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QB v Safety: 2017’s looming battle royale

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2017 is loaded with good, returning quarterbacks. The teams that are also returning star safeties will have a big leg up on the competition in dealing with them.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Houston vs Florida State Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Recently at the flagship, Morgan Moriarty had a piece on all of the quarterbacks returning in 2018 across the nation. I’d already noted the Big 12’s unique abundance of QB talent this coming year but it’s truly a national phenomenon.

In the Pac-12 we’ll get to see Sam Darnold at USC, Josh Rosen at UCLA, Luke Falk at Washington State, and Jake Browning at Washington. Keep an eye out for Steven Montez at Colorado as well.

In the Mountain West we get another year of Josh Allen at Wyoming and Brett Rypien at Boise State.

The Big 12 is loaded with Baker Mayfield back at Oklahoma, Mason Rudolph back at Oklahoma State, Jesse Ertz back at Kansas State, Shane Buechele back at Texas, and Will Grier stepping in at West Virginia.

The Big 10 returns the starting QBs at most every competitive program from 2016 with Wilton Speight back at Michigan, J.T. Barrett returning at Ohio State, Trace McSorley back at Penn State, and Alex Hornibook back at Wisconsin.

The AAC has Quinton Flowers (USF) back and Riley Ferguson (Memphis) back while Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen will take over at Houston. The ACC has Heisman winner Lamar Jackson back, Florida State’s Deondre Francois returning, and Eric Dungey back at Syracuse.

Finally the SEC returns Jalen Hurts at Alabama, Austin Allen at Arkansas, Jarrett Stidham stepping in at Auburn, Danny Etling at LSU, Jacob Eason at Georgia, Shea Patterson at Ole Miss, and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State.

We almost certainly named the 2017-18 national champion in that list and probably all four playoff teams. If we missed a squad it’ll only be because some other QB emerged that led his team to unexpected heights like Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M in 2012 or Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013.

However, college defenses are in decent shape to resist this coming deluge of passes thanks in part to growth and improvement at the safety position across the league. As I’ve noted in this column before, defenses are stacking some of their best and smartest defenders at safety in order to hold offenses at check. Here’s a glimpse at some of the major talent that’s returning across the nation at safety in 2017 to counter these QBs.

Hyper-explosive, super-powered freak

2016 was supposed to be the year when Derwin James of Florida State was introduced to the world of college football in a spectacular fashion. He flashed unbelievable abilities as a true freshman, essentially serving as both the main big play constraint for the Seminole defense on standard downs from his perch back at safety AND their main attacking piece on third downs.

At 6-1 and around 210 pounds but with 4.5 type speed he’s a missile in the open field that changes the geometry of the game while still bringing the kind of violence that you traditionally want from your safety.

His ability to rush the passer or spy on third downs is an absurd bonus that will just make it all the easier for the ‘Noles to get some of the talented DBs that had to replace James after his injury last year back onto the field.

Florida State’s opener against Alabama in Atlanta and later rematch with Louisville will be much more interesting and likely much more competitive with James involved.

Converted cornerbacks

A few years back I suggested a “rule of three” for defending modern passing offenses, meaning that defenses needed at least three guys on the field at all times that could play credible man defense on a deep route. If you don’t have that, you’re sunk against good three-wide teams.

Some teams will use a nickel corner over the slot, other teams will use a cover safety playing over the top of a “big nickel” or space-backer to pick up vertical routes while the bigger player enforces underneath.

Alabama has been doing some of both and in their spring game they lined up nickel corner Tony Brown over the slot while former nickel/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick resumes the strong safety role he assumed at the end of 2016 when Alabama’s previous cornerback-turned-safety Eddie Jackson was lost for the year.

He was unsurprisingly excellent in that role, a unique bright spot in Alabama’s defense of Clemson’s game-winning drive, and his ability to clamp down on vertical routes between the hash marks is a big boon to Alabama’s defense. It’s easier to bring pressure or load the box when you can count on a guy to take away the shortest “home run” throw available to the QB.

Ohio State also embraced the practice of moving cornerbacks inside to the field safety position with Damon Webb, who slid into Vonn Bell’s role a year ago and was quietly a major component of their defensive success while every other DB on the roster was grabbing headlines and draft accolades.

Now Hooker was a phenom, but Ohio State’s system depends on having a guy who can slide down and play man coverage on a slot in their field safety position, in part because they insist on playing big space-backers at their sam position.

