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Duck Tape: Film Study of Co-DC and Safeties Coach Chris Hampton

A review of Tulane’s 2022 season with Hampton as playcaller

South Carolina v Clemson
Chris Hampton #33 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Memorial Stadium on November 25, 2006 in Clemson, South Carolina. South Carolina won 31-28.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

New Oregon co-DC and safeties coach Hampton has been the defensive coordinator at Tulane for the past two seasons. After a successful career as a safety at South Carolina from 2004-07, he spent three years as a GA, then ten as an on-field DB coach: Central Arkansas in 2011, four years at McNeese St, another four at Tulane, and a single year at Duke. Hampton returned to New Orleans as the playcalling DC in 2021.

I reviewed and charted all 13 FBS games of Hampton’s Green Wave defense in 2022, a remarkable turnaround after their previous 2-10 season in which they went 12-2, took the American Conference championship, and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl.

It was immediately obvious when I turned on the film why Oregon head coach Lanning had Hampton on his list of candidates: Tulane ran a Tite front defense, the origin of the Mint front he brought from Georgia to Oregon; every other defensive coach was experienced with Tite or Mint systems when Lanning hired them last year. Hampton’s squad was highly effective in 2022, with the 28th ranked defense in F+ advanced statistics despite having only the 75th ranked roster in the 24/7 team talent composite - with one exception, the defensive two-deep was entirely composed of low-to-mid 3-stars.

As a brief refresher, Tite/Mint structures use three big down linemen in a 4i-0-4i configuration to clog the interior run gaps, with a weakside “Jack” outside linebacker also playing on the line of scrimmage and two inside linebackers playing at depth. Tulane stayed in their nickel structure on virtually all snaps. On rare occasions against very heavy run looks they’d lose the nickel and bring in a fourth backer, but while they had a rotation of a starting and backup OLB on the weakside they didn’t have a dedicated strongside position, so instead they moved a starting ILB to the LOS opposite the Jack and brought in a backup at depth, I suspect due to roster limitations.

The philosophy of Tite/Mint defenses is to maximize pass defense while doing more with less in run defense. That means playing the ILBs and DBs conservatively and trusting the big bodies up front to slow down interior rushing and spill it outside, and using simulated pressures rather than aggressive blitzing to generate a pass rush. For more in-depth schematic reading, here’s a longer illustrated article on the Mint front, and an early video analysis of Tulane’s 2022 Tite front.

That conservatism was reflected in Hampton’s choice of coverage structures as the Green Wave played over 82% of meaningful snaps in zone during the 2022 season, including quite a bit of disguised coverage where pre-snap leverage indicated man. Some examples:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – The QB sees the corner aligned in what looks like press man and then bailing deep when the X is running a short hitch, so he thinks he’s got an easy throw for a 1st down. But it’s actually zone and the nickel has the flat, in perfect position to undercut the route for the interception.
  2. :22 – Tulane detects the counter read before the snap and the QB makes a bad call, so really this play gets blown up simply because the defense is better coached than the offense, but the reason it’s a gang tackle is because it’s disguised zone coverage – look at the ILB over the slot and the corner come off their guys rather than getting run off as the offensive play design predicts.
  3. :32 – This TE drag is a man-beater against the field safety but instead the boundary safety has the coverage playing underneath zone. Nice example of layered coverage getting the tip and PBU.
  4. :54 – A better read this time, the ILB bites on the QB and is out of the play. But disguised zone wins again, with all three of the DBs to the wide side keeping their eyes in the backfield but only one WR to block, they’ve got more than they need to earn the TFL.

I charted 784 defensive snaps outside of garbage time in FBS games, with the Green Wave succeeding on 447 of them vs 337 failures given the down & distance, or a 57% defensive success rate. That’s above average, but three percentage points short of a championship-caliber defense in my experience, and I was a little surprised that Tulane performed as well as they did with that kind of efficiency.

However, they more than made up for it in explosive play defense, in keeping with the core philosophy of the Tite front: they limited opponents to under 5.3 adjusted yards per play, and fewer than 10.5% of opponent plays gained explosive yardage. Those are both elite numbers, and incredible accomplishments given that they played top-40 F+ offenses in eight of their 13 FBS games. It’s even more remarkable considering the talent differential: they beat a Power-5 champion, a Power-5 runner-up, and every one of the top six most talented Group-of-5 teams in the 24/7 composite.

