Arkansas Defensive Coordinator Chris Ash explains his call system and how he adjusted his fronts and coverages to specific formations during his time at Wisconsin.
By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs
Chris Ash, Defensive Coordinator, University of Arkansas
Researcher's Note: Chris Ash is now the defensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas. Last fall, while he was serving as DC at perennial Big Ten contender University of Wisconsin, he sat down exclusively with X&O Labs' Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar and spoke specifically his call system and how he adjusts his fronts and coverages to specific formations.
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MK: When you break down opponents how much of it is formation as opposed to personnel? Do you get more of a beat on what they do on 2x1, 3x1, 2x2 etc.? Or is it more about which personnel they have in those combinations?
CA: It’s really all of the above. We’re going to have our philosophy but it must fit our personnel or the personnel we can recruit here. When we start game planning against opponents we’re going to identify formations that we’re going to have to defend. In today’s world 3x1 and empty seem to be the trend. We identify their top formations, their top plays out of those formations and then we’ll identify their top players that they have and where they are located in those formations. Then we will build our game plan around what we do to stop it.
MK: Will you have separate checks against those combinations or will it be mainly against the type of personnel?
CA: When teams give you multiple formations out of the same personnel grouping we have a check system that we use. Some teams do a great job of running plays with their QB under center then they move their QB in the gun and it’s a different deal. We have a check system against plays with the QB under center and when the QB goes in the gun we have another certain package that we’ll be in. Let’s say there is 11 personnel in the offensive huddle or on the sideline huddling up. You don’t know what kind of picture (personnel) they will come out in. They can come out in 11 personnel pictures, 10 personnel pictures, 20 personnel pictures with the tight end or wide out in the backfield. We teach our players pictures, they understand the pictures and they understand which coverage’s we want to be in based on those pictures. We have a communication system that will allow us to get to that.
MK: How many coverage checks will you have based on those pictures?
CA: It depends on opponent. Pretty much, certain formations like 2x2 with the TE in the core, we’ll play certain coverage. 2x2 with no TE, our coverage will adjust. 3x1 with a tight end vs. 3x1 with no tight end we will adjust differently. When we get to a 20 personnel picture we have to know how we will check. Based on the game plan, they have to know they are going to adjust vs. a 20 personnel picture. They will check to it automatically. We play 2x2 one way and 3x1 two different ways. 20 personnel pictures we may play one way. Our guys need to know what they are going to be in.
MK: I realize that 21 personnel pro sets are disintegrating in the Big Ten, but will you still play with two-high against those sets?
CA: Against two back run game or pro sets we will not be in two-high coverage. We will be in an eight-man front and bring one of our safeties down into the box and play with a single high safety. It’s a part of our check system. Now, if they run a pro style offense when the QB will get in the gun, we may play a different coverage- we’re yelling "gun, gun, gun," and we’re playing some type of cover four. We will play an under front or if the ball is on the hash, we’ll make a field call where we set our Nose and Sam to the field. (Diagram 1).
MK: Coach, now I’d like you to take us through your game planning against formations. What is the protocol you use in defending these specific formations? Let’s start with 2x2 open gun formations (Diagram 2).
CA: 2x2 open you have to look at where the back is and what they do out of that set with the back. Is the back deep? Is the back even? Is he wide, etc.? What does the back tell you? Is the back offset to the field? Is he offset to the boundary? Is he in pistol? You have to identify what they’re doing out of each of those backfield sets. The level of the back tells you a lot of information. If the back is to the field, and he’s flat, many teams will not run the power read scheme with him into the boundary. There are certain things we can do with our front four to negate any of those runs. We don’t any zone read with the back even with the QB these days. The only thing we’re getting with that is the power read. The zone read and veer option comes with the back deep.
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Interview continued from above...
MK: How about 2x2 formations with the TE closed (Diagram 3)
CA: We don’t see much zone read out of that anymore. We see tight end side power, which could be an issue when you got crack schemes on a safety. We see stretch plays with crack issues. The zone read to me is not the play of choice for spread offenses out of that formation. When I study it, that backfield set shows more tight end side run game than anything else (Back away from TE). I guess their trying to get your backers to cheat weak because of the back set but there is so much TE side run game. That’s what you’re trying to study. Sure, that’s the backfield set, but what are they really trying to do out of it. In the old days it would’ve been nothing but zone read but in today’s offenses it’s certainly not the case.
Everything we do depends on whether the QB is a running threat or not. If the QB is not a running threat, you can play eight man fronts or man free coverage. If the QB is a running threat, it changes the game completely.
MK: 2x2 Ace Formation with double tight ends out of Gun (Diagram 4). How do you adjust there?
CA: The biggest things that teams are trying to do is run zone read out of this. Nevada is really making a living off this now. I think 12 personnel zone read stuff is tougher than 11 personnel. More and more offenses are doing this. They are copying Nevada’s pistol formations where they have tight end/wing sets where the wing can rock back and become a load blocker (Diagram 5) and block the force player. It’s like split zone, but instead of cutting off the DE, they go right to your force player. What they try to do is want your inside linebacker to play the dive while they block the safety with the wing. Now they want your defensive end to play the dive and the QB on his own. Anytime the QB is a run threat, we don’t want our DE’s to have to play dive and QB. It’s a designed QB play. Those things are more of an issue for us than anything. When you line up in 12 personnel pistol, now you have to arc the tight end in either direction and run zone read. You have to be B gap sound and help those ends be overhang players playing QB instead of them being dive to QB players.
MK: What is the difference between how you play a 3x1 trips formation with a tight end (Diagram 6) or without a tight end (Diagram 7)?
CA: 3x1 closed with a tight end on the backside is a very difficult formation because you still have your power game and your read zone game to the tight end, but you also have your three vertical game away to contend with. Are they gun to the open side or gun to the closed side? Pistol? That is what should dictate your coverage. We may be in a different coverage in a 3x1 with the back offset to the open side than if he were offset to the closed side. Usually if a back is offset to the open side, it’s pure zone read so we call it 4x1 adjustments as opposed to 3x1 adjustments. Many teams don’t flop the back any more, now they will start in a Pistol and then shift to an offset back.
MK: How about 3x2 Empty Formations with a Tight End (Diagram 8)?
CA: A lot of times we will see teams motion the back from the slot into a backfield alignment just to get you to show your empty check to run a zone scheme. We don’t see a true 3x2 empty anymore except for Northwestern. If a tight end is still in the core, we still need to be ready for the run game. We can’t go to an empty adjustment in this circumstance because we need to stay base for the run game. Teams want to see what your empty adjustment is, then when they motion back in people try to get out of their adjustment. They also want to see if you’re going to blitz, which cleans up the picture for the QB. They do it to run the football, so that when the backers are removed they have to get back in the box. They have to read their key and they have to fit. When you get guys moving when the ball is snapped on defense, that’s tough.
MK: Last one is what Oregon has made popular, that 2x1 formation with three wide and two backs (Diagram 9)
CA: Teams will do it differently. Teams will run either split backs with it or some sort of Pistol formation with a lead back next to the QB. First thing we look for is the level of the back- if he’s deep it’s triple and zone read. If he’s even, it’s a wide zone stretch scheme.
MK: Thanks for contributing to the site, Coach, it was a pleasure having you.
CA: I love what you’re doing. I’m all for it. I love the information you’re getting out to coaches; it’s all very good stuff. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen; it’s outstanding material for coaches at any level.
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