You can’t really say that Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt lacks candor, although he’s not especially forthcoming, either. Mostly, the guy just seems like he’d rather be coaching football than talking to you, so while the media may be able to extract information from him under the glare of the lights at required media sessions, you’re otherwise left to read between the lines.
To the degree that he hasn’t expressly said so, it’s become readily apparent over the short time that Pruitt’s been on campus that one of his lead goals is increasing the size and strength of his roster. For example, we know that even though his running back stable currently consists of guys who are on the smaller/faster end of the continuum, he prefers bigger bodies at that position. When he goes shopping for running backs, he’s generally in the 200- to 230-pound aisle, and he stops and stares longingly at the window display of the sculpted 230-pounder. We know that because he’s said it. Not in that way, of course, because metaphors are for people with time for such nonsense. Pruitt just says he likes big backs and puts the whistle back between his lips.
It’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that his preference for heft applies to certain other positions as well and that he’s working toward that goal by not only remodeling the guys he has, but also by adding guys who already fit the blueprint or who can get there quickly.
We’ll be able to tell the degree to which he’s improving the size and strength of his roster by comparing the before and after pictures, but before we do that, I wanted to establish first, by something other than mere intuition, that size is in fact of great importance to some positions.
The 2011 edition of our annual magazine included an article on this very subject. Written by Bud Elliott, who is now SB Nation’s National Recruiting Analyst, the article not only proves that size matters along the defensive front seven but also explains why.
Here are the evergreen bits from that piece, scrubbed of references to a certain former coach of which you don’t care to be reminded. You’re welcome for that.
The following is from Volunteers Kickoff 2011, the 2011 edition of our annual preseason publication covering Tennessee Football.
Does size matter?
Below is a list of the top twenty defenses of 2009 and the respective cumulative weights of the teams’ defensive front sevens.
As you can see, 90% of the best 20 defenses of 2009 were 1,780 pounds or more in the front seven. More than half eclipsed the 1,800-pound mark. Is that a coincidence? Probably not. Yes, it may be possible to be both small and good, just as it may be possible to be both large and bad, but although size may be neither necessary nor sufficient, the figures above suggest that it is indeed a significant factor for success at the major college level.
Why does size matter?
So what is it about size that makes a difference? For one thing, bigger teams are able to better hold the point of attack and reduce guesswork. Another is that the teams with better defenses are typically stocked with more upperclassmen, which tend to be bigger because they’ve spent more time in the strength and conditioning program. That seems to be the case with a few of the teams on the list above, most notably Oklahoma State, which had ten senior starters on defense at one point in the 2009 season.
A big front seven also allows a team to better control gaps along the line. In particular, large defensive ends like those Saban used at LSU allow a defense to control the C gap (between the playside tackle and the tight end). Likewise, having a large outside linebacker with excellent instincts who can help control the C gap can allow a team to be more flexible with the defensive end. The central tenet here is that the player must hold his ground. A 240-pound defensive end or a 215-pound linebacker generally won’t be able to control the C gap in the SEC.
A smaller defensive line must rely more on speed and quickness, attempting to get around the blocker in front of him rather than stonewalling him, controlling him, and then shedding the block to make the tackle. Penetration certainly has its place in defensive football, but an entire defense should not be based on the concept. It leads to maddening inconsistency and players being out of position. For instance, if a defender attempts to go around a blocker to the left as opposed to taking him on and defeating him, the running back can simply go right, using the blocker to shield himself from the defender. This is where we get the term “overpursuit.”
Linebackers that are 215 pounds simply aren’t populating elite defenses. Those that are 220 pounds are also becoming increasingly rare as teams are able to find the size needed to stand up to blockers. They are fine as long as the team has monster defensive linemen capable of absorbing multiple blockers. But generally, a team of small LBs grouped with small defensive linemen, even if fast, is not a recipe for elite defensive football.
The consequences of being too small
A bigger front seven allows a team to be substantially better against the run than a smaller team. To compensate for that, a smaller defense must rely on numbers. They take seven and make it eight by bringing the safety closer to the line of scrimmage. That’s fine in theory, as the defense has an extra defender for which the offense cannot account. But the flip side of the strategy is that it leaves the defense vulnerable to the play-action pass. If a safety is focused on the run and very involved in run defense, he’s likely to be more aggressive in pursuing run plays—and falling for run fakes. And when the quarterback pulls the ball back on the run fake and hits the tight end streaking down the field in the area vacated by the safety, the plan doesn’t look so great.
The overuse of safeties in the run game also presents the problem of predictable coverages. If a safety lines up close to the line of scrimmage, an offensive coordinator can be confident he is not going to see cover two or cover four. Offenses are just too good in this day and age to be telegraphing coverages.
Size increases defensive flexibility
Instead of doing any of that, what . . . big defenses do is simply defend the run game using a large and talented front seven. Yes, the safeties are still involved, but not to the extent they are in very small defenses. This allows the safeties to play pass first and run second, a major advantage for the defensive back.
One might worry that this approach would leave the defense devoid of speed and vulnerable to the outside run. But from the list above, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The best twenty defenses aren’t necessarily the fastest in the country, but they are probably the strongest, and that strength produces gap integrity. And with that gap integrity comes the ability to keep leverage on the ball. Put simply, a big defense refuses to be run on between the tackles and forces the opposition to bounce the play to the outside. You’d think that with a bigger and presumably slower player the big defense would find trouble here, but that just isn’t the case. Why? Because the running back is forced to go laterally for a long distance as the defense is not allowing him to cut the ball up the field, which buys the defense time to read and adjust to the play.
What about passing downs? These bigger defenses have a variety of responses to passing downs, but the most common theme here is that they force long down and distance through excellent run defense on first and second down. Better to defend with decent pass rushers against 3rd and 7 than with great pass rushers against 3rd and 4.
That article went on to look at the weight of Tennessee’s defensive front seven heading in to the 2011 season and found that it was trending in the right direction yet still had a distance to travel. The group weighed in at 1808 pounds — about middle-of-the-pack on the above list — and the team finished seventh in the SEC and 27th in the nation in total defense, giving up 340.5 yards per game and 5.43 yards per play.
So, yes, having a big and strong defensive front is important to a team’s success. As Bud points out, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient, but there is little doubt that it helps.