There isn’t much difference splitting out the rush vs pass efficiency and explosive rates, but the yardage numbers are very telling: 4.5 adjusted yards per carry against the run which is fairly typical of good run defenses though not amazing, but 6.0 adjusted yards per pass attempt which is a truly exceptional figure.

The picture that both the film and the numbers paint is that the defense is entirely structured around stopping big plays, and is willing to give up some short stuff in order to do it. Last year Tulane ranked 10th in the country in fewest 20+ yard plays surrendered (making Hampton a good match for Oregon, which ranked 9th). Some examples:

  1. :00 – The front’s getting cleared out by a Power-5 line here, but watch the box safety keep his head up and get off his block, and high safety come down at the right angle, to combine on the tackle and prevent a big play.
  2. :12 – They give up the 1st down here, but note how the safety makes the tackle and three other DBs are surrounding the play ready to help.
  3. :20 – This little hitch against a big cushion — RPO or otherwise — is all over my tally sheet, but the most common ending is a sure tackle with proper leverage that stops a 1st down or a big play.
  4. :27 – This should have been a 3-4 yard gain, which per the philosophy Tulane will let the offense have, but the backer is having a hard time tackling a gifted athlete. But again per philosophy the rest of the defense has their eyes on the play and gets there to prevent the 1st down.

In run defense, Tulane was true to form in the Tite front’s signature “spill & kill” approach – clogging interior run gaps with as few (but as big) players as possible to get the back to bounce outside, buying time for the rest of the defense to come down from playing the pass and make the tackle before the ballcarrier makes a significant gain. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Textbook defensive play here: the nose is two-gapping, the DE has the B-gap, the back can’t find his way through and so hesitates in the backfield and then heads outside, giving the nickel time to let the slot receiver run past him and come down to make the tackle.
  2. :07 – The chyron is wrong here, it’s 2nd & 1 as the reader can see from the line judge’s feet. Note how the back can’t follow the G-T pull because the playside ILB effectively occupies both of them and he has to bounce out, giving time for DBs and backside ILB to come out of pass coverage and make the TFL.
  3. :26 – Heavy personnel package, short-yardage situation, and this offense’s running QB, so the defense has finally gotten out of their nickel package. But they’re still playing the DBs pretty far back against the possibility of a pass and the ILB waits for the back to make a cut instead of aggressively guessing his gap. The patience pays off with a stop.
  4. :37 – Even though they’re playing against more talented athletes, once the back bounces the extra time and space afforded by the scheme gives the DBs easy angles to run him harmlessly out of bounds.

I thought Hampton had two personnel advantages over baseline expectations given the structure and general talent level: the starting and backup Jack OLBs were extraordinarily versatile and could play a diverse set of roles from the same spot, and the starting safeties were all seniors with clear command of the defense. Some examples of how Hampton used the former:

  1. :00 – This empty motion-into-unbalanced play tore TCU up in the Big-XII title game, but Tulane didn’t have much trouble with it because their scheme has the OLB drop out and cover the crosser coming back to the weakside. It’s so routine that the ILB even helpfully points it out.
  2. :10 – Here the OLB is lined up over the split-out TE, then motions with him back into the formation. Once the TE slices under the other way, the OLB’s job becomes outside lane denial for the possibility of a throw to the flat so the CB can take inside leverage against the RPO slant (which this play actually is, and he gets the PBU). Complex set of responsibilities that change twice within as many seconds.
  3. :18 – I count five changes of direction that the OLB has to run on this play to make the tackle and save the 1st down … and he’s the backup.
  4. :29 – One of the formational variations Tulane sometimes used on 3rd & long, with two down linemen and three backers on the line. The OLB is the one who drops into coverage, and the offensive line can’t handle the twist.

The upperclassmen safeties were initially recruited and developed by Hampton when he was Tulane’s DB coach from 2016-19. I think his scheme as DC used them well in 2022, even though the last two seasons his only title was DC and the Green Wave had a separate DB coach, and I expect that positive development to carry over to Oregon. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Just a great pursuit angle here from the backside of the play on this endaround.
  2. :09 – The corner misses but the safety lives up to his job description, getting off his coverage to drive the bigger TE out of bounds.
  3. :19 – Here’s a heavy run look on 3rd & short but this time Tulane is sticking with the nickel structure because of how much confidence Hampton has in their safeties.
  4. :26 – The cushion here is typical but so is this top-notch reaction speed and hard, clean, and legal hit to earn the PBU.

