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Duck Tape: Film Review of DC Tim DeRuyter, Part 1 - Structure, Personnel, and Blitzes

Schemes, principles, and history from 25 seasons of tape

Fresno State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Special thanks to Rob Hwang of Write For California for chatting with me on the Quack 12 Podcast about the Cal-Oregon coaching swap. Listen to the episode HERE!

Oregon DC DeRuyter has been a defensive coordinator since 1995, with a five-year stretch as a head coach at Fresno St from 2012 to 2016. Most recently he was the DC at Cal from 2017 to 2020, and his job prior to Fresno St was as Texas A&M’s DC in 2010 and 2011. The previous 15 years he was a DC at several Group of 5 schools: two service academies — Navy and his alma mater Air Force — two stints at Ohio, and Nevada.

That’s 25 years’ worth of film to review. My library has at least one game of his each season, and I’ve reviewed all of it. I have almost every game from his two Power-5 jobs, and the film clips I’ve selected from those six years are representative of the full scope of his work at those schools. The G5 jobs are harder to acquire film on, but I’ve chosen trends from those games which appeared regularly at Texas A&M and Cal, and there’s a strong continuity of approach throughout his career, so I think that film has been valuable.

In fact, it’s so much film that this article will be split into two parts, this one outlining the general structure including DeRuyter’s personnel use and expansive blitz packages, and a second article on Thursday exclusively documenting his defenses’ ability to generate turnovers.

Fresno State v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I’ve written extensively about Cal’s defenses during DeRuyter’s time in Berkeley, since Oregon plays them annually, and the reader can find my film study previews from the last three years here: 2018, 2019, 2020 - these have plenty of film clips showing the strengths and weaknesses of the scheme and the players DeRuyter selected to populate it. I also recommend checking out former Cal QB Mike Pawlawski’s recent video breakdown of several key plays of Cal’s defense and why he thinks DeRuyter is a good fit for Oregon.

DeRuyter’s hybrid 3-4 / 3-3-5 defense has stayed with him throughout his quarter-century career. The hallmark is three down linemen — a nose and two ends who play over the tackles or shaded inside — and two inside linebackers at depth, an outside backer called the Joker who plays on the line but may drop into coverage, and either a strongside backer, a nickel DB, or a hybrid of both as the seventh member of the front. Coverage is mostly zone - I’ve seen a lot of cover-3, but also some cover-6 and even cover-7, with the inside linebackers having broad responsibilities including pass coverage and blitzing. The scheme is designed to funnel everything to the ILBs and they routinely rack up nation-leading numbers of tackles.

That’s not a particularly radical change from the schemes that Oregon has deployed over the past four seasons, and other than needing some more depth at nose tackle, I don’t foresee many problems adapting the players he’s inheriting to it. In terms of personnel, the biggest change will likely be how the defensive linemen and OLBs line up, and it’ll probably take more than one offseason to really get their bodies right for it. But the upside is that DeRuyter’s scheme is an ideal fit for Oregon’s best defensive player, #5 DE Thibodeaux, whom I believe will be the new starting Joker in this scheme. DeRuyter hinted as much in his introductory press conference, answering the question at 4:18.

At both Texas A&M and Fresno St, DeRuyter converted a defensive end he inherited into the Joker OLB position, who thrived in the new position as an edge player and extremely disruptive pass rusher, as well as potentially dropping into coverage and opening up the playbook for confusing blitz patterns. In 2010, that player was Von Miller (#40), and the remarkable thing is that the way he played that season wasn’t just about boosting his stat line, it was clear that he made his teammates play better:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in 14 or 12 speed)

  1. :00 - This is 3rd & 8, a situation where DeRuyter tends to pull the nose, put the ends over the guards, and make the offense guess what combination of backers are coming. Here the ILB is showing blitz but backs out to cover the slot receiver, with the end looping around. The center and RG engage the first lineman, so when Miller beats the LT the QB has no escape route with the looper coming unobstructed on his right - watch the interior guards’ confusion on the replays.
  2. :27 - A six-man blitz, with the keys being bringing the safety down to underneath coverage to cut off the quick slant (this might be an RPO), and the ILB coming around the outside. That gives the QB no exit when Miller beats the LT inside.
  3. :52 - 3rd & 5 in the redzone, so it’s a 3-down, 2-OLB look to stop the run and bring a blitz to speed up the QB. The surprise is that Miller is backed out into coverage with a DB and ILB blitzing, so the quick-pass options — hitch and the back — are both covered. The ball’s tipped at the line and Miller comes off the back to bring it in - getting picks off the tip drill will be a big part of Thursday’s article as well.
  4. 1:12 - Like the first clip, the nose is out and which linebackers are coming is a guessing game. The tailback comes up to hit the ILB stunting around the end and the TE is covered by the ILB. The DB is blitzing without anyone picking him up because both the RT and fullback are occupied by Miller, who blazes past both of them. The pressure on the QB forces a badly off-platform throw, and the zone coverage gives two DBs a shot at the pick - another repeated theme we’ll cover more on Thursday.

