are roughly 60-65 defensive snaps in a single game and in most of them he didn't even make it on the field. In his limited action he did not impress however. Justin looked stiff on the field. When you have to turn your whole body to see the play youre not going to be a success at linebacker. Whether it is simply that he was shown too much and is confused/scared or if its a real problem, I cannot say yet. I thought he would end up at SAM, and its still a possibility, but for now he's at MIKE.

My opinion of Spencer Shuey is that in the old days he'd be a guy who would play Middle Guard/MLB in a 50 or Bear front and would play quite a bit, but he won't play much more than he does now in this defense unless he really works on his change-of-direction (COD) drills this offseason and gets his speed to a servicable level. He is too slow and too stiff to even challenge any of the incoming players. Daniel Andrews suffers from the speed problem as well, but the lack of a 2nd team LB at W or S means he'll play this spring.

Brandon Maye missed the first two games and two more the rest of the season, and played only 4 snaps against FSU. He was a former freshman all-american and he does have talent. Brandon has shown great speed and tenacity at LB. His problem, however, is between his ears. He likes to "ready, fire, aim!" instead of "ready, aim, fire!". His ability to read keys got better this year, but several times he was beaten for a TD because he just wasn't mentally present. At WILL it is less of a liability than MIKE, as well as his lack of size and competency at shedding blocks. I think it is possible that Maye just couldn't mesh with Steele at all, and Steele berated him to the point that his head was so messed up that he couldn't recover. Maye's father wanted Kevin to promise his son a certain number of snaps, and Steele said no way, so Maye transferred.

Jonathan Willard will step up at the WILL position now that Maye has transferred away. Tig didn't have a great season playing with just one working arm. Its hard to evaluate a guy fairly with one arm wrapped up so much that he really cannot extend to get off blockers or properly wrap & strip balls.COD looked fine to me in his limited action. I was high on him in recruiting and thought he would take Maye's job in 2010 before the injury occured. He's one of those guys that needs some experience and he'll get it next year. There is no apparent backup on campus so he should get plenty of action in spring to get a head start on the talent coming in.

SAM LB Quandon Christian came in at around 190lbs and 6'2-6'3. He took his RS year and grew another inch and bulked up over 210, playing at 220 in the bowl game. This guy is a player, and I could see it the first time he stepped on the field against UNC. HIs frame is big enough to put on another 10-20lbs and he can run in coverage. Clemson plays the SAM as a 9/90 technique but with Kevin Alexander we played SAM more on the LOS. Quan's lack of size and inexperience forces Steele to play him back a little more in a crack alignment, and this was perfect for him this year. As he bulks up more, he could play on the line and be more versatile as a 7 and a 9 anchor player. The only game where I felt Quan didn't look comfortable was FSU, as they ran the speed option directly at him with success. I think it will be difficult for any of these freshmen to unseat Christian as the starter.

Vic Beasley is a true athlete who had played LB in HS and was offered by Auburn as a LB. He moved back to defense and will be the first backup to Christian at SAM. He has the size to play it, and certainly the speed. My only concern, which may be minor, is that he practiced as a TE during his RS year (most RS players play on the scout team only however) and his growth as a defensive player could be a bit stunted. I wouldn't be surprised to hear him mentioned at WILL in Spring either.

Incoming Help: Clemson signed the best LB group in my memory, certainly the best since the class of Ed McDaniel, John Johnson, and Levon Kirkland. At least one of the group must avoid a redshirt because of Brandon Maye's transfer, but it is highly unlikely all do.

Tony Steward was ranked the #1 LB recruit nationally and Stephone Anthony #4. Either can play any position. I'd definitely project Steward to play if not for the ACL injury he suffered as a HS Senior. All word we've heard is that his knee is healing excellently, but I'd play it safe with him. Ricky Sapp rushed back from torn ligaments (despite saying he was 100%) and had to have more surgery this year with the Eagles. Scotty Cooper was a highly rated recruit who had two knee surgeries and never really came back from them. I would not risk Steward's amazing talent unless I was 100% sure.

Stephone will play. He has shown some problems getting off blocks but his ability in coverage is outstanding. His leadership qualities are great, or so they have said. Just going by that, and his size, you may see him at WILL first (where he's nested) but MIKE later. If they think he can handle MIKE, they'll probably move Parker.

Lateek Townsend and B.J. Goodson are two more talented players who like to hit. Townsend would be a Rush backer in some schemes, as he has a knack and desire for rushing the passer. I think he ends up at WILL, but is definitely an outside guy. He's too reckless to play in the middle. Goodson is a headhunter who will play MIKE. Both are guys I would redshirt.

The depth chart is just a guess, and I don't know where the two most heralded players will start out as noted above.

Prospective LB Depth for 2011
Tig Wilard Corico Hawkins Quan Christian
Stephone Anthony (?) Justin Parker Vic Beasley
Lateek Townsend*  Spencer Shuey Tony Steward* (?)
B.J. Goodson* Daniel Andrews

The Verdict

Steele came under heavy fire last year, primarily for the two GT losses and the total lack of run defense in the 2nd half of the season. We defended him but also hammered him for the scheme he picked against GT in the ACCCG.

We all know he has had little to work with at Linebacker because of David Blackwell and Vic Koenning, and you can't be terribly harsh on a guy that has no players to run his scheme with. He has them now, but they are all young. Steele has been a great LB coach everywhere he has been, so I have confidence he can develop the talent at the position.

Steele didn't have a great year recruiting last cycle, but delivered this time around bigtime. Hopefully this can continue but its not a primary factor for the coordinator. We don't send the coordinators on the road quite as much, and never during the season, which I support. You don't want them on the road recruiting when they can be studying game film.

After 2 years it is fair to form an opinion of your defensive coordinator and coaches. Ours is that Steele may or may not form a truly elite defense here, but he has done a good job with what he has had.