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Getting schooled by the most dominant defense of 2015

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In an era dominated by spread offenses and well drilled machines, the 2015 Katy Tigers won a state championship at the highest level in a hotbed of spread offenses thanks to a suffocating defense.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Everyone knows high school football is a big deal in Texas. The resources and the interest level that goes into high school ball in that state is at another level beyond what is typical across the country and the result is some of the very best teams and programs in the country.

As you'd expect given the investment into coaching, the state has also been the source of a great deal of strategic innovation, particularly in regards to the spread offense. This is where Chad Morris, formerly of Clemson and now the head man at SMU, got his start. Morris introduced the modern up-tempo spread at various stops to Texas high schools in a painful fashion before he did the same at the collegiate level.

In the year 2008, Morris took over a budding high school power in North Austin at Lake Travis High School, which had just won its first state championship utilizing an Air Raid-inspired spread. He inherited a University of Texas-bound signal caller named Garrett Gilbert and proceeded to make it three consecutive championships before moving on to the college game up in Tulsa.

Over the period of 2007-2011 Lake Travis won five consecutive state championships, their seasons and QBs over that period are catalogued below:

Year Record Quarterback/College Attempts-Yards Yards per attempt TD-INT
2007 15-1 Garrett Gilbert (TX, SMU) 556-4827 8.7 49-11
2008 16-0 Garrett Gilbert (TX, SMU) 436-4851 11.1 55-6
2009 16-0 Michael Brewer (TT, VT) 367-4450 12.1 43-7
2010 14-2 Michael Brewer (TT, VT) 341-2865 8.4 26-10
2011 16-0 Baker Mayfield (TT, OU) 378-3788 10 45-5

If you are a close follower of college football you are familiar with each of these quarterbacks and it's not unlikely that you'll eventually come to know Baker Mayfield's successor Dominic DeLira, who's already turning heads as a redshirt freshman at Iowa State (although history suggests he must transfer and find collegiate success at his second stop).

In 2012 Lake Travis moved up to the highest level in Texas (now classified as 6A) and saw their championship streak broken. They were only delayed until 2015 when Charlie Brewer (yes, the younger brother) took over the offense and led them on a 15-0 run to the state final, throwing for 3254 yards, 41 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. They looked unstoppable until they reached the state final they where they met the Katy Tigers...and were crushed 34-7.

That win brought the Katy Tigers their 8th state championship, which ties them with Southlake Carroll high school (Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy, Kenny Hill) for the most championships of any state program, and it came the way that every other Katy championship has come through: by running the ball from the I-formation and playing great defense.

What was truly amazing was the manner in which this particular Katy defense shut down Lake Travis and everyone else unfortunate enough to face them on the field.

What they did

The 2015 Katy Tigers went 16-0 for a multiple reasons, their offense was hardly pedestrian and had a powerful rushing attack keyed by Longhorn RB recruit Kyle Porter, but their defensive accomplishments were primary and frankly quite breathtaking.

Playing against some of the most talented and well developed spread/up-tempo oriented teams in the nation the Tigers managed:

  • To shut out 10 different opponents, including three playoff opponents.
  • To hold their opponents to an average of 3.9 points per game.
  • To surrender only 62 points for the entire year.
  • To hold 14 of their 16 opponents to single-digit point totals.
  • To be the second team to hold Lake Travis below 30 points that year and the first team to hold them below 28.

These would all be remarkable numbers regardless of context but when considered in light of the level of competition it's truly amazing how dominant this defense was over the course of 2015.

How they did it

Katy has played the same 3-4 "weak eagle" defense for years and years. It's the calling card of head coach Gary Joseph, who's been with the school now for three decades and been the head man since 2004, and the major foundation of their success.

What makes Katy consistently great on defense, despite rarely featuring defensive prospects with Big 12 scholarship offers, is the way they manage to play their 3-4 personnel against the spread and keep every defender in roles and alignments where they shine. What's more, they were able to bring some disguise and versatility despite keeping their players in more or less the same assignments on every play.

Their two inside linebackers always stayed in the box to stop the run, the outside linebackers were always the two force players, the corners could always count on playing "don't get beat deep" rules down the sideline, and the safeties were always playing vertical routes from the slot receivers and filling the alley on runs.

Against a "trips" spread formation like what you commonly find from teams like Lake Travis, a normal 4-2 nickel team that bases around quarters coverage will often rely on one main coverage over the trips side with two variations over the single receiver side on the boundary. To the passing side they'll lock up the outside receiver with the corner and then play zone over the two slot receivers with the nickel, free safety, and middle linebacker.

On the backside they can play cover 2...

