We've spent a lot of time here breaking down offense, mostly because the big splash of the offseason has been the hire of spread-optionmeister Urban Meyer at Florida. The questions surrounding his sytem have taken up long threads-generally fueled by the usual suspects-wondering the same things over and over again: how well will it work, will it work at all, and will Chris Leak be a Heisman contender or a shuddering, concussed, pants-soiling wreck of his former self at the end of the season.
Concussions will make people do strange things, like marrying women twice your age"marrying a crazy, giant-taloned goblin twice your age."(courtesy of Brian at MGoBlog.)
In all this, though, we've forgotten to tip our hats to the maulers on the other side of the ball, the defense and the coordinators who make the game the bloody, crippling smackfest we all love and crave a little too desperately in the offsesason. Think fast of the most exhilarating moments in your college football memory bank, and you'll likely rattle off a list dominated by defense. A quick rundown of our own three we recalled without hesitation:
-Joey Kent getting decapitated by Lawrence Wright in the Swamp, 1995. The worst hit we ever saw in person, and the only time we ever thought a player might be dead until we saw Junior Rosegreen lay the Cruciatus Curse on Reggie Brown in last year's LSU-UGA game. Peyton tosses a post into a cover 2, and Wright goes head first into Kent's face. The right side of Kent's head puffed up like rising pastry dough, and he had trouble breathing on the sideline. Horrifying, audible through the whole stadium, and the turning point in what became a blowout victory for UF.
-George Teague stripping Lamar Thomas in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. A play that defies description still, but in short: Toretta hits Thomas, Thomas shakes the corner, Thomas prances down sidelines in typical 'Canes fashion, and George Teague teleports at a full sprint to catch Thomas, strip the ball, steal his wallet, take his cell phone, and call his uncle in Mongolia during peak hours while running the ball the other way. The highlight of one of the freakiest defensive games we've ever seen a single player play.
-Roy Williams' Flying Squirrel attack on Chris Simms, OU-UT, 2001. With Texas pinned in their own endzone, Roy Williams comes on a safety blitz like he's spring-loaded. We can't describe how fast it all happened, so here's a photo. Try to find Williams' legs.
No wires. No special effects.
Simms craps his pants and fumbles, OU recovers, and Mack Brown hits the O'Douls' looking for answers again. (Don't know if that's true, but we just get the feeling that Mack Brown is a near-beer kind of guy.) Defensive draaaama at its finest.
So who's setting the pace defensively in the college game now? We have a few defensive savants who bear mentioning.
1. Pete Carroll. Damn, do we get tired of typing his name, but there really isn't any other coordinator who's made as big an impact as Pete Carroll has at USC. Numbers aren't enough, though the program's got 'em: second in scoring, His great talent as a coach has been to take the immense talent at USC and turn his defensive squad into real students of the game, focusing on technique and understanding of the scheme. What is that scheme? Anything he can throw at you, generally speaking; though their scheme plays more straight coverages than you might think, the varying man/zone calls and blitzes are called in a baffling rhythm only Tedford seems able to parse out in any way. A nightmare to face, both pregame and in terms of gameday calls. And he seems so nice, even as his d-line proceeds to rip your qb into two cleanly separated pieces.
2. Gene Chizik. A disciple of the anaconda school of defense, Chizik creates patient, disciplined schemes designed to throttle every last bit of breath out of the opponent while letting big hitters bring lumber when they can. The apex of Chizik's career at Auburn was the defeat of UGA, which qualified as the most dominating defensive performance we saw in 2004. (Sorry, Trojans-dismantling Jason White in a big game does not count. It's like putting "familiar with Microsoft Office" on your resume.) They killed David Greene slowly, shutting down his options and forcing him to go underneath where his receivers got hammered by Auburn's goon squad. His new home in Austin gives us confidence that the Longhorns will justify our preseason ranking, and possibly develop something akin to a killer instinct on defense.
3. Bob Gregory. Two Pac-10 teams? Yup-they got killed by Mike Leach's "All Streaks" attack in their bowl game, but we'll chalk that up to their disappointment that Mack Brown's shameless panhandling for a bowl slot worked. It doesn't invalidate the smoke and mirrors job Bob Gregory has done at Cal, or change the fact that the number four defense in the nation last year played in Berkeley. Another NFL-style attack, complex and capable of making a master like Norm Chow look-dare we say?-confused at times. Their specialty has been run d, rising to second in the nation behind-uh huh-USC. The unheralded story of Cal's ascension as a program has been the emergence of the Bears as a defensive power capable of manning up against anyone in the nation.* Another former Boise State coach success story. (Attention building programs: hire anyone you can from Boise State. Take their equipment manager if possible, or preferably their whole staff. Seems to work for every other team.)
4. Bud Foster. An oldie but a goodie, working with Beamer in a constant evolution of the old "wide-tackle-six" scheme to keep things fresh in their new ACC home. They work a lot out of the zone now, but Foster's defenses still have a knack for exerting the kind of pressure usually seen in man-to-man schemes, getting 19 interceptions last year to add to 13 fumble recoveries. That kind of consistency and pressure will get you lots of nice shiny things like ACC Championship trophies.
5. Vic Koenning. Who? Only the DC who made Troy-that's the teeny school in Alabama-the number eight defense overall in the nation. Besides almost beating LSU in Baton Rouge and winning outright over Missouri in Columbia, the former Wyoming head coach's D consistently faced superior competition much of the time and still forced the second most turnovers in the nation. The Tigers should be the most improved team in the ACC on defense this year with Koenning calling the coverages and giving bon vivant Tommy Bowden another year of life at Clemson.
*College football analysis cliche alert. Please return to your stations.