As 2015 begins, Texas A&M fans are full of optimism as they welcome John Chavis, former LSU defensive coordinator, to the Kyle Field sidelines. His job is simple, as far as Aggies are concerned: bring back the Wrecking Crew.
In the years since R.C. Slocum was fired, the Aggies have had a handful of defensive coordinators, each with varying degrees of success. They've also dabbled in 3-4, 4-3, and 4-2-5 schemes. Most recently, Mark Snyder, who was just dismissed following the final regular season game of 2014, ran a 4-3 under scheme.
Chavis also uses a base 4-3 front, and like pretty much everyone these days, likes to be very multiple with alignments. He also has a reputation for being able to stop the spread offense, which he does by replacing a linebacker with another corner for a nickel package, or using their "mustang" package which has three linemen and six defensive backs, among other things. This article does a fantastic job of showing some specific things Chavis does with different personnel packages.
To delve a little deeper into Chavis' mindset and philosophies, I found a few other resources. One of them is a copy of his 2002 defensive playbook from his time at Tennessee. Another is a copy of a lecture he gave in 2002. And the third is another lecture, unfortunately not linked directly but it comes from this book, that he gave in 2010, after his first season at LSU.
First, some quotes straight from Chavis himself, all from the above three links, to give you a much better idea of his attitude, philosophy, scheme and goals.
On attitude and effort:
- "Scheme doesn't win, effort does...We focus in three major things for our success: fundamentals... technique... and execution."
- "Pursuit... A man's value to his team can be measured by his distance from the ball when the whistle blows."
- "To be successful, you have to play aggressive, attacking defense. That does not mean you have to blitz every down. We are going to do it by coming off the ball with our down defenders and putting pressure on the offensive line. That is the mentality of our front. Our 3-technique and our 9-technique players are going to get off the ball and penetrate. We want to play on their side of the line of scrimmage."
- "The primary goal of defense is to obtain the football for the offense. The three simplest ways to obtain the football are three downs and out, cause a fumble, and take interceptions."
- "We will strip at the football every opportunity that we get... We talked about turnovers earlier, but you have to have a head coach that will work with you in this aspect. You play like you practice, and it is important that we play aggressive in practice. It is important to know how to strip the football and when to do it... I thought we did a good job of stripping the ball until I went down and watched the Saints practice. It was unbelievable. There were some players on offense who did not like the way they did it in practice. However, I bet they liked the Super Bowl championship ring they got. They forced many turnovers this year, and it did not happen by accident."
- "How do you force offenses into mistakes? You do it by being aggressive in your scheme. You also do it by changing your scheme. You have to do things that they do not expect you to do."
- "You cannot play defense if you are not a great tackler. There has not been a single day that we have been on the field that we do not practice tackling. Even if we are in shorts, we will practice the fundamentals of tackling."
- "We want to be fundamentally sound as a football team. From day one we stress fundamentals to our defense."
- "We demand our technique be sound at all of our positions. No matter whether it's a defensive lineman, linebacker, or defensive back, technique will be the number one determinant of your success. Poor technique will get you beat every time."
- "We don't ask out players to do a lot but we ask that they execute our schemes."
- "We want to be a defense that gets an extra man in the box to make it tougher on the offense. We'll rock one of the two safeties down 70% of the time. We are a gap control defense."
- "Our best defense is out of a 4-3 alignment. We change up our fronts quite a bit but in the end we get back to our base 4-3. Our callside end is in a 9 technique and our callside tackle is in a 3 with B-Gap responsibilities. On the backside our tackle is in a 1 technique and our end is in a 5. Our Sam and Will are in a 50 technique and our Mike is in a weak 10 Stack look. The Mike linebacker has A-Gap with flow to and has the B-Gap with flow away."
Chavis is also known for letting his corners play a lot of press coverage, man-to-man with little safety help. No doubt his playbook has a lot of that but in the spirit of multiplicity, it also includes every other standard coverage and combination you could ask for. Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, man, zone, Cover 6 (quarter/quarter/half), and more. A good 25% of his playbook is dedicated to blitzes, out of all coverages and fronts. He will play both man and zone behind a blitz.
A big part of what his job will be at Texas A&M is finding out what tweaks he needs to make based on the personnel he inherits and then recruits. Bar none, his most talented weapon is sophomore-to-be Myles Garrett, a defensive end who set the SEC freshman record for sacks in 2014 with 11.5. Chavis will no doubt be looking for ways to get Garrett into one on one match-ups to take advantage of his pass rush skills.
Another advantage for the Aggies as far as this transition is concerned comes from the fact that Chavis is already familiar with all of the divisional opponents A&M will face each year since he coached in the same division. So while there were highs and lows for the Tigers (Mississippi State and Auburn both had big days against the LSU defense during the first half of the season, but not one of LSU's final six regular season opponents gained over 325 yards), Chavis will be able to look at what worked and what didn't, combined with what strengths and weaknesses there were between 2014 LSU and 2015 Texas A&M and scheme accordingly, knowing exactly what he's up against, having played the same teams each year.
From reading different resources (the ones linked above plus other articles) and watching bits and pieces of LSU film, it stands out that the two things a Chavis defense relies on are aggression and discipline. They will try to play on the offense's side of the line of scrimmage and get to the ball, yet if they are facing a mobile quarterback (like Johnny Manziel), they will remain disciplined and play to contain. He teaches smart football, versatile style, and pure fundamentals. Ideally, focusing on those things will keep players in position and allow them to make the plays that are there, which will limit big plays. True to form, LSU this year was #2 in the nation in allowing the fewest plays of 10+ yards.
Texas A&M's first game, and the first real test for the defense under Chavis, is on September 5th against Arizona State, who just wrapped up a 10-3 season with a 36-31 victory over Duke in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.