Over4 special-cloud

...which has the effect of allowing the defense to bracket all the easily accessible receivers while hoping the offense can't run the ball effective at the boundary (where the corner is the primary force defender) or beat their opposite corner who's playing man coverage.

With this style of trips coverage the defense can also play quarters to the backside...

Over4 special-sky

...and now the defense is in better shape against the run since the strong safety is running free as an extra defender inserting himself into the box. The tradeoff is that both corners are now more vulnerable in coverage since neither have safety help over the top. Despite that weakness, this is generally the most popular way to handle trips formations for cover 4 teams.

The additional problem for Katy is how to mimic those different options for handling the stress of a trips spread formation without having to move their base, 3-4 personnel into different spots where they are less comfortable. In particular, how do you ensure that it's your outside linebackers who are in charge of forcing the ball inside to your inside linebackers and alley-filling safeties when playing these coverages?

Katy had other reasons for wanting to avoid shifting their defenders into different positions on the field, particularly their outside linebackers. It's hard to pinpoint the main strength of the 2015 Katy Tigers because everyone on their defense thrived in the fiefdom that their defense entrusted to them, but you'd probably have to start with their strong outside linebacker Jovanni Stewart.

two-star (WTH?) recruit that was snatched up by West Virginia, Stewart totaled 101 tackles, 10 sacks, 10 pass break-ups, and forced eight fumbles as a 5'9" 180 pound ball of fire who will inevitably draw Tyrann Mathieu and Karl Joseph comparisons at the next level.

Despite his small size, this is a guy that Katy wanted to keep around the ball at all times and it was essential to their pass-rush and overall success that they avoided the problem teams like Oklahoma or Ohio State have encountered when opponents were able to use spacing and trips formations to keep explosive space-backers like Eric Striker or Darron Lee away from the box.

Here's how Coach Joseph aligned the Tigers in every cover 4 team's favorite trips coverage to achieve the goal of keeping his players in their normal roles. If they wanted to bracket the back side receiver in cover 2, they'd line up like this:

Katy cloud-buzz

All of the coverage rules are exactly the same, but the players fill each role based on their normal specialty within the defense. Stewart (the "S" in this diagram) could either blitz the edge or drop back and help bracket that "H" slot receiver while an inside linebacker blitzed. In either event he's close to the action and forcing the edge. The safeties rotate over to the field but they are still playing their same "if slot goes deep, cover them, if not fill the alley" roles they would against other formations.

On the backside, the corner is still playing off coverage and patrolling the deep sideline while the weak outside linebacker is still playing on the edge.

If Tigers didn't feel the need to bracket that backside receiver, they could use the the more aggressive backside option:

Katy Cover4 special sky-buzz

Everyone is still sitting in their castle with the corner just slightly changing his alignment and getting a little less help underneath from the weakside linebacker, who's still forcing the edge but is now closer to the box and with better leverage.

Because they had answers to keep everyone's roles the same against most every offensive look, it was high near impossible to get Jovanni Stewart away from the edge, where he was an absolute terror, and it was very difficult to get the ball outside of containment to either side of the formation. No matter what,  those two outside-backers who specialized in forcing the ball inside were always in position to do their thing.

When a team gets really good and really consistent force play and opposing skill players are contained the result is that the safeties are made to look very good. They can play fast and come screaming downhill at high speed without worrying that the runner will break outside late and make them look silly.

The upshot of all this is that just about every running play against Katy would go as follows:

The outside linebacker would keep the play boxed inside, the sturdy DL and inside linebackers would maintain the original line of scrimmage, and the safeties would be on top of the play in an instant. In the event that a crease was found or the runner wasn't brought down by the players up front, the safeties were bringing them down well short of the first down marker:

Most passing plays would go like this:

The opposing team would feel the need to get the ball out quick thanks to the Katy pass rush and throw it short underneath the off coverage by the Tiger corners and safeties, then Katy's reliable safeties would quickly make a tackle before any real gain was realized:

In every situation Katy always kept the opponent well boxed in and contained, making long drives virtually impossible. By always using the outside linebackers as force/contain players they kept their safeties better protected from conflicts in the passing game than many college cover 4 teams but it still must have seemed to their opponents like they were facing nine men in the box.

Attacking this defense would require an offense that could buy enough time for their inside receivers to execute some moves against the safeties and try to beat them deep before Stewart or another defender had buried the QB. That requires a great inside receiver, really good pass protection, and a QB that can see over the middle, step up in the pocket, and deliver a strike into narrow windows, sometimes knowing he'll get hit after the throw. You don't find this combination too often at any level of the game...though the Tigers may have to deal with it in 2016.

The result? Legendary dominance from the 2015 Tiger defense, an eighth state championship, and a free education to 3-4 defenses around the country courtesy of the Texas public school system.