clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Quacking the Roster: DB Transfers Tysheem Johnson and Evan Williams

Film review of the 2021 and 2022 seasons of Johnson at Ole Miss and Williams at Fresno St as starting safeties 

Auburn v Ole Miss Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Tysheem Johnson, Ole Miss

Johnson was recruited to Ole Miss in the 2021 class as a low 4-star (.9071) in the 24/7 composite. He played in nearly every game as a true freshman backup high in the rotation and became a sophomore starter last year, the season I acquired and charted all his tape. In terms of eligibility, Johnson has three to play two remaining.

Both seasons Johnson was with the Rebels were under co-DCs DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge, who have since moved on to Texas A&M and Michigan, respectively. The defensive system I observed was a radical one, a 3-2-6 on every single snap regardless of opponent, offensive personnel, down & distance, field position, game situation, or any other consideration. It’s certainly effective at preventing opponents from taking deep shots in the passing game — which is why almost all defenses across the country have a dime package they reserve for obvious passing downs like 3rd & very long or when the opponent is behind by multiple scores and time is running out — and Johnson was a key part of that.

Against contemporary SEC offenses, many of which have switched in recent years to pass-heavy ones reminiscent of the Big-XII, it was a pretty effective approach. It also complemented head coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, which for the first half of the season was tearing up defenses and putting opposing offenses into desperate situations where they felt they had to throw deep and the Rebels’ dime defense could feast.

But in the second half of the year, Ole Miss started encountering teams who were comfortable running straight at their defense, which is something they simply weren’t equipped to stop and didn’t have the roster to try to even if they wanted to sub them in. And right at the same time, something went terribly wrong with the Rebels’ offense (I’m not sure what that was, it was beyond the scope of this project to watch the offensive film too - suffice it to say that they went from averaging 41 points per game in the first seven games to 23 points in the last six), and so the defense wasn’t enjoying the desperation-mode passing that they’d preyed upon earlier. As a result their 7-0 start collapsed into a 1-5 finish.

That context is crucial to understanding the balance of Johnson’s tape. He’s a twitchy, excellent athlete with great burst to get to the play, ideal for a safety playing nickel over the slot, dropping deep or buzzing down, which is how Ole Miss’ zone defensive structure worked against the pass. Those jobs make sense for his frame, which is 5’10” and between 190 and 200 lbs over his two years in Oxford (Oregon hasn’t released official weights yet, now that he’s in Eugene for resumed Spring practices).

Johnson’s official position in Ole Miss’ system is the strong safety, though as a practical matter that meant him playing anywhere from up on the line of scrimmage to dropping 30 yards into the backfield. A little over 40% of the snaps I have on Johnson he’s backpedaling as one of the high safeties off the snap in the Rebels’ zone structure, or the single high in cover-1 man when they’d blitz. Here’s a representative sample of Johnson in that role:

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

  1. :00 – Here’s a blitz, with one of the backers and one of the DBs rushing, Johnson (jersey #0) in the middle of the backfield about 12 yards deep, and everyone else in man. The remaining backer messes up his coverage assignment of the No. 3 receiver, giving up the 1st down, but Johnson triggers quickly and limits the damage.
  2. :11 – Johnson’s not even on camera at the snap (though 15 yards of empty offensive backfield is, thanks CBS) on this complex QB draw play. The front has gotten totally sucked in and the offense has multiple blockers way downfield, but Johnson has read the play well and sliced through it to stop the QB dead, getting between the LT and TE as the QB cuts around the LB.
  3. :31 – He’s not really involved on this one but I included it because it’s very representative and the replay shows how deep and how quickly Johnson drops. Note how he maintains an angle on every live receiver and only commits to coming down on one of them once the QB is in his motion.
  4. :47 – Another representative play, especially during the late-season collapse, in which the initial tackler would miss his assignment on a short play and Johnson would come down from his high spot and clean up effectively.

Ole Miss’ dime defensive structure was pretty effective at deterring offenses from attempting deep shots against them, and so I have very little useable film on Johnson being challenged in coverage of long passing plays or coming over to help corners with them. Almost all of the pass coverage film I have of Johnson is as what I’d call a nickel defender in any other defense (a dime might be understood as having two nickels on the field, that is where the name comes from after all), and that’s how I suspect he’ll be deployed at Oregon. He graded out very well in that role on my tally sheet; here are some examples:

  1. :00 – The running back switches sides presnap, flipping the passing strength and so the defense re-aligns. Johnson now has man coverage of the back into the flat while the defense blitzes, that’s the read for the QB but Johnson’s coverage is tight enough the QB swallows it and takes the sack.
  2. :15 – Back to zone, with Johnson playing layered defense – over the TE’s little hitch, under the slot’s slant. The replay’s high angle shows Ole Miss’ entire zone structure and why it’s so hard to find anything deep, and why eventually they gave up a sack.
  3. :31 – This is what the short zone is trying to bait the QB into underneath – playing off just enough so you think that hitch is open, but with Johnson’s quick burst he instantly closes and prevents the first down with a tackle short of the sticks or, as here, a PBU.
  4. :40 – What Ole Miss was strategically willing to give up, and eventually became their undoing, was marching down the field with short double slants like this. Structurally the only answer the Rebels had was to immediately make the tackle to prevent any extra yardage, which Johnson does, but their alignment is completely about preventing the 20-yard play, not the 7-yard one.

