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STUDY HALL WITH PROFESSOR BEN: The Alabama Slot Receiver

Ed. note: We are fortunate to announce Ben Litvin is joining Houndstooth Heroes. Ben’s study hall is exactly that. He will be breaking down individual plays and players. Ben’s goal is to show us all the “why” something happened. This week, he is discussing Chris Black’s recent comments on the Alabama slot receiver position. Next, he’ll be addressing the upcoming quarterback competition. Follow Ben’s fantastic Twitter account, @ben_litvin.

Chris Black made some comments recently about his time at Alabama. I’m sure you all read them. Later, he claimed his quotes were taken out of context. Whatever.Black didn’t end up having the Alabama career he had hoped for and, really, that’s all he was trying to say. But I wanted to focus on one particular quote from Black – “I always felt the system (at Alabama) didn’t fit my type of skill set” – because I think it creates an opportunity to discuss something more interesting/important: how Alabama uses their slot receiver compared with other teams.

First, we’ll look at how Clemson uses their slot receiver, Hunter Renfrow, because I believe this is the sort of system/role Black believes he could thrive in. I also think it’ll serve as an interesting contrast to Alabama’s system. We’ll get into specific plays in a moment but first let’s talk generally about Renfrow’s usage. Clemson’s most basic goal, when using their slot receiver, is to try to spread the defense as thin as possible in order to create open space underneath.  They’ll typically accomplish this with spread formations and late motion. Then they’ll look to isolate Renfrow on a slot corner or, better yet, a linebacker, and ask him to run a wide variety of underneath routes. Then, when they feel the defense cheating to either defend underneath routes or stop the run, they’ll ask Renfrow to run some sort of vertical route.  Those are the basics. Now lets get into specifics.

Here Clemson comes out in a 2X2 formation – two receivers on each side of center. Renfrow is lined up in the slot to the left. The running back motions out and, instead of the linebacker walking out with him, the defenders simply shift down one leaving Renfrow against a linebacker playing inside leverage.

Renfrow runs a short out pattern and picks up some easy yards on first down.

Check out how many times this particular passing concept was used in just this one game.

Here the concept is essentially the same but because the play side linebacker blitzes Renfrow runs a stick route rather than breaking it outside.

Then just when they start to feel like the linebacker is cheating to take away the quick throw to the outside they dial up a slant.

The routes change a bit when he’s matched up with a defensive back but the basic concepts remain the same. Here he’s lined up as the #2 to the left of the formation. The slot corner is playing press man. Renfrow runs a whip route.

Here’s another outside breaking route, but this one is run further down the field.

Renfrow 10

Here he’s lined up as the #2 to the left and runs a drag route across the formation. The fact that the defensive back is playing outside leverage essentially gives away that this is zone, meaning the play side linebacker will have to match the inside breaking route from the #2. That’s a very tall order against a speedy slot receiver.

Then, occasionally, they’ll break tendency and run a vertical concept with the slot receiver with a simple wheel route.

It’s not all that difficult to appreciate what the strategy is here. They’re taking advantage of Renfrow’s quickness by matching him up against linebackers and slot corners and then getting the ball to him using a variety of quick, underneath routes … followed by the occasional shot downfield. And maybe most importantly, Renfrow is out there, first and foremost, to be an option in the passing game.

Now, when these quotes from Black came out I saw a number of people point out that Alabama is frequently in 11 personnel, meaning that their formations often include a slot receiver. This, of course, is true. But not all slot receivers are used the same. To suggest that, just because Alabama uses a slot receiver, Chris Black – because he plays that position – fits in their offense is rather silly.

So how did Lane Kiffin use his slot receiver in 2015? Not as a receiver, for one thing. On the season, in 15 games, Richard Mullaney caught 38 passes. If you take out the Ole Miss game – and, considering the context of this discussion, you really should because they spent the whole second half playing from way behind, taking them far away from their offensive identity – he caught 31 passes in 14 games. Further, his usage as a receiver only declined as the season went on. Over the final 8 games he only caught 15 passes.

If he wasn’t being used much as a receiver, how was he being used? The short answer is that he was being used as a blocker. We’re used to bonus bigs being tight ends, fullbacks, and H-backs but, at times (within certain offenses), receivers can be as well. One of the main tenets of Lane Kiffin’s offensive system – particularly as it pertains to the running game – is to put bad tacklers into positions where they need to make tackles. He does this by putting an extra receiver on the field, forcing the defense (most of the time) to put an extra defensive back on the field. Then he’ll move that extra receiver around – sometimes putting him in the slot, sometimes putting him in the backfield – in order to create a situation where that extra defensive back will be involved in trying to stop the run. Another main tenet of Lane Kiffin’s offensive system – this one pertaining to both the passing game and the running game – is to stretch the field horizontally. He does this mostly with wide receiver screens and jet sweeps, both of which require sound blocking on the edges. In short, Mullaney was out there because of his skills as a blocker not because of his skills as a receiver.

But as outlined above, Kiffin did – albeit rarely – involve him in the passing game. He did this mostly by taking advantage of Mullaney’s propensity to be more of a blocker than a receiver. Lets take a look at some examples.

Here Mullaney is lined up in the slot to the right. Drake comes in motion right before the snap. Coker looks his way as if he’s going to throw a quick screen to Drake and Mullaney pretends to be setting up a block but instead releases downfield and runs a wheel route

Here’s another example:

Mullaney Georgia 1

When they weren’t throwing it to him off screen looks they were throwing it to him off run looks, typically in the form of packaged plays. These probably comprised at least a third of his total receptions this year. Lets take a look at a couple examples where the quarterback’s read comes after the snap.

If this play looks familiar it’s because it’s the exact same concept as OJ Howard’s long catch and run at the end of the National Championship. At the snap Mullaney is coming in motion from left to right. Coker is reading the unblocked defensive end. If he stays outside Coker will give the ball to Henry. If he crashes inside Coker will throw the ball to Mullaney. The other two receivers are setting up their blocks in anticipation of the ball being thrown to Mullaney.

Mullaney Florida 1

Here’s another example:

Mullaney Auburn 1

Now lets take a look at some examples where the quarterback’s read comes before the snap. The read typically has to do with the amount of defenders in the box. If there is an extra man in the box the quarterback opts for the pass, if there’s not the quarterback opts for the run.

Here Mullaney is lined up in the slot to the right. Auburn has 7 defenders in the box against only 6 Alabama blockers so Coker smartly decides to throw the quick out to Mullaney.

Mullaney Auburn 2

Here Mullaney is lined up in the slot to the left. Coker is reading the leverage of the slot corner. If he has inside leverage Coker will throw the quick out to Mullaney. If he is directly across from Mullaney or has outside leverage Coker will give the ball to Henry.

Mullaney LSU 1

At other times he was even lined up in the backfield and they simply slipped him out into the flat.

Mullaney LSU 2

Other than that, he was used every so often on third downs.

Mullaney MSU 3

Mullaney Florida 2

Mullaney Auburn 3

None of this is meant to take anything away from Mullaney. Lane’s system calls for a slot receiver that blocks well and will catch the ball on the rare occasion that it is thrown his way. Mullaney does both of these things quite well and that’s why he was the starter from day one. That and the fact that he outweighs Black by ~15 pounds.

The problem is that people mistakenly took what Chris Black said as a criticism of the Alabama coaches and the offensive system they run. It wasn’t. Instead it was just a factual statement. Black – a small, quick receiver like Renfrow – fits far better in a system like Clemson’s than Alabama’s.

Any questions? Good. Class dismissed.

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