I’ve been to Benton Harbor’s football field a few times in my life, but only once for football. When I was a senior in high school we traveled there to play Lake Michigan Catholic. Catholic doesn’t have a football field of their own so they have always made do with surrounding schools, that particular Friday their home field was over the bridge in Benton Harbor. The field was having a rough fight with a grub or something from what I remember, making the turf very loose. So loose to the point where I distinctly remember my friend Jamin holding up a large chunk like a piece of carpet that had just slipped out from under him during our warm up. Probably unfairly that has been the lasting image in my mind when thinking of Benton Harbor football. I’m sure you know the field is no longer in disrepair and neither are the Tigers for that matter. For a team and city whose struggles have been well documented, last year’s magical season was just what they needed. I recently attended a clinic and listened to Elliot Uzelac speak about last year and even in his stories it’s hard to believe. Makes you wonder when Disney will make that movie, seriously. For those that might not know about this story, ESPN did a great feature on them and it’ll get you up to speed (ESPN).
Turning the attention to the product of the field it’s a little odd to write about this game, because I have talked so much about Uzelacs offense in a previous post when discussing the St. Joe Bears run game. To quickly recap, Uzelac teams run the outside zone. The best way to visualize zone plays is to pretend all of the offense live linemen are on a train track. They all move the same direction and if anything gets on their track they block it. If the linemen can gain the defenders outside shoulder then he works to pin him inside, if not he continues to push out stretching the defense. Eventually the runningback finds his own hole. The outside zone is a staple run in the NFL but can be difficult for high school kids to run. It demands offensive linemen to be able to move laterally and some of the blocks that are required can be super difficult, so the Uzelac spin on this came a long time ago and ultimately helps the line take advantage of angles while still maintaining the overall integrity of the play. The wrinkle is called pin and pull. One lineman blocks down and the other pulls around easier blocks for both. This being a blocking scheme can be used out of multiple formations.
Benton Harbor already had a good running back in Jeremy Burrell who will be a senior this year, but they also added transfer Darius Clayton who looked fantastic for the St. Joe Bears last year. It was fun to see the change in the Tigers raw product offensively at our scrimmage last year to what they were able to run at the end of the season.
Defensively Benton Harbor last year had to be very basic due to coach Uzelac being hired late in the year, he really only had time to install an offense. Moreover most new coaches will often pick one side of the ball to install in their first offseason in an effort to not overload their players. Thinking players can be slow players and no one wants that. The 4-4 they ran is great because it’s an easy to learn run stopper with eight men in the box. I’m curious to see if they add any new looks to their 4-4 defense from last year which did a great job of swarming to the ball (watch last year’s highlight of their win over Lakeshore, their first win over the Lancers since 1984, and you’ll see what I mean). The 4-4 defense is an old scheme that’s still more prevalent than say a true fifty front defense (not a three man front that becomes a fifty, but a fifty run with the old personnel meant to stop the run), but spread offenses and elaborate formations have made it difficult to maintain somewhat. The defenses of old were built to stop the run and deal with the pass. Now that offenses gear themselves up with pass formations while looking for over adjustments in order to run the ball, defensive dinosaurs are often revamped to survive.
Enter the much larger school, division two, Traverse City West who can run a couple of different looks on offense. In the videos I’ve seen (they were from a senior heavy team last year that under achieved so you’ll have to take this with a grain of salt) they have the ability to go from a double tight full T team to a shotgun spread look, with some in between. I think it’s sort of a misnomer that people assume plays are the hardest things for a defensive coach to plan for when in reality it’s the formations. Reads and rules are generally the same when a play starts but where a person lines up before the action is a serious ordeal. I once listened to a very intense Michigan State coach explain the alignment assignments against various formations in their 4-3 defense for well over an hour. Meticulous would be an understatement in describing to the finest detail where he wanted linebackers to line up. The shifting of formations changes the character of the offense and it forces player decisions on the defensive side. Defensive linemen that can generally with stopping a power run team aren’t always the best runners and that makes it difficult to keep them on the field against space crating spread teams that emphasize that. Two formations that Traverse City West runs that I’m particularly interested in seeing Benton Harbor adjust to in an unbalanced T formation and a simple trips look. These are decision making offensive formations that create a plus one if unadjusted. Plus one meaning if you were to draw the offensive formation and then add a vertical line down the center cutting the formation in half, how many players are on either side of the ball? If one side has more than one and the defense doesn’t adjust there’s your plus one. As a junior varsity play caller it was fun to see how many I could add to the point of attack with out the opposing defense adjusting (shifting, motions, pulling linemen, any sort of lead blocker all do this). So will BH shift their linemen to account for the extra gap created when facing the unbalanced line? Many teams won’t move if they feel the short side of the formation is exposed in the process. Lots add a man to the box on that side especially if they don’t have a wideout. I feel it’s best to have linebackers mirror the backfield in those instances and by adding a guy they can. If the BH kids recognize it in time, always a big key there) I imagine they will slide.
The other formation can be trickier. Trips is not fun for defensive people and there are talks being given all the time on how teams should adjust to it. The question that starts the conversation for me is how does the offense want to use the formation? Can they throw the ball or for the matter even have the intention to throw it? I found it slightly comical while calling plays how much attention a sudden pass formation could garner, even when our team hadn’t attempted a pass yet. So if I feel like that team throwing the ball isn’t particularly threatening I’ll most likely have the defense ignore it as best we can. Slide a linebacker that way maybe a few feet, call their potential bluff, and go from there. If the team can, will, and wants to throw the ball then the can of worms spills out all over the place. Who do you move that way? Walk a safety that way and an outside linebacker type player (the case for BH in their 4-4) and you might lose an edge player. Most spread teams love to run to a wide trips side because that’s where the space is created. Worse yet in losing the safety you’ve now created essentially man to man coverage for the cornerback opposite the trips. I’ve seen some teams walk a middle backer out to the extra receiver and keep their safety over the top, which is a move most often used in an obvious passing down. You can’t do it for the whole game because the lack of manpower in the box will likely get your team run over (the number of offensive players in the box versus the number of defensive players shouldn’t ever be more than one at best). The increase in wide receiver plays have also made the formation rough to manage because the numbers game is once again played. Most people I’ve heard talk on the subject of taking away screens use their alignment to take away the play. Line up right on top of the three receivers and most teams won’t run the screen, but what they did do was firmly take a player away from the ball. BH often runs a safe secondary coverage called cover three where three people are responsible to stay deeper than anyone on the field. You can still run this against trips but it puts a lot of pressure on linebackers being to decipher the play and acting accordingly because of all the space created. BH has the athletes to take the safety out of the middle and run man to man coverage across the board if they are truly afraid of the pass which I don’t think they should be, even though running with no safety isn’t exactly my cup of tea. It requires athletes capable and even then it’s unlikely to have a mistake free game. Mistakes in man to man usually mean long touchdowns, but I’m not sure people are running away from some of the athletes BH has out there. From what I’ve seen I think TCW wants to establish a running game anyway but this is just one of the fun things I’m looking forward to watching.
The best food in Benton Harbor is probably Larks BBQ. I’ve had it a few times out of their food truck and have always been satisfied. I love BBQ, honestly if you find me at either place and would like to engage in a serious BBQ conversation I will be all for it. I hope to see a reader out there, enjoy your Friday.