Brian Smith remembers the first time he saw Army on the schedule. The reaction, naturally, was dread. Now the defensive coordinator at Rice, which lost 14-7 to the Black Knights last week, that’s what happens when he thinks about preparing his defense to face the triple option.
His second reaction was more calculated. Smith didn’t need to dig too far into the recesses of his memory to recall the last time he faced a triple-option offense. It was only two years ago and the results — 13 points allowed on 3.4 yards per carry — were exactly what he hoped to replicate last Friday. So Smith took to his notes.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it should. Smith was Michigan’s defensive backs coach in 2017, when the Wolverines beat Air Force, 29-13, holding the Falcons to 232 yards of offense.
“That was kind of my starting point for everything,” Smith said of his notes from that game.
Smith counts himself among Don Brown’s disciples. He played and coached under the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator at University of Massachusetts before nine years in the NFL — a stint that ended when Brown pulled him back to the college ranks. Many of his schemes stem from what he learned in all those stops under Brown.
But defending the triple option, he says, is a uniform philosophy. It’s an exercise in discipline and assignments, in preparation and endurance.
“I’ll tell you one thing, any time you see one of the (service) academies on the schedule, you sure don’t get excited, facing the triple option, just being honest with you,” Smith told The Daily this week. “Because it’s so different. And as a player, having played against the offense a few times, I wouldn’t consider it fun to have to go against guys that are trying to cut block you every snap.”
For Rice, the task was made easier by opening their season with Army, giving them double the time to prepare. Michigan didn’t have that luxury — Jim Harbaugh and his staff started working on their preparations during spring practices to compensate.
“I think the biggest thing you really need to focus on is getting your scout team ready, just from a coaching standpoint to be able to get a good look from the scout team,” Smith said. “Because they’re going to be doing things that they’re not used to doing.
“And if you can try to simulate as best as you can what it’s going to look like during the week, it helps the guys be more confident going into the game.”
Once game time arrives, the task shifts from preparation to discipline, something that can be especially challenging against such a unique look. “It’s such a spread offensive world now that you see the triple option, it’s just different,” said Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua.
The basic principle of the option is the same as the spread offense: get talented players in space with room to work. That’s where the similarities end.
If the offense takes the first read — a handoff to the running back — the defense’s responsibilities are no different than in any other scheme. But if the quarterback keeps the ball, assignments take over. One player, usually a linebacker, is responsible for the quarterback on a given play. Another is the “pitch player,” responsible for the third option. A mistake from either of those players can spell disaster.
“Say your quarterback player does something undisciplined and say he goes for the dive, he tries to go and tackle the (third option), then you’ve got no quarterback player,” Smith said. “Same with the pitch player, if he goes and tries to tackle the quarterback, then you have no pitch player.”
The importance of that discipline only magnifies as the game progresses. Army’s run percentage stands above 85 percent each of the past three years. That wears down a defense, compromising its focus as the repetition can numb defensive players’ minds.
Last week, Smith saw that first-hand, with his defense undoing three quarters of good work by allowing a 18-play, 96-yard touchdown drive deep in the fourth quarter.
“They keep doing the same thing over and over again to try to lull you to sleep,” Smith said. “And the DBs, they’re supposed to read their keys every play. And they may try to get a jump on the run game because they’ve been seeing the same thing over and over again. So instead of reading the keys, they stop reading their keys and start just playing run-first. And now, next thing you know, you give up a big play because one guy doesn’t do his assignment.”
Still, Smith trusts Brown better than anyone to prepare his defense to overcome these hurdles.
He remembers playing in the 1998 FCS national championship game, when Brown coached UMass past Georgia Southern, led by Paul Johnson, who Smith calls the “godfather” of the modern triple-option offense. Johnson’s highest-profile job came as head coach of Georgia Tech from 2008-18, but his coaching tree permeates nearly every triple-option team in Division I.
Among that coaching tree? Army coach Jeff Monken.