Film Study: How the Clemson Secondary Revolves Around Cordrea Tankersley

By Kyle Jones on December 26, 2016 at 11:30 am
Clemson's All-American cornerback has shouldered a heavy burden for the Tigers
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Buckeye fans have been treated to some excellent cornerback play this fall.

Ohio State Football Film Study

Despite losing Eli Apple to the New York Giants with the 10th overall pick in last year's NFL draft, Ohioans were witness to outstanding work on the outside from his replacements over the past few months. Not only did Gareon Conley fill Apple's shoes admirably as the top cover man in Scarlet and Gray, Marshon Lattimore emerged as his equal on the opposite side, with both players garnering high praise from pro scouts for their play in 2016.

But the duo wasn't alone in their excellence, as Ohio State's opponents featured plenty of talent on the corners as well. Michigan's Jourdan Lewis lived up to his preseason All-American billing, while teammate Channing Stribling took his game to another level during his final season in Ann Arbor. Even opponents that received less press this fall, like Wisconsin's Sojourn Shelton and Indiana's Rashard Fant, played well in their matchups against Buckeye wideouts.

Yet, according to evaluators, the best corner Ohio State fans will see all year resides in Clemson, South Carolina. Senior Cordrea Tankersley's efforts have flown under the radar for some media members, but he's been truly excellent in his final season in Orange and Purple, earning a spot on a number of All-America teams, including that of Pro Football Focus:

Tankersley’s coverage numbers this year are pretty eye opening, allowing a catch on 44.6 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage, giving up just 259 yards and one touchdown over the year, while picking off three passes and breaking up seven more. All that adds up to an NFL passer rating of 42.2 on throws into his coverage.

Though he's listed at 6'1" this long athlete still has the speed to hang with receivers in solo coverage. This allows coordinator Brent Venables to incorporate multiple concepts in his weekly game plans, knowing his talented cover-man is capable of locking up his opponent in any scheme.

Tankersley is comfortable in man coverage

Unlike his Fiesta Bowl counterparts on the Ohio State sideline, Venables doesn't lean heavily on one or two base coverages, mixing up his calls based on the opponent and situation instead. With a talented defensive front that seems to live in opposing backfields, Venables likes to confuse quarterbacks with a multitude of coverages, including some of the more complicated 'pattern-match' packages made famous by Nick Saban at Alabama.

Against spread offenses like the one run by Ohio State, the Tigers don't just employ typical 'Quarters' defense, bracketing two receivers with three defenders instead. In the coverage Saban refers to as 'Stubbie' (a.k.a. 'Cover 7'), the defense splits the field in half, with defenders handing off the coverage of a receiver to one another based upon the route.

The key to such a scheme is Tankersley, who allows the other defenders to his side to go three-on-two by simply blanketing the #1 receiver to the outside by himself in man coverage. For a quarterback, this look can be perplexing as one defender shows man while the others play zone, forcing a quick decision while the talented pass rush comes bearing down. 

Against Virginia Tech in the ACC championship, the Tigers ran this look more than any other that night, allowing Tankersley to shine. According to PFF, the corner's performance was the best single effort of any defender in the conference this fall, posting an 84.7 grade after allowing only two catches for 23 yards on nine targets while hauling in two interceptions of his own.

He's got great ball skills

Tankersley shines in these complicated schemes, which Venables has been forced to rely on as multiple teams have put up big passing numbers in the process of mounting big comebacks. After building big leads against Louisville, Florida State, NC State, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech, every one of those teams fought back thanks to pass-heavy attacks of 35+ attempts that resulted in at least 250 passing yards given up by the Tigers.

One reason for these big outputs was these opponents' ability to recognize how and when to manipulate coverage, removing Tankersley from the equation and forcing his teammates to make plays instead.

In the second half of their contest in October, Louisville identified that Clemson had begun to rely heavily on the straight 'Quarters' scheme that asks the cornerback and safety on one side to switch assignments based upon the routes run. To exploit it, they called for one of the oldest passing concepts in football, the 'curl/flat' combo, which creates a vertical stretch along the sideline and putting a 'Quarters' safety in a big bind.

Additionally, the Cardinals, who run a spread-option offense very similar to that of Ohio State, began to manipulate the Clemson coverage structure to open up running lanes. By placing three receivers to one side against 'Quarters,' the #3 (third-most inside) receiver pulls the inside linebacker out of the box in pass coverage, forcing the safety to the opposite side to replace him in run support.

By pulling the linebacker out of the box and running to the opposite side of the optioned weak-side end and filling safety, the Cardinals have five blockers to clear the way against only four defenders. None of the Clemson defenders is wrong on this play, as they're simply covering their proper assignment, yet Louisville managed to manipulate this coverage structure perfectly.

For Venables and the Tigers, the outcome of such breakdowns tends to simply lead to more blitzing. Such a philosophy stems from Venables' long tenure as Bob Stoops' assistant at Oklahoma, helping turn the Sooners into a national power. The first bullet of the Sooners' defensive philosophy clearly came with Venables to the Carolinas:

Stop the offense immediately; - Dictate to the offense & make them react to us. We play to set our offense up with good field position. We want average 4.5 snaps per possession for the season, 50% of those should be 3 and out.

After watching the Clemson defense for weeks in preparation for the CFP semifinal, the idea that Venables' unit tries to"Dictate to the offense & make them react to us," comes through loud and clear. The Tigers will not sit back and let someone else choose how the game will be played, they'll blitz, switch up alignments, swap personnel, and throw out nearly every coverage under the sun to keep you off balance.

But such an aggressive approach leaves the Tigers without a schematic foundation upon which they can rely. Buckeye coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck will need to pull every rabbit out of their hat to punch back and keep the Tigers off-balance with new formations and motions, just as they did against Venables' former boss in Norman.

Against a player as physically gifted as Tankerley, the best response is to constantly make him think about where he needs to be, as opposed to simply allowing him to react. The more the Buckeyes can force the Tigers to stop, think, and adjust in Venables' complicated scheme, the more likely they'll be to find the end zone.

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