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Identifying and using the entire football field

The methods of Sun Tzu have been used for thousands of years.

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NCAA Football: Cheez-It Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Miami Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

There are few consistencies from game to game in athletic competition but the playing area is one of them. An American football field is 120 yards long and 53 13 yards wide. Now the hashes and goal posts are different widths between high school, college, and the NFL- but the goal post is in the back of the end zone and the hashes cut the field into three width based field zones at all three levels.

In the tweet above (thanks, Cam), you can see how coaches will use ‘landmarks’ on the field. This comes into play regarding alignment, assignment and finish. In high school and college field and boundary are a thing versus in the NFL where it’s hardly an issue with their hash marks being so close together. I would prefer if high school used college hashes and college and the NFL were the same.

In the book The Perfect Pass by S.C. Gwynne, you get the backstory of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach inventing the Air Raid system on their journey from Iowa Wesleyan to Kentucky, and Leach’s eventual transcendence of his predecessor. Mumme has faded into being a CoachTube Air Raid Certification teacher while Leach is coaching in the SEC West.

However, their theory was drastically different than that of the ‘pro style’ I Formation teams of the 90’s. While Miami under Butch Davis was loading up the box in 1997, Mumme was throwing for 3,884 yards and 37 touchdowns compared to Ryan Clement’s 2,089 yards and 10 TD’s for Miami. Where Davis was taking an NCAA penalty ravaged roster and trying to be the 1995 Dallas Cowboys, Mumme was trying to use all 53 13 yards of the field to his advantage, because his roster was at a disadvantage.

Davis wound up in a better position than Mumme in the end, but in ‘97 both teams finished 5-6. And let’s not forget the ‘Canes 1995 team that was loaded with NFL talent but Davis refused to adapt to their strengths or mask their weaknesses. That ‘95 team should’ve finished much stronger for Miami but you could watch the games and see the program struggling to fit the square peg into the round hole.

In Fergus Connolly’s (@Fergus_Connolly) book Game Changer, he says that an American football team should align wide and then aim for depth before width in the actual execution. That aligns with most of Dub Maddox’s theories in his R4 system (new book Capology is available for pre-order here). Coach Maddox uses a ‘rhythm, read, rush, release’ system where the QB’s first target is a rhythm target off his drop, which is typically a fade concept (depth).

Connolly references Sun Tzu quite a bit in Game Changer. Something I have never understood is when smaller teams line up in bunched up formations in the red zone and especially down inside the +10 yard line. Once the field of play takes away the depth aspect, width now becomes the alignment and assignment only avenue.

With a mobile QB, like D’Eriq King, I would prefer an empty set formation using the entire 53 13 of the field, because that means your defenders are spread out and lack the support they want. The defense wants you to play inside of those hashes in a 13 13 area, why let them play compact and with support? King can then use his smart, speed, and quickness to beat linebackers in 1-on-1 situations like an isolation play in basketball.

Per Connolly, there are three styles of play: attrition, maneuver, and moral. Attrition is grinding your opponent down. Think of Wisconsin or Alabama with the big, massive, hulking offensive linemen and a power back that makes one guy miss and the second guy hurt.

Maneuver is all about speed and misdirection. The Urban Meyer system at Florida with Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin rings a bell here. Using motion, shifts, and options in order to get someone like Harvin alone in space after pounding defenders with Tebow’s shoulder pads.

Moral is guerilla warfare. Moral is Navy football, it’s the programs that realize they don’t have the size or speed and will rely on what they can control. They know they have to dictate when, where, and how they will engage with the enemy or defense.

Gino Torretta - Miami Hurricanes

This all goes back to using the entire field. The 2001 Hurricanes could use attrition on everyone in their way. The team was loaded with NFL talent and was fantastic on the offensive and defensive lines. The 1992 Hurricanes were using maneuver tactics to overcome their depleted offensive line that had to move tight end Carlos Etheredge to tackle. Etheredge was fine in pass protection but in the run game he mostly pulled to avoid having to base block a larger defender at the point of attack.

In these game styles, using the field appropriately is the key. Alabama can condense the field and run over 9-10 of their opponents on their schedule. But when it comes to the Iron Bowl, SEC Championship Game, and College Football Playoff they know they need a more wide open, space using, offense. That’s why Lane Kiffin made the shift in Tuscaloosa to a more modern approach, for when the Tide would face Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State, Auburn, or LSU.

What does this mean for Miami in ‘21?

NCAA Football: Miami at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

The Hurricanes coaching staff needs to adapt based on their opponent. If the offensive line can dominate the game, use a more attrition based model. But the overall scheme needs to remain adaptable, fluid, like water. Cram the box up against weaker opponents, use misdirection against equal footing and use moral against Alabama.

Sun Tzu said, “If equally matched, we can offer battle.” That’s the vast majority of Miami’s schedule- equally matched at the least for Coach Diaz’s squad. The schedule is weak and the Hurricanes should finish 11-1 based on the lack of talent their opponents have and the plethora of talent down in Coral Gables, FL. Dropping games to Virginia or Michigan State would be inexcusable.

Sun Tzu also said, “If slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy.” Miami shouldn’t be slightly inferior to anyone on the regular season schedule except for Alabama. Coach Lashlee will need a few of his trick plays to get an edge against the Tide early on and push Alabama off their game. Let’s hope that opening weekend game doesn’t become this final Sun Tzu quote, “If quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him,” because in an American football game, there is no retreat.