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Oct. 18, 2000

By Chas Jordan

The latest buzz throughout college football continues to be the emergence and evolution of the scrambling quarterback, and for Virginia defensive ends coach Ty Smith, this remains a harsh reality that has become all too familiar. Smith joined the Cavalier coaching staff in 1998, and over the past three seasons, Virginia has consistently faced many of the nation’s top-rated mobile quarterbacks. According to Smith, applying pressure on the passer has always been a challenge, but with the overwhelming number of multi-demensional quarterbacks, the offense now possesses an even greater advantage.

“Of all the things that I know of defensively, rushing the passer is the most difficult thing to do,” said Smith. “There are more things a player can do just a little bit incorrectly which will cause him to fail, and it is the one area defensively where you have to physically beat somebody and you have only 2.3 to 2.4 seconds to do it. What the fan has to realize is that the offensive lineman does not have to defeat the defensive player in pass blocking. All he has to do is tie with him, because if it is just a tie, then the offensive lineman [actually] wins.”

Though a 21-year veteran of college coaching, Smith admits the new styles of quarterbacking have caused him to take a different approach towards the way he teaches defenders to rush the passer. He must constantly adjust the game plan according to an opposing quarterback’s specific style of play and tailor it to help nullify that particular player’s strengths. When facing a quarterback who serves as an effective scrambler, Virginia may now opt to simply contain the mobile passer, as opposed to the traditional practice of applying constant pressure on him.

“I think it has changed the defenses in the league and across the country and made us [coaches] all rethink our approach. It puts more pressure on the defensive end as a pass rusher, because they have to be a little more conservative in their attempts to get to the quarterback,” said Smith. “When you are rushing just four guys, if the secondary gets too spread out and a [defensive end] does get to the quarterback but fails to tackle him, then the passer may have room to run. As a defense, you have to make the decision whether we want to get by the blockers and get to the quarterback, or consider him more effective once he begins to move around and run.”

Even beyond varying the defensive schemes and the pass rush techniques, coach Smith sees a need for the actual players to adjust their physical conditioning in an effort to better handle mobile quarterbacks. This past spring and summer, he challenged the defensive ends to trim down, streamline their physique, and reduce overall bulk in order to increase their foot speed and make them faster. Simply possessing the brute strength to get by offensive linemen no longer represents the primary objective of a defensive end. Instead, a defenseman must now combine the strength to apply an effective pass rush with the quickness needed to pursue and capture a scrambling quarterback on the run.

“I wanted my guys to drop a little weight [this past offseason] and get a little quicker,” said Smith. “When the quarterback does take off and run, he is a little different player running the football now than he was maybe a couple of years ago. So, I need quicker, more mobile guys who can not only rush the passer, but can also chase him after he starts to run.”

As defensive linemen get faster, college offenses compensate by simply becoming even quicker. Many high-powered, spread offenses require the quarterback to hold the ball for only a split second before throwing it downfield, thus nearly eliminating almost any opportunity for the defense to pressure the passer.

“Another thing happening in football today that goes along with the mobile quarterback is that the offenses have begun to change so that the ball is now being thrown more quickly,” said Smith. “For example, against BYU the ball was being thrown in about 2.27 seconds, and even when they are unblocked, defensive players have a hard time getting to the quarterback [in this short amount of time]. The ball is being thrown much quicker, and the quarterback is scrambling much quicker, which has changed the face of offenses, and I think, it is beginning to change the face of defenses.”

Unfortunately for Virginia’s defense, the Cavaliers must still contend with some of the country’s top-ranked and most effective mobile quarterbacks as part of their remaining schedule. Luckily, the experience gained from earlier contests combined with an adaptive defensive approach from coach Smith should prove extremely effective in helping to cool down one of college football’s hottest trends.

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