What Johnson’s frame is not ideal for is playing the quasi-linebacker that Ole Miss’ defensive structure required of him against outside rushes, screens, and certain other short passing plays that would, in any other defense, be dealt with by someone 3-5 inches taller and 30-50 lbs heavier. The film shows that Johnson clearly understood his assignment on such plays, diagnosed them properly and hustled to them well, but had a mixed record in getting solo tackles without giving up extra yards after contact for what I think are very understandable reasons – that’s what happens when you play in a dime defense on every snap. Wanting a change of scenery in those circumstances made sense to me. Some examples to illustrate what tackling is like as a DB in Ole Miss’ defense:

  1. :00 – The defense realigns when both TEs switch sides, Johnson comes down hard on the run and gets inside leverage against the second TE’s block to stop the run dead.
  2. :11 – A bunch of cuts on this run, Johnson’s doing a pretty good job tracking them. The undersized front got beat pretty badly on this play so he’s the first one to the running back and he’s coming at him laterally, so he winds up getting dragged a few yards while he spins him down instead of being able to stop him immediately.
  3. :20 – This was very typical, Johnson does a good job getting off of WR block here and staying with the play, but any effective tackle for no yards looks like a gang tackle of smaller bodies.
  4. :30 – Johnson is over the No. 3 receiver here, dropping in coverage. The play is a surprise inside screen, with multiple linemen already downfield. Good diagnosis by Johnson, who doesn’t turn his back to the play (unlike one of the backers in coverage) and gets the back around the legs.

The area where my tally sheet gets the most complicated for Johnson is run support. I’ve got several negative marks on the outside run plays when he’d need to come up and make the tackle unassisted on a big back or take on a lineman, but I think that’s an inevitable product of his frame and Ole Miss’ radical defensive structure. When I separate out those plays and just look at outside runs where a nickelback in a normal defense (that is, how I expect him to be used by Oregon) would be the one taking them on, his grades improve substantially. It’s a challenge in that regard to present video that’s both fair to Johnson and representative of what actually happened, but I think these clips qualify:

  1. :00 – Johnson graded out very well on sweep plays, here he’s blowing up two blocks at once having correctly diagnosed it from the get-go. He doesn’t get the tackle but the ballcarrier has to completely redirect and the rest of the defense has an easy time cleaning up.
  2. :17 – The motion here causes one of the safeties to come down but that’s not how the Rebels’ structure works and Johnson pretty aggressively tells him to get back. The entire front is getting washed down and the only people left to stop this run are DBs so it’s not surprising that it picks up a 1st down and a few yards after contact, but it’s a sound tackle regardless.
  3. :33 – There’s no OLB here, and the DE is playing shaded inside. So it’s Johnson’s job to set the edge, and against a pulling RT at that. He does his job, maintaining outside leverage and forcing the back to go inside the block, where the rest of the defense can help.
  4. :41 – Goalline defense wasn’t pretty for a dime defense for reasons that I trust are obvious. Here Johnson has to play up on the line of scrimmage and take on the left tackle. He gets cleared out pretty easily against a guy who outweighs him by about 125 lbs, and the back runs right through the B-gap for a touchdown. If I were the DC I would use a different player for this job.

Evan Williams, Fresno State

NCAA Football: UNLV at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Williams was recruited to Fresno State in the 2019 class, rated by 24/7 as a low 3-star (.83) and unrated by the other then-existing services (his transfer rating has since been upgraded to a .9100 4-star for 2023). He played in all 12 games as a true freshman, becoming a starter for the final five and for the rest of his career in every game he played for the Bulldogs. That included the first four games of the covid-shortened 2020 season, though was held out of the last two, and all 13 games of their 10-3 season in 2021. In 2022, Williams was injured in week 3 against USC and missed the next five weeks, starting back up again in week 9 against San Diego St and for the rest of the season including their conference championship and bowl wins, albeit with a brace on his left knee.

Due to Oregon’s 2021 opener against Fresno St, in which he played against his older brother Bennett, and how frequently the Bulldogs play Pac-12 teams, including two wins and three 1-score losses over the last four seasons, I had already charted much of Williams’ career. In addition, for this project I acquired and charted the remaining FBS games he played in over the past two seasons.

Williams’ time at Fresno St involved multiple coaching changes, including interestingly the last year of Jeff Tedford’s tenure before he retired in 2019, and again when Tedford returned in 2022. The first time around for Tedford they used Tim DeRuyter’s 3-4, though he’d left for Cal by the time Williams arrived and DC Eric Watts was in his third year running that system. In 2020 and 2021, new head coach Kaelen DeBoer brought in DC William Inge, previously a linebackers coach at Indiana, and switched the defense to a 4-2-5 with a hybrid “Husky” backer, a system I thought had some substantial structural flaws especially as it pertained to QB runs. In 2022, Tedford brought in DC Kevin Coyle, who’d been at Fresno for years under head coach Pat Hill in the 1990s, but had spent most of the last 20 years in the NFL. Coyle modified the defense to a different kind of 4-2-5, using similar personnel but a stand-up end and a nickel with different responsibilities, which in my opinion resolved a lot of the problems I have with Inge’s defense.