At Fresno St, the convert was Donavon Lewis (#27). The Fresno film was eye-opening for me because I’m seeing the exact same highly disruptive play, and even though he didn’t have Miller’s obvious NFL talent (after graduation Lewis became a Fresno police officer and amateur boxer), Lewis showed flawless technique that makes me think DeRuyter is an excellent teacher and his scheme should be a quick install:

  1. :00 - This clip shows off why DeRuyter wants bigger bodies as down linemen - the DE gets a huge push against the RG into the backfield, disrupting this outside run. The speed is taken care of on the back end, with Lewis — initially the unblocked read defender — chasing down the back from behind.
  2. :22 - The edge rusher doesn’t have to use elaborate scheme to affect pressure, either. Here Lewis just shows well-taught technique on a simple rush: watch on the replay how he jabs outside to get the RT moving, then comes back inside, gets his outside hand inside the tackle’s chest and jacks him up so he loses all power, then Lewis uses his inside arm to hit the QB in his throwing motion.
  3. :38 - The Joker potentially playing multiple roles is one of the many disguises in this defense. Here Lewis is initially lined up to cover the slot, but creeps inside. The LT is forced to widen more than he can really pull off effectively, and Lewis again shows great technique lifting him off his feet then beating him inside for the sack.
  4. :53 - This looks like it might be a jailhouse blitz but the inside backers stay in zone coverage and Lewis backs out to cover the flat. The 7-man protection handles the 5-man blitz pretty well but that means the defense has a numbers advantage in coverage, and Lewis gets to come off the crosser and play the ball knowing the CB is over the top.

The other schematic change Oregon fans are likely to notice is on the back end, where I expect less nickel except in obvious passing situations alluded to above, and more zone coverage with safeties over the top and linebackers rather than boundary or nickel safeties in underneath coverage.

Fans tend to associate man coverage with exciting, disruptive play while thinking of zone coverage as a more workmanlike, blanketing defense. DeRuyter’s teams have turned that conception on its head, using zone coverage to either paralyze the QB for the pass rush to get home, or bait him into throws against suddenly developing double coverage for break-ups and interceptions:

  1. :00 - Watch how the safeties rotate on the replay - the boundary safety immediately gets on the releasing TE to harass him, but the field safety has come over to play over the top (the ILBs take the fieldside slot receivers), so the first safety can then drop underneath - that lets him play the ball for this PBU.
  2. :24 - This offense is all about an extreme spread to stress the defense and make them wary of sending too many pass rushers. DeRuyter calls the bluff with excellent coverage, taking away the first read with tight coverage and the second playing it underneath. The LT is baffled about which defender is backing out and the QB has no good options.
  3. :47 - There are a lot of DB blitzes in this defense, but I noticed that they’re well designed so that they don’t leave voids in coverage to exploit … almost as if they’re set up to bait the QB into a throw that’ll get broken up.
  4. 1:08 - The most intriguing part of coverage is how it can be split up - this is cover-6 with one-on-one to the field but zone to the boundary. It’s just three over three to that side — the CB, safety, and ILB over the X, RB, and TE — but they don’t have to switch when the back widens and the CB can stay off him — both downfield targets are essentially double covered, giving the DB a shot at the PBU.

