A Case Study on Josh Jackson's Growth: The Post-Flat Combination

Breaking down the film of Jackson's performance against Old Dominion.

[Mark Umansky]

As the Hokies prepare to face the defending national champion Clemson Tigers, a red-hot spotlight will be on redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson. Jackson has put up numbers that are garnering national attention.

At the same time, Jackson has faced some pedestrian defensive units, and has exhibited some struggles especially early in games. Clemson's defense, anchored by the best defensive line in college football, poses a huge challenge for the green signal caller.

Old Dominion provided Jackson with at least a high-speed simulation of Brent Venables' vaunted defensive attack. Clemson blitzes from all angles, has fast defensive ends who like to get up the field, and switches coverages behind pressure. Unlike West Virginia's boom-or-bust blitzing, or Delaware and East Carolina sitting back passively, the Monarchs mixed in tight man-to-man and some zone blitzes to confuse Jackson.

No single pass pattern has been more effective this season for Virginia Tech's offense than the post-flat combination. While the Hokies can call the slant-flat from multiple formations using both drop back and play-action, several elements are consistent.

On this third-and-two variation, there is no play-fake. Chris Cunningham motions across the formation. To the field-side, Old Dominion safety Sean Carter (No. 31) flexes out with Cunningham. That indicates to Jackson that he has man coverage. At the snap, running back Deshawn McClease heads to the left flat. Cam Phillips runs a skinny post.

Jackson has one read on the play, OLB Jordan Young (No. 32). If Young runs up on McClease, Jackson throws to Phillips. If Young sinks on Phillips, Jackson throws to the flat. In this case, Young charged forward on McClease. Jackson trusts that Phillips can beat man coverage. The throw is quick so it can beat the five-man pressure from the Monarchs. Jackson is accurate and Phillips generates extra yards with his legs; a 29-yard gain.

Unlike Tech's previous opponents, the Monarchs recognized that Jackson is still a little uncomfortable working down to his second read. As the game progressed, Old Dominion started to show man coverage and then sink that edge player under the slant route. On this play, the design calls for the slot receiver, Sean Savoy, to show a screen to draw Carter forward. This version has no motion to help identify if the Monarchs are in zone or man to man.

Carter almost baits Jackson into an interception. He takes a step forward to Savoy and then begins to sink back to defend against Henri Murphy's skinny post route. Fortunately for Jackson, Murphy's route bends sharper to the inside than Carter's backpedal angle. This allows Murphy to clear Carter just enough for Jackson to have a window to fit his throw. Jackson fires a laser beam right into the opening. It is a beautiful completion. However, I bet offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen would, in a moment of levity, indicate that he would hope his freshman would check down to Savoy or run with the ball against that coverage.

Just a couple of plays later, Jackson's hubris backfires. The Hokies run a play-action look with Savoy sinking to the flat and Murphy running a much flatter slant route due to the presence of a deep safety.

Carter is reading Jackson all the way. He steps forward, and then with eyes on Jackson, Carter sinks right under the slant. Jackson was too focused on Murphy's route and didn't wait for Carter to commit to Savoy. He forced the ball into double coverage instead of checking down. The result, Jackson's first interception as a Hokie.

"I think maybe he assumed a little too much on the play," Justin Fuente said on Monday regarding Jackson's pick. "We've done that deal several times and I think he assumed how the player was gonna buzz and he didn't buzz and was right underneath it."

While Jackson struggled at moments, especially early against a variety of blitz pressures, he demonstrated that he gets accustomed to the defense and makes good adjustments. As the game progressed, Old Dominion started to present less variety in their coverage. Jackson was able to hit the post off the post-flat combination a couple of other times. However, when Old Dominion tried to sink its safety against the post by Eric Kumah, Jackson checked down to McClease.

Kumah's post route drew three defenders. McClease had all kinds of room to get momentum up the field. Sometimes the right little play can produce a big gain.

Most encouraging is that when Jackson is at his best, you can see him actively monitoring the field. Two plays particularly stood out to me. The first was on the Hokies' opening offensive drive of the game. Jackson faced a third-and-7 and some serious pressure off a four-man blitz by the Monarchs.

Old Dominion is in a dime look. Nickel Denzel Williams (No. 25) feigns an early blitz from the boundary, but drops into coverage while a late blitzer comes from the field-side. To make matters worse, Yosh Nijman oversets against speedy defensive end Tim Ward (No. 2). Ward swims over Nijman to the inside and Jackson knows he is going to take a hard shot.

Phillips gets mugged as he runs the slant. Jackson really wants to go to Phillips. Even as he starts to move to his second progression, you can see Jackson hesitate just a bit. Finally, Jackson goes to his second read. Sean Savoy runs a stick route against OLB Jordan Young (No. 32). Savoy doesn't stop. When he feels tight coverage he moves to give Jackson a throwing lane. Jackson waits until Phillips clears and fires the ball into Savoy. Jackson gets rid of the ball accurately right as his pocket crumbles. This is beautiful third down execution by two freshman in a tough spot. We didn't see this enough in the first three games.