In 2014 and 2015 they played Darron Lee (6-1, 220) in the Sam position with Vonn Bell covering him from behind. In 2016 it was Chris Worley (6-2, 230) with Damon Webb, 2017 will feature Dante Booker (6-3, 240) with Webb back to help him out. Ohio State’s linebackers seem to be getting bigger and this questionable practice only works with a converted cornerback acting as a structural support.

You can see how much that benefits Ohio State’s D in the way they play this split zone run by Clemson with a bubble screen attached:

Webb handles the slot and the bubble, which frees up Worley to join the run fit more aggressively and fill the cutback lane, which frees up the other two linebackers to flow with the H-back and prevent him from creating a “plus one” for Clemson at the point of attack. The flow of the linebackers takes away the QB option and funnels the RB back to the cutback lane, which Worley fills. Webb seems an innocuous component in all of this but his ability to cover ground to the wide side of the field facilitates the Buckeyes sending so many big, physical linebackers into the melee.

It also facilitates some of the ways they used Hooker, dropping him into deep zone behind Webb and the corners or perhaps playing robber. Hooker and the Buckeye LBs generally get the accolades and may indeed have more talent but I’m willing to bet that the Buckeyes are very grateful to have Webb back.

The range and coverage ability to play this position doesn’t typically come in a big safety’s body like it does with Derwin James, which is why you see these other blue blood programs converting cornerbacks.

Cover safeties

There are increasing numbers of safeties coming into college that grew up playing a lot of coverage in high school against increasingly efficient high school passing games. They end up coming into the league with the size and specs of converted cornerbacks but they’ve already made the transition before they begin their collegiate careers.

This seems particularly common in the Big 12 where OU’s Steven Parker, West Virginia’s Dravon Askew-Henry, and Oklahoma State’s Tre Flowers are going to be asked to play major roles in their teams’ chances at competing for the league crown.

Parker will be a three-year starter this coming season and was responsible in 2015 for offering protection behind Eric Striker (much like Webb did for Worley at Ohio St) and then in 2016 was freed up more by the Sooners’ increased use of nickel in the wake of Striker’s graduation. He could also play nickel in a pinch, a position which is scarcely different from a cover safety save for the alignment. In either role he was a menace covering routes in the flats:

It’s going to be increasingly common to see guys that would have started at corner instead start at safety for a few reasons. One reason is that everyone is looking for bigger corners to contest the fade routes that are more and more instrumental to spread offenses. That leaves behind a lot of good athletes in the 5-8 to 5-11 range that are still good football players even if they don’t have a ton of reach for high pointing jump balls.

Another reason is all the things you can accomplish with a smart and high caliber athlete roaming the middle of the field. This falls just behind the value of a lockdown corner to a defense so unless a DB can play on an island he might have more impact at safety.

Attacking from the weak side

One of the most popular schemes in college football right now is a variety of quarters coverage that combines the conservatism of cover 2 with the “get numbers to stop the run” nature of cover 4:

The boundary safety (F in this diagram) is helping on deeper, inside routes by the “Z” receiver but also supplying an extra man up front against the run. That requires some good awareness as well as the ability to come down into the box with some force and it’s where you typically find bigger box safeties that still find the field in today’s game.

But then there are still some teams that have been using smaller, coverage-oriented defenders in that role such as Wisconsin’s Leo Musso (5-8, 185), Texas A&M’s Armani Watts (5-11, 205), or TCU’s Nick Orr (5-10, 185).

All of these guys would at times be asked to play the coverage above and they’d use their range to play as deep as possible before flying up to support the run. This can help prevent pass-options attached to runs like a skinny post by the Z receiver, but none of these guys are really enforcers against the run even if they are reliable tacklers.

Offenses like to key this weak side safety for cues on where coverage strength will be shaded on a given play, he can generally tip off the QB with his alignment as to where his receivers will have leverage advantages on a given play.

For that reason, it can be advantageous to sacrifice a little in the way of intimidating run support in order to get a versatile and rangy player like Watts or Orr in that spot to muddy the QBs read or to punish him if he fails to account for their above average range.

Orr had four interceptions and six pass break-ups a year ago while had two and three in eight games before going down with injury. Malik Hooker served in this role at times a year ago en route to seven interceptions and three break-ups, Musso had five picks and a break-up.

All of these teams are going to be leaning heavily on the coverage strengths of their star safeties to try and confuse and thwart these QBs in a mental battle of wits and a physical contest between the QB’s arms and DB’s legs. The teams that don’t have studs in their secondary are going to be in for a rough time.