A Duke coach tells how to watch football on TV

You’ve followed football, the North American variety, for years. Mostly you’ve watched it on TV, live and on replays year-round. But how much have you actually seen, rather than been force-fed by a director focused primarily on the ball, on big-name players and pacing coaches, and on filling time between commercials?

Before the football season arrives, and coaches lock themselves into their lairs, it’s a good time to solicit advice from a trained observer on what a fan should look for as games unfold. Especially if you don’t want to depend on a TV announcer to interpret for you.

Jim Knowles, entering his sixth season as Duke’s defensive coordinator under David Cutcliffe, and his 28th season as a coach, took time recently between recruiting forays and other duties to share some pointers.

“The first thing as a fan you want to know is, how fast is the offense going?” Knowles declares. “Are they calling plays quickly? Are they getting set quickly? And then you can look at the defense and say, ‘OK, are they set and ready at the snap of the ball?’ In today’s game, defenses give up so much because they’re not even ready at the snap of the ball, they’re not in position, they’re not lined up.”

Given the pace, Knowles limits defensive signals to a word or two. He also prefers his players not glance toward him for instruction during a game. “The ball can be snapped at any time,” he warns. Knowles has seen a no-huddle offense that customarily incorporates a pre-snap hesitation, including a lingering look to the sidelines, abruptly abandon its routine in order to catch defenders flat-footed.

Seated in his fourth-floor office in the Yoh Building on Duke’s West Campus, within sight of a frenzy of construction on Wallace Wade and Cameron Indoor stadiums, Knowles shows a video clip of a play from a game against North Carolina. Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels get to the line of scrimmage quickly, and routinely spread their receivers wide.

“You can easily look at the contour of the secondary and say, ‘OK, they look like they’re in the right place. They have the expanse of the formation covered and (teammates) are all ready back inside,’ ” observes Knowles. Suddenly his voice grows impassioned, higher pitched, words coming in a flurry like a hurry-up offense. “You watch things and you’re like, ‘Oh, shoot! They weren’t even covering that! They’re not even lined up! The offense is picking the ball up!”

In this instance, though, Knowles is pleased with what he sees from Blue Devil defenders.

Football 101

The 50-year-old Philadelphia native was tutored in film study by Maxie Baughan, his undergraduate coach and subsequent boss at Cornell. Baughan, a star at Georgia Tech in the late 1950s, played in nine Pro Bowls in 12 years as an NFL linebacker, six in Philadelphia. He later coached in college and the pros for 26 seasons. Baughan learned film analysis under coach George Allen, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and in turn passed along the skill to Knowles.

“Pictures tell you everything,” says Knowles, “if you know how to look.”

Later this summer he will lead Duke defenders, veterans included, through what he calls “Football 101.” Knowles has the luxury of illustrating lessons by freezing, reversing, or advancing video frame-by-frame, roaming through a repertoire that’s painstakingly indexed by categories such as opponent, series and down. “Here’s five (on the line of scrimmage), here’s four, here’s why we’re spreading out, here’s why we’re coming in,” he rattles off. Knowles wants players not only to recognize alignments, but to understand the thinking behind them.

He sticks to simpler analysis for fans. Is a defense worried about being beaten over the top, and therefore allowing short passes in front of its cornerbacks, or is it jamming receivers? Is an offense tipping off a run by inserting two tight ends? Is the defense arraying its linemen and linebackers to adequately cover and contain a spread formation?

Knowles, head coach at Cornell for six seasons prior to his arrival at Durham, goes on to talk about gauging the way a defense addresses the now-ubiquitous zone-read play. “As a fan, you can say, ‘Are they predominantly letting them hand the ball off or are they predominantly making the quarterback keep it?’ ”

The box

How teams come at each other reveals the contending coaches’ evaluation of the relative strengths of the players and units involved. With drop-back passers now a relative rarity in college, the quarterback’s running ability is key.

A simple way for a fan to gauge coaches’ thinking, Knowles says, is to focus attention on “the box” between the offensive tackles. “You can just look between the tackles and say, ‘Do (the defenders) have five guys in there or do they have six guys in there?’ Because if we have six guys in there, the offense should be picking up the ball and throwing it outside.”

Or, the defense is inviting it to try.

To illustrate his point, Knowles runs a video clip of a rushed, inaccurate pass to the flat from a 2014 meeting between Duke, 12th best in the ACC in total defense, and Syracuse, No. 13 in total offense. The Blue Devils stacked the box to squeeze the Orange running game, confident their superior perimeter players could handle the consequences.

“If we were going against Clemson, we might not like those matchups on the outside,” Knowles concedes. The Blue Devils (9-4) avoided that problem last season, and don’t play the Tigers in 2015, either.

Speed game

Another pointer from Knowles, while obvious, bears repeating. He advises fans to locate and follow standout players, particularly on third down, a juncture that invites creativity. “You want to see a lot of different things, you want to see people in different places,” he notes. From a defensive perspective “you want to see: sometimes we blitz, sometimes we cover.”

Actually, Knowles says blitzes are less common because college football’s balance of power has shifted. For the longest time teams were predictable on both sides of the ball, he explains. Eventually, knowing what was coming, defenses went on the attack. Now the reverse is true, and what he calls the “speed game” gives offenses the advantage. “Defenses don’t take as many risks because of how fast offenses go,” he says, “and the variety of formations, and where guys are lined up, and how quickly they snap the ball.”

Without adequate time to read an opponent’s stances and spacing, forced to react to players repeatedly sent in motion, Knowles believes the risk-reward ratio has marginalized blitzing. “In today’s game it’s harder to blitz because you leave more holes,” he says.

He shows a clip of Duke’s All-American safety, Jeremy Cash, edging at the last moment toward the line to initiate a blitz, a teammate subtly sliding over to cover the area vacated. But Knowles insists that’s increasingly an exceptional choice.

Both teams thoroughly study the opposition’s tendencies on video, and game-plan accordingly. Just like knowledgeable observers at home or in the stands, they look for small tells, patterns, and unspoken declarations of intent. Then the game starts, and players settle the issue, sometimes confounding coaches’ best scouting and schemes along the way.