Running with the Wolves — Northern State’s Attack Defense

e would like to thank the AFCA for this opportunity to contribute to the AFCA Summer Manual. On behalf of our entire staff here at Northern State, it is a great honor to have a chance to share with you some our thoughts and philosophy about defensive football. Hopefully, you will be able to take something from this article to add to your program. Philosophy The program at Northern State has been on the rise the past two seasons. After finishing 4-7 in 1997, our staff took over in 1998 and went 8-3 overall. This past season, we improved to 9-2 overall and won the Northern Sun Conference championship with an 8-0 record. As a defensive staff, we constantly talk to our players about striving to be the best defense in the country. It is a goal that we believe is achievable and our players have bought into. In 1998, we finished the season ranked 23rd in total defense in NCAA Division II. In 1999, we improved our ranking to 12th overall, including the 13th ranked rushing defense and 14th ranked pass efficiency defense. Our success is contributed to our players hard work and dedication. As coaches, all we have done is given them a philosophy to believe in. They have bought into that philosophy and done the rest. A large part of our recent success on defense has come from creating a relentless defense built around speed. To give you an example, the weight of our starting four defensive linemen averaged 235 pounds this season. We know as a coaching staff we can not afford to stand around and get locked up with opposing offenses. We build our defense by taking players with linebacker speed and move them to defensive end, and players with defensive end speed and move them inside to tackles. The biggest area we focus on and emphasize everyday during practice is for our entire defense to use their speed and run to the football. There are many factors involved in successful defense, but we emphasize “pursuit” because it is the one area we know our players can control. No matter how talented we are, we have complete control over our effort to get to the football. When we break down our game film, we grade five areas. Every player can earn one point for each of these areas on every play. As coaches, we calculate percentages for each player in each of the five areas for the game.


Ken Heupel Head Coach Northern State University Aberdeen, S.D.

Marcus Garstecki Defensive Coordinator

Alignment: Getting in the correct alignment for the front and coverage called. Assignment: Carrying out the correct assignment on that particular play. Technique: Using the proper technique during the play. However, we are not too critical in this area. We know the name of the game is to make plays. If a player can make the play, we are not too concerned how he does it, as long as the job gets done. However, if a player misses a play because he tried an incorrect technique, we will grade him down. Factor: A factor point is earned when a player makes a play when he has the opportunity. This can be making a tackle, taking a block that allows the tackle to be made, an interception, or making any other type of play. Players lose factor points by not making a play when they have a chance. Effort: Effort is graded by fighting and running to the ball until the whistle is blown. When we talk about pursuit with our players, we have three buzz words that we give to our players to focus on: Swarm: We will be a swarming defense. Everyone must get to the ball. If one guy misses a tackle, there is nowhere for the ball carrier to go. He must be surrounded. Effort: Pursuit is all about effort. Lack of effort will not be tolerated. We will grade out effort on every play. Proper angles: Once you get to the ball, this is the difference between making the play and not making it. RWTW We have come up with a concept as a team here at Northern, both offensively and defensively, to create the tenacity we want from our team. We call it RWTW, which stands for Run With The Wolves. The principle behind RWTW is for each player on the field to perform the perfect play each time. This means correct alignment, assignment, technique, and all out effort from the snap of the ball until the whistle blows. We start each day of practice with our pursuit drill, which we call RWTW period. The RWTW period is five minutes of intense pursuit drill, taking good angles to the ball carrier. We demand that our players give us as many perfect reps in that five minute period. Our base front at Northern State is a 4-3, which we call Tite Northern. However, we will run anything from a three-man to a nine-man front at times. We will run our GATAfrom any of these fronts, depending on what we are concentrating on for that week, but we will

• AFCA Summer Manual — 2000 •

explain this drill from our Tite Northern, which is shown in Diagram 1.

Diagram 1: Tite Northern

We will start the drill as shown in Diagram 2. The first unit huddles on the ball, the second and third units are on the sideline with helmets strapped on and ready to go. They must be ready since we can call for a sudden change anytime. We send in the front call to the quick linebacker and the coverage into the free safety. Once the front and coverage are sent in from the coaches and the huddle is broken, nothing but a perfectly executed play is expected. This starts from getting out of the huddle and busting it to get lined up to the final whistle. Each offensive lineman and the tight end will be holding a hand shield to deliver a blow to our linemen and linebackers as they pursue through their gap responsibilities to the ball.

Playside Tackle: Fight off the block, get penetration into the backfield and redirect to the football. Backside Tackle: Fight off the block. Once he gets penetration, he will work down the line of scrimmage to the ballcarrier. Backside End: Once he gets penetration into the backfield and realizes the play is away from him, he will look down the line for anyone pulling back his way, then start shuffling down the line of scrimmage checking for reverse and boot. When he clears the reverse and boot, he chases the play from behind, working inside-out (Diagram 3).

Diagram 3

responsibilities. Once they get to their proper zone and read run, they must take the proper angle to the football. For our demonstration, we have drawn our roll to cover three (Diagram 4). Wolf: On the snap of the ball, he rolls up to a point four yards by four yards from the end, keeping outside contain against the run. Playside Corner: He will open up and drive to his deep third responsibility. When he reads run, he will attack up-field to the ball-carrier keeping outside leverage on the ball. Free Safety: He will backpedal into his deep third. When he reads run, he will take an inside-out angle to the runningback. Backside Corner: This is our last line of defense. Once he has dropped and realizes the play is run, he will open up to 45 degrees and take what we call a “homerun angle.” When our secondary coach feels the backside corner has taken a good angle and gotten enough depth, he will blow the whistle telling the corner to sprint to the pile.

Diagram 2

Once the defense is set, one of the coaches standing behind the defense will point to one direction or the other for the offense. This tells the offensive linemen to step in that direction and put a pop on the defender who comes through that gap, and the runningback which way to go. We have a coach playing quarterback who gives the cadence then gives a simple toss sweep to the I-back who tries to get outside. We are not a read defense. We teach our defensive linemen to get penetration and then find out what is happening. When the ball is snapped, the defensive linemen get off the ball through their gaps and work through the blow being delivered from the offensive linemen. Playside End: Fight off the block, get penetration into the backfield and redirect to the football.

When the ball is snapped, our linebackers will read their initial key and step downhill to flow. Playside linebacker and Sam linebacker: Continue downhill running through the designated gap responsibility, ripping through the block of the offensive linemen, and swarm to the football. Backside linebacker: Starts by shuffling down the line of scrimmage looking for cutback, but as soon as he sees an open gap to run through, we want him to run through it chasing the ball from behind, working inside-out (Diagram 4).

Diagram 5

Diagram 4

We also run a wide variety of coverages with our secondary. We will come out with a cover two look as much as possible and roll to the coverage we want on the snap of the ball. The angles taken by our secondary in our RWTW period will depend on the coverage we are emphasizing for that week. No matter what coverage is called, our secondary players must drive to their zone

We continually stress the importance of either creating a turnover or forcing a three and out, getting our offense back on the field. Because of this, each group will run the pursuit drill until the entire unit executes three perfect plays in a row, from breaking the huddle, to alignment, then assignment and all out effort. Going into the season, our goal as a defense was to allow less than 33 percent of third down conversions by opposing offenses. We easily surpassed that goal by allowing only 21.8 percent of third down conversions. When third down came, our players were excited and ready to go. There are many factors involved in creating a successful defense. We feel our pursuit period of practice has done a lot to help develop the attitude and intensity we want with our defense. We hope you can take something from this article and implement it into your own program.

• AFCA Summer Manual — 2000 •

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