October 10, 2008
X-in' and O-in' with actual coach Tyler Sellhorn.
Florida led the SEC in 2007 in total offense, passing offense, scoring offense, yards per pass, yards per play and pass efficiency, and was second (to Arkansas) in yards per carry. It was good at everything, largely because its quarterback was good at everything -- Tim Tebow can run, and if he doesn't possess a true golden arm, defenses were too busy worrying about his legs for it to make a difference: he threw for 3,000-plus yards and finished 30 points ahead of any other SEC quarterback in pass efficiency.
In other words, because of the way Florida's offense works, a major factor in the Tebow Child's emergence as the best passer in the SEC was his status as one of the best runners in the conference. Why, then, has it been such slow going for Tebow through the Gators' first five games this year?
Here's the short answer: Urban Meyer needs to Free Tebow. Florida’s spread offense (like most semi-conventional offenses) consists of three major parts: running, passing, and run-action passing. You know the other parts of offenses, too: pass-action running (draws), pass-action passing (screens), and other constraint plays that keep defenses honest. In manageable down and distance situations, Urban Meyer wants to force the defense to simultaneously defend against a smash-mouth old-school (pre-Wishbone era) power running from a single-wing tailback and deep passing routes.
Florida does this by building its offense around a player (Tim Tebow in this case, just like Bronco Nagurski, Sammy Baugh, et. al. back in the day) who is both an excellent passer and power runner, and is never "wasted" because the defense has to account for him even when he appears to hand off; compared to a "conventional" offense whose quarterback is practically worthless on running plays, that versatility is basically like adding a twelfth player to defend half the time. Other spread teams build their offense around a supreme passer (Texas Tech and other Air Raid practitioners from the Hal Mumme coaching tree) or a cadre of really fast players (West Virginia, Illinois and others from the Rich Rodriguez coaching tree). Meyer's theory is that the defense cannot defend both power running and deep passing from both a scheme perspective (vertical stretch) and most especially from a personnel perspective. Spreading the field requires the defense to use smaller, faster pass defenders to match up against the multiple receivers. Defending a power running game requires big, strong defensive linemen and linebackers who can defeat blocks. The D can't have its cake and eat it, too.
With a quarterback who runs and passes as well as Tebow, though, the offense can, and does, as you can see in Florida's 2006 win over LSU, when Tebow came in for a handful of wildly successful plays as a true freshman. It's obvious here how his early success on the ground, especially his power at the second level, opens up big plays later on:
The jump pass gets replayed a lot and has become a goal line staple, but it's worth looking at the second touchdown pass (3:30) again, essentially the first downfield throw of Tebow's career at that point. LSU knows Tebow = power run, but even in man-to-man, it can't afford to put more than seven men in the box because of the formation. But because Tebow's been ploughing his way through the Tiger line to this point, the pass defenders are forced to buttress the front, so at the first sign of run, not only the linebackers but the nickel back over the slot bite hard on the fake, allowing the outside receiver (Louis Murphy) to wander wide open into the middle of the field, presumably (because the corner to that side took away a wheel route by the slot receiver) the responsibility of the flambeéd nickel guy.
Obviously, now that Tebow is an established passer than he was off the bench in mid-2006, the safeties and slot defenders are more committed to coverage and can't afford to overreact to his first few steps toward the line. If the line gets blocked, then, the Tebow Smash has a huge advantage, numbers-wise -- even if No. 15 winds up one-on-one with a tackler, that guy's more likely for spread purposes to be a DB or smaller linebacker that needs help to bring a hard-charging 235-pounder to the ground.
But when the defensive line doesn't get blocked? That's trouble: if the defense is able to stop Tebow with only their defensive front six or seven players, four or five pass defenders can defeat the deep passing threat. See LSU defensive tackles Marlon Favorite (99) and Glenn Dorsey (72) mucking up the otherwise well-blocked Tebow Smash last year:
Tebow ran for 67 yards in that game, almost all in the first half, and almost all on scrambles rather than designed runs, and it was his worst passing effort of the season in terms of both yards and efficiency rating. Favorite is still around; replace the departed Dorsey with nearly-as-disruptive Ricky Jean-Francois, who was suspended for that game, and the Tigers clearly still have the personnel to contain Tebow with a base front without asking the secondary to cmake too many compromises against the play-action pass.
Of course, Meyer and his staff can change things up by going pure power running (Tim Tebow with lead blockers) or pure passing (Tim Tebow with five receivers). In the former case, they often go to what coaches call the "22" formation, meaning two running backs and two tight ends are in the game -- if you include Tebow, you could call this “32,” as he's essentially an extra running back. This is a very old-school, balanced single-wing formation that emphasizes the Tebow Smash dive and the occasional home run ball off the dive action, and it's one of Florida's most effective looks. Unfortunately, the extensive hand-wringing of a fan base and coaching staff handling of their prodigy at “quarterback” has caused them to limit the use of Tebow’s best formation and play package in a vain attempt to develop a “running threat besides Tim Tebow.” So you don't see the "pure power" package very often, except on the goal line (see his short touchdown run in the above clips from '06 LSU game, for example).
But the pressure Florida prefers to put on the defense is the classic play-action pass out of the spread. It can't do that without Tebow as a running threat, which is why LSU really does want to take Tebow out of the game, figuratively, at least, and not just talk about it. If Tebow is freed from his multiple receiver formations and the restrictions of handing off, look for Florida to win on a play-action touchdown pass or two, in addition to providing the space in the middle of the defense to move the chains in the intermediate passing game. If Jean-Francois and crew “take out” Tebow, Florida still is not diverse enough offensively to beat a defense as deep and fast as LSU.
Prediction: This hinges significantly on the strategies employed by both coaching staffs, but here goes: If Tim Tebow rushes for 70 yards or better, Florida wins. If he doesn’t, Florida doesn’t.
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Tyler Sellhorn is a former small college player and single-wing high school coach in Fort Wayne, Ind. Photo of Tebow vs. LSU in 2007 via US Presswire.