Inside: Defending the read option is all about the eyes
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Jamal Adams freely admits what anybody with a pulse could’ve figured out: LSU is perfectly fine with Dak Prescott playing his football on Sundays this fall.
The All-SEC safety was just a true freshman when Prescott raced the Bulldogs up and down the field two years ago en route to a 34-29 win at Tiger Stadium. Adams got an even better look last fall in Starkville, as Prescott came within a field goal of beating his home-state school once again.
“We definitely won’t miss him,” Adams smiled. “We definitely will not.”
Nobody will confuse Nick Fitzgerald for Prescott.
The former is arguably the greatest player — and certainly the most prolific quarterback — to come through Mississippi State. Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs put together the most successful two-year run in program history with him behind center.
The latter is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore who has attempted all of 46 career passes. It wasn’t until last week’s 27-14 win over South Carolina that Mullen officially named him to winner of Mississippi State’s quarterback competition.
Fitzgerald isn’t Prescott, but when LSU (1-1, 0-0 SEC) studies film ahead of Saturday’s SEC opener against Mississippi State (1-1, 1-0 SEC), set for 6 p.m. at Tiger Stadium, they’ll once again see a dual-threat signal caller capable of marching the Bulldogs down the field with either his legs or right arm.
After struggling in limited action during State’s season-opening loss to South Alabama, Fitzgerald threw for 178 yards with two touchdowns and an interception Saturday. He also rushed for 195 yards on 17 carries, a school record for a quarterback.
That’s not a typo.
Prescott never ran for as many yards in any single game as Fitzgerald did last week.
“He’s a different quarterback,” Adams said. “We’ll have to be prepared for him.”
As is the case with most modern offenses built around a mobile quarterback, Mississippi State runs a good deal of read option plays — also known as the zone read. LSU will see more of the same next week during a trip to Auburn, another spread attack.
No two teams run it the same way, but basically, the quarterback sticks the ball in his running back’s gut as he reads one defender purposefully left unblocked. Depending on what the defender in question does — either stay home and contain or crash toward the ball carrier — the quarterback either hands the ball off or pulls it out and takes off through the vacated hole.
Like the traditional triple option, the idea is to use ball manipulation to move defenders out of position, creating holes to attack. It’s the quarterback’s job to make quick decisions. The obvious difference being the read option is typically run from the shotgun with more space to operate.
“Everybody has to be in the right spots,” defensive end Lewis Neal said. “It’s not hard to defend because they’re just going to read the end or whoever, and if you’re in the right spots, you just flow it to whoever is supposed to make the play.”
Saturday will be LSU’s third game under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Players downplayed the idea that Aranda’s 3-4 scheme differs greatly from the 4-3 alignments utilized by predecessors Kevin Steele or John Chavis in the way they defend the read option or mobile quarterbacks in general.
“Playing the read option, I feel like it’s kind of the same in every defense,” inside linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “Somebody is going to have the quarterback. Somebody is going to have the running back. And whoever is assigned to that guy is going to have to do their job.”
Still, defending the read option requires assignment discipline. One over-aggressive defender rushing out of position is all it takes to allow a big gain.
That’s why LSU’s defenders appreciated getting a dry run of sorts Saturday against Jacksonville State. Eli Jenkins, the Gamecocks’ All-American quarterback, is a smaller, quicker runner than Fitzgerald, but he provided a nice test before LSU takes on spread offenses in back-to-back league games.
Setting aside sack yardage, Jenkins and former five-star Auburn tailback signee Roc Thomas ran for a combined 126 yards on 25 carries, most of which came via read option plays.
Beckwith says LSU’s run defense, particularly against the read option, graded out well when the team broke down film Monday. Well, with the exception of one bust.
The lone outlier?
A 34-yard scamper by Jenkins after he pulled the handoff from Thomas, who went left, allowing the quarterback to sprint through a massive hole that opened up on the right side.
So what happened? A linebacker got caught looking where he was not supposed to.
“Bad eyes,” Beckwith explained. “My eyes. It was my eyes. I knew right after it happened. They got me. Try not to let that happen again.”
Eye discipline may be the single biggest key to defending spread offenses like Jacksonville State, Mississippi State or Auburn. That goes for front seven defenders when the offense runs zone read or for defensive backs in coverage when a quarterback breaks the pocket to extend a play.
There’s a natural compulsion to break on a ball carrier in hopes of making a big play. LSU’s defensive philosophy has always been to play fast and aggressive. But Tre’Davious White explained that the secondary can’t gamble against a quarterback like Fitzgerald who can throw on the run.
“We’re going to have to stick with our man when he gets to scrambling around,” White said, “so he’s not able to hit guys in stride who are wide open. You have to keep your eyes on (the receiver).”
Defending the spread also requires being comfortable playing in open space, so the other key, besides discipline, is tackling.
The team film session found 19 missed tackles against Wisconsin, according to Beckwith. The Tigers cut that number down to five against Jacksonville State.
“So that’s an improvement,” Beckwith added. “Cut it down to none and that’ll be perfect.”