Much of my writing about Cal’s defenses on this site over the last four years has been documenting that their rush defense goes as their nose tackle does - when they have an effective one in place it’s very good, when they don’t it’s not. That principle held true as I reviewed the previous couple decades of DeRuyter’s film as well, so I was more interested in how historically his defenses have dealt with more deceptive types of runs:

  1. :00 - Smart defense here on 3rd & long - the offense knows they’re probably dropping eight in coverage and so tries a draw, but the backers know to watch out for the lineman running downfield, and as soon as they do the ILB abandons the TE to hit the QB.
  2. :08 - It’s 2nd & goal with 14-personnel in tight, from a team known for power rushing - the defense has to be ready for three runs up the gut. Instead it’s a sprint option, but the defense is on it … the safety beats the H-back to the outside, and the edge players maintain outside leverage and get off their blocks to pursue. Look at all the maroon jerseys around the tackle.
  3. :24 - QB draws are most effective when the offense can sell that it’s a pass play as long as possible, letting the pass rush get in, then walled off as the QB picks the best lane to run by them. The unblocked rush off the edge (covered by the backers hustling over to fill) speeds up the timing, so when the big defensive end gets past the RG the QB has already committed to running up the middle and can’t get around him.
  4. :32 - The 23-personnel I-formation runs that the Cardinal so brutally wreck the Huskies’ defense with every year is much less effective against the Bears, for two reasons illustrated here: first, superior speed off the edge forces the TEs into blocks they can’t manage, and second, when Cal has a great nose tackle this scheme prevents him from getting doubled which makes him unstoppable.

In terms of philosophy, I think the biggest change will come in the pass rush. Former DC Avalos, now Boise St’s head coach, used a bewildering variety of stunts, shifts, and exotic pressures to get to the quarterback while only rushing four, and almost always dropping seven into coverage without often blitzing. DeRuyter is far more eager to bring extra rushers and trust six, five, or even four in coverage to hold up long enough for the blitz to get home.

There are several schematic tricks to make sure the defense doesn’t pay too steep a price for bringing extra rushers. Here’s a representative sample of them when blitzing five:

  1. :00 - The crossing A-gap blitz is a classic, but what makes this one work so well is that the whole left side of the line is baffled - the nose hits the RG, the LT & LG wind up doubling the end while the OLB backs out, and both the center and the back take the first ILB through, leaving the other ILB unblocked.
  2. :19 - A variation six years later, this one to confuse the RG - he thinks he’s going to be taking the DE while the RT takes the OLB, but when the backer bails and the DE goes outside, he’s late to figure out he has to come in on the ILB.
  3. :29 - This is a high risk blitz that DeRuyter usually reserves for when the offense is backed up. The field DB blitzes while the boundary OLB covers the back on the wheel, so the ILB has to cover the slot (usually a speed mismatch) and there’s an open man underneath. But the DB is virtually guaranteed a free shot at the QB since the whole right side is occupied, and that’s enough to force a bad throw.
  4. :47 - Here’s an overload while only bringing five, and backing out the OLB takes away the quick slant. There are two stunts here, with the right side of the line picking up theirs pretty well, but the left side doesn’t - both the LT and LG are occupied with the stand-up end so the ILB splits them for the sack.

What’s especially impressive is that DeRuyter’s playbook has at least a dozen structurally unique blitzes in it (it’s close to a hundred if I count all permutations). I was not able to identify any statistically significant “tells” for what type of blitz is coming based on offensive or defensive formation, personnel groups, down & distance, field position, score, time period, or any other factor I’m able to chart despite running my tally sheets through regression analysis software for the last week.

The way DeRuyter engineers pressure against heavier protection is even more schematically interesting. Here’s a sample of blitzes in which he brings six or seven rushers:

  1. :00 - Here’s how you beat 7-man protection with 6 blitzers: the center and RG both take the nose, and the LT and TE both take the end. The Joker runs a twist behind him, while the ILBs come into the A-gaps. That leaves only the back and the LG to block three backers. The back makes his choice and the Joker is unblocked for the sack.
  2. :15 - It’s easier when the numbers are reversed, 7 blitzers and only 6 in protection. I believe visibly creeping up to the line pre-snap is part of it - that’s what causes both the center and back to move left and leave the big gap up the middle.
  3. :32 - Even though this blitz is picked up well, its structure still lets it succeed - the DL is slanting to their left while the backers both go right, overloading the back. The LG gets off his initial combo to take the other ILB, giving the QB time to escape out the back door. Good technique by the nose, staying on the RG’s outside shoulder, lets him get off that block and bring down the QB when he does.
  4. :50 - The most fun blitzes simply overwhelm the line and panic the QB into doing something stupid.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Cal at Oregon Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Part 2 of Film Review on DC DeRuyter: Generating Turnovers