Fist Up: The Tennessee Volunteers’ Attacking Defense – Part 1

While many get excited over the talent of players like Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd and the up-tempo offense that Butch Jones has brought to Tennessee, the Volunteers improvement has been largely due to the success of the defense. Since coming to Tennessee, Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek have installed an attacking 1 gap defense that has improved from 107 in the nation in 2012 to 34 in 2014. Tennessee is primed to have its best season under Jones in 2015 and has the potential to compete for the SEC East title. If that occurs, it will be because the defense lived up to its potential.

This is the first half of a post that will examine Tennessee’s attacking philosophy. You read the second half here.


Typically, defenses are categorized as a 4-3 or 3-4, but that does not tell you how a team is defending the run. They key is what technique the defenders are playing with:  1 gap or 2 gap. In a 1 gap scheme, front 7 defenders are each responsible for one “gap.” They are aggressive players whose job is to attack their gap. A 1 gap scheme requires fast, athletic defenders. Typically, 1 gap teams play a 4-3, but some 3-4 teams, most notably those coached by long time NFL coach Wade Phillips, 1 gap.

A 2 gap scheme has the defensive linemen attacking offensive linemen. Their job is to control the blocker and demand a double team. This leaves room for the linebackers to roam free and make plays. This scheme calls for bigger, stronger linemen who can take on blocks and playmaking linebackers. Typically, 3-4 defenses are 2 gap defenses.

So what is Tennessee? The Volunteers, under John Jancek, are an attacking 4-3, 1 gap defense. Because of the attacking nature of the defense, the Vols love fast, athletic defenders. Tennessee has multiple players who changed positions since joining the team (Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cortez McDowell from safety to outside linebacker, Curt Maggitt and Chris Weatherd from outside linebacker to defensive end, Jordan Williams from defensive end to defensive tackle [2013-14]). These payers may be undersized at their new spots, but all of them use their speed to be playmakers at their new positions. This is the beauty of the 4-3, 1 gap defense. Athleticism and speed reigns supreme. The defense is simplified, making it easier for players to make plays. Defenders have one job. Attack your gap.

Here is a clip of Maggitt (#56) making a tackle for a loss while playing strongside (Sam) linebacker. He is responsible for the backside A gap here. Maggitt reads the play and immediately explodes through his gap to stop the runner.

Another example is Reeves-Maybin (#34) stopping a pin and pull sweep by Missouri. He reads the play and attacks the C gap to make the tackle for a loss.

These clips show the benefit of an aggressive 1 gap defense. The defenders are able to attack and make plays. The scheme put Maggitt and Reeves-Maybin in perfect position to use their speed.

While the players must be aggressive, they also must stay in their gap. With one defender responsible for each gap, one misstep can lead to a big run. For the defense to work, everyone must stay in his gap.

Here is an example from the bowl game. Iowa is using motion by the wide receiver to simulate a fly sweep. The hope is that the defensive end will chase the sweep and leave the C gap open. Instead, Derek Barnett (#9) stays in his gap, knowing that the D gap is accounted for by the linebacker. The back tries to cut back and Barnett is there for the easy stop.

On this play, Corey Vereen (#50) would appear to have a clear path to the ball carrier. But instead of recklessly abandoning his gap, Vereen filled the C gap. Maggitt comes in behind him into the D gap, takes on the block, and makes the tackle. If Vereen had abandoned his gap and gone outside, he would’ve been kicked out by the pulling guard and the C gap would’ve been wide open. This is a really great, unselfish play that shows the importance of staying in your gap. By filling the C gap, Vereen forced the ball carrier outside and into Maggitt.


When an offense lines up in a “pro” formation (two or less receivers), Tennessee counters with a 4-3 front. The Vols use both an under and over alignment.

The most common look for the Vols is a 4-3 Under front. An under front involves the strongside (Sam) linebacker lining up a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage and across from the outside shoulder of the tight end. He is responsible for the D gap. The strongside defensive end lines up in a 5 technique, which puts him on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, and defends the C gap. Next, you have the nose tackle who aligns in a 1 technique, on the center’s shoulder, and takes the A gap.  The defensive tackle aligns in a 3 technique, on the outside shoulder of the weakside offensive guard, and attacks the B gap. The weakside defensive end lines up outside the offensive tackle and controls the C gap. The middle (Mike) linebacker and weakside (Will) linebacker line up off the ball and are responsible for the two remaining gaps, the strongside B and weakside A.


4-3 UnderThe other way Tennessee will defend a “pro” set is with a 4-3 Over front. This often comes when an offensive lines up in a symmetrical two tight end set and does not declare a strength. The big difference in alignment is in an over front all three linebackers line up off the ball. The strongside end lines up on the inside shoulder of the tight end, in a 7 technique, and takes the C gap. The defensive tackle lines up on the strongside and plays 3 technique, taking the B gap. The nose tackle is now on the weakside, but still in the 1 technique, defending the A gap. The weakside end still lines up outside the offensive tackle and takes the C gap. The linebackers are responsible for the remaining three gaps.

4-3 OVER

4-3 OverThe 4-3 Over is the Vols’ defense of choice versus “spread” formations (three or more receivers), with one slight adjustment. Tennessee will take the Sam linebacker off the field and replace him with a third cornerback as part of their nickel package. The alignment is the same as the 4-3 Over, but the Vols now have the speed to cover the offense’s slot receiver. This is how Tennessee lines up the most: in a 4-2-5 nickel package to defend the spread offenses that are so common in college football today.

4-2-5 NICKEL

NickelWhile Tennessee is considered a 4-3 team, they spend the majority of the time in the 4-2-5. For this reason, the nickel back is essentially a “12th starter.”

These are Tennessee’s base defensive formations. The Vols do have one more, however, that they use in special situation.

This is what I call the “Joker” package. This is a 3-3-5 defense that is reserved for passing situations. In 2014, this was almost always used on third and long. The Vols will line up with two defensive ends outside the offensive tackles in pass rushing position, with a nose tackle over the center. The Mike and Will, as well as the defensive backs, align as they normally would in the nickel. The eleventh player is the “Joker” linebacker. In 2014, this position was played by Chris Weatherd. He would line up in different positions each time, sometimes outside the end, sometimes as a defensive tackle, and sometimes as a standup linebacker. The only constant was Weatherd was always moving, both pre and post snap. Jancek often used Weatherd and the other linebackers as blitzers from this formation, disguising his rushers to keep the offense off guard and to create one on one pass rushing opportunities.

Chris Weatherd (Circled) is Tennessee's

Chris Weatherd (Circled) is Tennessee’s “Joker.”


Up front, the Vols value a big, strong, run stopper at the nose tackle spot. The defensive tackle should be a more athletic, pass rushing type. The defensive ends should be fast, athletic pass rushers.

The Sam is the best run stopper of the linebackers. He is a hybrid defensive end who can hold his own in the run game. The Will spot is reserved for the most athletic coverage linebackers. Similar to the Will, the Mike must be an athletic player who can play in space.

At corner, the Vols like long, fast players who can play tight man to man coverage. The two safety spots are interchangeable. Both players must be versatile enough to be able to play deep center field, go in the box and make a tackle, or cover a receiver in man coverage. The nickel back is a versatile position that combines traits from both corner and safety. The nickel must be an aggressive player who can blitz and make tackles, but also provide tight man to man coverage.

To be continued…


13 thoughts on “Fist Up: The Tennessee Volunteers’ Attacking Defense – Part 1

  1. Thank you for the good work, which helps folks like me to better understand, appreciate, and enjoy the game of football. It’s guys like you who give bloggers a good name. Five star writer, imo.


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