It’s all in the eyes.
Talk to any football coach, especially a defensive coach, about playing a triple-option team like Army and they all say the same thing.
“Eye discipline,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Not enough coaches coach the eyes.”
Against the triple option, it’s about focusing on an area or a player, making proper reads, relying on everyone else on the defense to be doing the same. If a defender’s eyes start to wander, they’re often cooked.
“Everyone has a job when you’re going against an offense like that,” Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “If anyone messes up, it could go for an explosive play. You have to be mentally ready every snap. I have to train my eyes this week to be looking in the right places to make reads. It’s tough, mentally.”
The Blue Devils host Army on Saturday, facing a team that leads the nation in rushing with 374.3 yards a game. Fullback Andy Davidson, a 6-foot-2, 232-pound sophomore, has had three 100-yard-plus games for the Black Knights (3-1).
Humphreys said his responsibility will be “guard, guard, fullback.” That’s where his eyes will be focused.
“That’s me,” Humphreys said. “Some people are looking at the slot backs, some guys are just tackling the dive.”
If the basic dive is working for Army, the Duke defense has big problems.
“I’m hammering the D tackles every day in practice – “Tackle the dive, tackle the dive,’” Humphreys said.
Not that A.J. Wolf has to be reminded. A redshirt senior, the defensive tackle has faced Georgia Tech, another triple-option team, in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
“You have to focus and read your keys,” Wolf said. “There’s a lot to see and it happens really fast. If you’re looking in the wrong spot, some guy is going to hit you from the other (side). And if you’re off just a little bit against this offense you’re not in a good spot.
“If you hold your gap and you stop the dive, and everyone else on the edge is stopping the run out there, there’s no place for them to go.”
The Blue Devils did that last year, winning 44-3 at West Point, N.Y. Duke limited the Black Knights to 113 yards rushing.
Duke also has beaten Georgia Tech the past two seasons, which Humphreys credits to Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
“Coach Knowles is the king of the triple option,” Humphreys said, smiling. “His schemes are like no one else’s. We’ll attack it from different ways. I think it’s something some other teams don’t do. We attack the triple option and don’t let them come at us.”
Army coach Jeff Monken was an offensive assistant coach at Navy and then Georgia Tech on Paul Johnson’s staffs before becoming head coach at Georgia Southern and then at Army in 2014.
Buddy Green, former defensive coordinator at N.C. State and Navy, coached with Monken at Navy and then against him when Monken went to Army. He said the Army offense mirrors much of Johnson’s at Georgia Tech, although saying Army uses the shotgun a little more.
Playing Army is like an extra week of practice for Georgia Tech, Green said. “A lot of carryover,” he said.
Green, now retired from coaching after 14 years at Navy, also uses the term “eye discipline.” At the Naval Academy, Green’s defenses both had to defend against Navy’s own option attack in practices and against Army in the biggest game of the season.
“Whoa,” Green said, laughing. “You’re got your safeties on the back end with eyes on the slotback. Everyone else is reading what’s in front of them. You do what your keys tell you or you hurt the guy behind you. Up front you play more lateral football than vertical.
“If you don’t read your keys, it’s over. Big play.”
It’s all in the eyes.