Notre Dame has struggled this season, across starting cornerbacks Nick Watkins and Julian Love, in jump ball situations. They hurt them against Georgia for a few big plays, Love gave up a touchdown against Michigan State, and Watkins was beaten repeatedly last week.
Brian Kelly was asked during his Tuesday press conference about how they teach their defensive backs to handle those types of plays, when to turn and when not to. He went pretty in depth in his response.
He talks a lot about the different coverages they use, press vs. off coverage, where they want the corners to be in those coverages etc. I always find explaining these things do a lot better with visuals because it brings his descriptions to life so to speak. I compiled some clips from the games to assist in explaining what Kelly is talking about here. I’ll just go in order from the video.
When To Turn In Press
Kelly spoke first about press coverage versus off-man and I’ll tackle press first here. He emphasized the importance of a good jam when in press to re-route the receiver to hurt timing. That’s always step one in press defense. It’s also important to stay in touch with the receiver, which will eventually lead to a player being in position to turn and make a play on the ball.
If playing press and the receiver breaks away and the corner finds himself chasing, turning and looking goes out the window, from a technique standpoint. First, this isn’t high school, quarterbacks at the Power 5 level are pretty darn good, so the chances of a throw so poor a play can be made while trailing aren’t very good. Sure, they come up from time to time, but it will get you beaten, badly, more often than not. So from a best practices standpoint, if a corner is in chase mode, it’s better to keep the eyes focused on the receiver and get your hands inside of his to break up the pass. Julian Love showed this against Michigan State, when he lost touch with his receiver and recovered without turning.
When To Turn In Off-Man
This one is a little more tricky because you’re playing off and as Kelly states in the presser, you want to stay on top of the route at all times, which is why you play off. So it’s a question of turning and running and which way to face the receiver. A corner can choose to go chest to chest as Watkins did in giving up his first quarter touchdown last weekend. Or he can turn to the inside and attempt to pin the receiver to his hip and with his outside arm, essentially cutting the receiver off. I’ve seen Watkins do both and in each instance give up a long reception. It’s tricky, because decisions have to be made in the moment and there are no hard fast rules on this stuff. And in both cases you could make the case these passes shouldn’t even be thrown, because the receiver is covered.
In the case of last weekend, Watkins got caught in between turning and playing the ball, and playing the receiver’s eyes. He diagnoses the route, the receiver gives him a rather weak slant and go, and Watkins is in position to pin the receiver, cut him off, and look inside to make the play. But, he didn’t do that. Instead, he chose to engage the receiver with both arms, something I never like because it allows the receiver to be much more aggressive with him than he can be with the receiver, and awkwardly takes glances over his outside shoulder. As a result, he’s never able to locate the ball flight, loses the receiver, who is able to track the ball and make the play.
Against Georgia, Watkins finds himself in a similar situation and plays the way I think will lead him to long term success, even though it ended up as a reception. He again diagnoses the route, stays on top of the receiver, and is ready to make a play. The only nit pick here is he never pins the receiver with his outside arm, and never cuts him off. That allowed the receiver space to gather his body to jump, and use his hands on Watkins’ back to brace his leap and to keep Watkins on the ground. That said, as you’ll see on the second half of the replay, Watkins really does well here, the Georgia player just made a great play.
Playing The Back Shoulder Throw
As a player in the early 2000’s, back shoulder throws were not a thing. There was only one way fades were thrown and therefore much easier to cover. Or at least to teach to cover. Now with back shoulder passes things get a little more tricky, as Kelly eluded to in his presser. It makes the rules of turning for the ball more complicated.
Kelly stated there are times and areas of the field when the back shoulder throw is something to you have to play for. For example, if you’re on the short side of the field in press and the receiver runs vertical, a corner has to be a little more careful about turning and running, because on the short side it is a lot easier for the quarterback to throw it behind you. This was illustrated when Watkins picked up his pass interference penalty in the first quarter. (A call I hated by the way. Both players had two hands on each other. When the receiver let go, so did Watkins. You can’t call this and then let the receiver push off of Watkins later for a touchdown. Freakin receiver bias, man.)
Watkins plays this one correct, wasn’t rewarded for it, and it likely got into his head as to what the boundaries were in terms of physical play.
Back Shoulder Throw In The Red Zone
The thing about the red zone is the end line provides an extra defender. You know they can’t throw it over your head because there is not room. So there is no need to stay on the upfield shoulder of the receiver, because they can’t go anywhere. This is where Watkins lost a little bit of where he was on the field last week on the second touchdown. He plays it perfect if they were at midfield, but they are at the 14. He stays on top of the route, and allows space to the outside for the quarterback to fit it in. He was also hindered by a push off that would never be allowed by the defender.
It’s too bad because Watkins is playing good coverage in all of these clips. There isn’t a single one where he is obviously beaten. But, he’s shown to be uncomfortable with the ball in the air, and the offense has been reinforced to throw it his way, even when he displays good coverage. This is something he is going to get tested on until he proves he’s more comfortable in those situations.