On a drive basis, Hampton’s defense at Tulane performed excellently on meaningful full-field drives (that is, excluding garbage time and when the opponent started on their own 40 yard line or farther). Only 19.5% of such opponent possessions scored a touchdown, which is a championship-caliber performance in my experience. The Green Wave only allowed a single full-field touchdown drive of three plays or fewer all season. The average full-field drive lasted 6.42 plays, and it took an average of 9.48 plays for such drives to score a touchdown, which is a massive differential. It indicates that Tulane wasn’t getting a huge amount of 3 & outs (only about 30% of their opponents’ full-field possessions) but they were reliably forcing kicks well before the opponent reached the redzone.

There were two ways to beat this defense, which I believe were related. The first was to get a short field off a turnover or special teams, which produced a touchdown 50% of the time - not a great number. The second was to push the possession to 10 plays or more, at which point their full-field drive efficiency figure completely collapsed from about 21% TD allowed to about 43% TD allowed. The connection I drew from watching film is that I think this team simply didn’t have a great redzone defense and tended to get exhausted after long drives or shocked when having to suddenly deal with a quick change in possession, I suspect due to depth challenges rotating high-level playable guys. That’s also borne out in the raw statistics, in which they allowed a 61% opponent redzone TD rate, 69th in the country and out of line for an otherwise high performing defense. Some examples of breakdowns at the end of long drives:

  1. :00 – This is the 13th play on a drive that had 11 rushes, and the defense is completely glued onto the run threat. Everybody is pulled up and nobody has the underneath coverage on the RPO throw, and the corner takes an outside step to cover the fade in the redzone.
  2. :06 – I think this one’s just on fatigue, this is again play 13 and I never saw technique breakdowns this bad earlier than that.
  3. :26 – Play 15 of what would be a 17-play TD drive, and this combines exhaustion with just being out-athlete’d. The safety normally would have caught this crosser at about 5 yards deep but instead lets it get 10 before contact, and then can’t make the tackle in time to save the 1st down on 3rd & 12.

Analyzing Tulane’s situational defensive performance, both 1st & 10 and medium-distance downs are no different from the overall sample, and there’s no real variation between run and pass. They only prevented a conversion on about 40% of 3rd & shorts, which isn’t a terrible number, but does indicate that they weren’t really selling out to get off the field in those situations.

There are two situations that stand out as extraordinary. First is rush defense on 2nd & short, at which they only succeeded 26% of the time. It’s typical for defenses with this philosophy to back out and play the pass on 2nd & short since that’s the classic time for offenses to try a deep shot, and I believe that’s why offenses who elected to run instead were so successful just picking up the short gain, but still that’s a pretty extreme figure.

The second situation is 3rd & long, at which Tulane was more than 83% effective at winning, which is simply astonishing (if the game against USC with their #1 F+ offense is excluded, it goes to 88%). That’s the essential philosophy behind this defense: stopping any big plays and quick-scoring drives, patiently waiting for the offense to get into a long-distance situation, then locking it down and getting off the field.

What’s especially interesting is that their strategy on passing downs wasn’t to blitz, which they instead reserved for surprises on standard downs. They much more often rushed only three on passing downs and most medium- and long-distance 3rd downs, relying on stifling coverage and betting the QB or OL will eventually make a mistake. Some examples:

  1. :00 – A pre-snap shade, which I tallied on about 12% of all plays but 23% of 3rd downs, then the OLB dropping into coverage. Here the pocket lasts a long time but the OL eventually commits a holding foul, and the QB doesn’t make it to the line to gain.
  2. :13 – Nice tackle by the ILB, but watch how the OLB exchanges coverage on the TE and back running the wheel.
  3. :22 – This was by far the most common non-short-yardage 3rd down play result on my tally sheet – drop 8, nobody’s open after 3 seconds, break the pocket, bad throw.
  4. :33 – This one came right after what I thought was a very weak DPI flag, and is included to demonstrate the dictum “ball don’t lie”.

Blitzing was pretty infrequent, coming on fewer than 10% of opponent dropbacks. But there was an interesting variety:

  1. :00 – Cat blitz, always entertaining. The replacement DB is pretty far back, Hampton must have been pretty confident in his film study that this would be a run on 2nd & 10.
  2. :07 – The nickel’s up on the line and they blitz six, dropping one of the ILBs.
  3. :24 – Intriguing structure here, four backers in despite the offensive formation and situation not really calling for that. The line has no idea the OLB is going to drop out and the ILB is coming with an E-T twist weakside. This probably should have been a grounding flag.