Like Johnson, Williams played a number of different roles in his defenses’ structure(s), from dropping deep to playing in the box, and even playing up on the line of scrimmage and blitzing. At 6’1” and 200 lbs, his size gives him a good versatility between speed and power. At Oregon I would expect him to take a strong safety role in the Mint structure with Johnson at nickel, although I could easily see that flipping given both of their ranges of experience.

The variety of defenses Fresno played under gave a wider set of film of Williams in coverage, and he grades out pretty well, especially in the red zone. I also have quite a few instances of man and some aggressive breakups as well. Some examples:

  1. :00 – This play is a cat blitz so Williams (jersey #32) has to take over coverage of the X-receiver. The timing’s important here – if he moves too early it’ll give away the blitz, too late and the receiver will have an open window on the corner route. Williams gets it right and the QB checks out of it.
  2. :07 – The WR has got the CB broken on this in-then-out movement, but Williams has it covered and accelerates well to prevent the first down.
  3. :16 – Reading the QB here from a high safety position, good acceleration to the play for a tackle or PBU.
  4. :43 – Great leaping PBU on a bigger TE on the corner route in the endzone here.

The area where Williams has graded out best on my tally sheet over his career is breaking down going into the tackle. That’s pretty impressive for such an aggressive player – he flies into plays at full speed, but I very rarely see him overrun a play, and instead pretty surely gets his man. Some examples:

  1. :00 – In four years of watching him I think this is the hardest thing Williams has done – getting Zach Charbonnet on the ground after a stiffarm, and watch that breakdown in slow motion to keep him from making a move to either side the way that he gratuitously beat the H in the backfield.
  2. :24 – Williams drops off camera at the snap, and he’s on the opposite side of the play to boot when Jordan Addison makes two defenders miss and has blockers in front of him. Great job by Williams to close for the touchdown-saving tackle.
  3. :33 – This game’s already over, Fresno was just playing for the pride of securing the shutout. Williams locks it down at the line of scrimmage, what a hit coming down from depth.
  4. :42 – The receiver has to come back on this little route into the flat to create separation in man, Williams clobbers him pretty viciously for it to ensure it’s just a minimal gain. This clip has cropped out the chyron and some tasteless sidebar japery involving the bowl sponsor, the opponent was Washington St.

Most of the run plays I charted Williams defending were ones in which the rusher had gotten past the front and he has to keep it from going bigger, in pretty much the literal definition of a “safety” – he grades out very well on those. But Fresno also used him in the box over the years in a couple different roles, some as an aggressive box safety and other times up on the line as part of short-yardage defense. This is what I think complicates the picture with Johnson and Williams – the latter is simply bigger and has been more more effective, at least on their film at previous schools so far, at stopping the run, and it may be that Oregon’s staff could want to flip them around sometimes and have Williams play low and Johnson up high. Here are some examples of Williams against the run:

  1. :00 – Nice job here coming down hard, filling the B-gap, and stopping any gain on 3rd & short.
  2. :08 – Here Williams starts out just five yards deep, over the man who then goes into motion, so he becomes a box defender. Good tracking the back as he makes a couple of different cuts, ultimately getting in on the tackle for no gain.
  3. :18 – The whole front is getting washed down here, and Williams is being read by the QB so he has to hold up and force the hand off. He’s effectively the constraint player as a 10-yard deep safety so if he blows this tackle it’s probably a touchdown. But it’s a very solid hit and the back goes right down.
  4. :26 – This is a wildcat play in the most recent bowl game, Williams is up on the line and he runs it down from behind and gets the conversion-saving tackle.

The thing that became most clear after watching Williams for all this time is how good he’s gotten at diagnosing plays and getting himself into position to stop them if they’ve gotten through the rest of the defense. There is a bit of a dip in his performance in this regard right after he came back from his knee injury (a track star who’d transferred from USC to San Diego St beat him on big plays twice in that game and I think his knee was a factor on both, for example), but by the end of last year I think he was in top form again and if anything sharper than before at anticipating plays. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Nice job anticipating and flying down to stop the Dorian Thompson-Robinson scramble here.
  2. :19 – This zone read keep has the rest of the defense fooled but Williams runs it down from the other side of the play, good angle to keep it from going any bigger.
  3. :33 – The back gets through the defensive front here and has a WR as a lead blocker, Williams has to get off that with outside leverage and force the back to the ground or it’s a touchdown.
  4. :43 – The scrum continues on this one for a while but the short wing signals it’s dead at the 8. Really nice job by Williams tracking this laterally as the back finds a hole through the line, then accelerates hard to make the stop.