Jackson also moved to his second progression on his third down touchdown pass of the afternoon. Jackson's first read is Phillips on a fade to the boundary. Old Dominion stops that dead when nickel Denzel Williams (No. 25) bails out and doubles Phillips over the top.

Instead of forcing the ball to the primary read, Jackson works back to the space vacated by Williams. C.J. Carroll fakes going to the flat on a rub route and then bends back to the post behind MLB Marvin Branch (No. 37). Jackson works back to Carroll quickly enough to thread the ball in before Carroll runs out of room in the back of the endzone.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. His defensive line features elite defensive tackles in Dexter Lawrence and Christian Watkins along with bull rusher Clelin Ferrell. On top of recruiting exceptional talent, Venables loves to use designed zone blitzes to generate pressure and force quarterbacks into turnovers. He can get pressure with four and then bring blitzers from all angles.

Last season, the Hokies neutralized Clemson's defense with misdirection and attacking Clemson's safeties and nickel corners with Cam Phillips. To beat the Tigers this season, Josh Jackson will have to be more efficient and keep drives alive on critical third downs against a variety of zone blitzes. While Old Dominion certainly doesn't present the same kind of test as the defending national champions, the Monarchs' defense gave Jackson a good preview going into the biggest game in Lane Stadium since 2011.


It is awesome to see Jackson start getting to his second read. Thanks for the great write-up as always!

Two Questions:
1. Have you seen Jackson get to his 3rd read at all this year?

2. How does this compare to where Evans was last season?

1) I don't think so. I could be wrong. Keep in mind, in this offense one read is usually two receivers, so every now and then a check down could be his third option.

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He is far advanced of Evans at the same point last year. Evans was exclusively a one read and run QB until very late in the season, and even then checking down was awkward and noticeable. Evans was much more dynamic on quarterback draw plays, and that worked to take an extra defender out of coverage to spy on him. Despite Jackson's numbers versus WVU, I do not believe he is anywhere near as explosive.

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Thanks for answering both!

I agree that Jackson isn't the power runner that Evans was, but in what he has shown so far, he certainly has more finesse.

that route by kumah when mclease makes the catch in the flats. ekkkk. gotta do better. I hope that someone other than Phillips has a breakout game against Clemson. were going to need it. I honestly thought coming in that the loss of Caleb Farley would not effect us that much but we seriously are lacking a jump ball threat right now.

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Rewatching the clip, it's possible that Kumah isn't a receiving option on the play. He haphazardly runs directly at the LB and puts his hands up, as if to block. In the very least, based of his motion, I don't think he was expecting the ball on this play.
In other words, I highly doubt that's how he runs routes when he's the primary receiver.

EDIT: Nevermind, watching Jackson's eyes, Kumah is the first read on the play. While he drew the defenders with him, the route was less than desirable.

Awesome write-up, thanks French!

I think I just saw that SCAR quarterback die during that play. Please tell me I'm wrong.

I can't tell if that SCAR rb was trying to be as wide as possible and failed, or as skinny as possible and succeeded.

He was dead for about 2 seconds

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Thanks French. I said in game comments that JJ got tricked, and it makes the future look bright to see you explain it and then show him learn from it in game.

I think beating Clemson will require a lot of 2nd reads. If Clark is healthy, he may just have a breakout game over the top with Cam getting safety attention.

Having a vertical threat is a huge huge factor. Clemson rarely helps them, and last year they didn't really convert to nickel either (which is why you saw Williams, the freshman OLB, covering Phillips all game. But, they blitz and pursue as well as anyone.

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You really are doing the lords work, hopefully Joe is keeping you well stocked in shiny fishing lure's. Do you think the improved running game that is not all QB is helping him out or is his improving passing helping out the running game? Probably a little of both...

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Improved run blocking and the backs looking like they understand where holes will form better I think is doing more for the running game than anything. We don't know what the full picture is just yet because we have not seen the offense run the full offense in rhythm. They have not shown a ton of screens. Inverted veer has been relatively minimal. There is more to come. My worry is and continues to be so they have the horses? RBs have played well, but they have left some serious yards out there. Too many guys getting tackled one on one given the space they have.

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Yep, I don't love the RB talent. We don't need a RW/DW, a guy like Ore would be killing it right now.

I've written off McMillian a few times over the years then he surprises me. Maybe he's got another evolution forthcoming. He looked good against ODU, but he was still failing to break tackles. He did look tougher on some short yardage runs between the tackles though.

Fuente likes to have a guy who is a bruiser to take a bunch of the carries. Jarvis Cooper at Memphis was 6'1", 245 and got 90+ carries. I think Fuente had that in Marshawn last year by the ND game, then his injury ended it. I would like to see Holston be brought up in that role, give him 10 carries a game to push in between the tackles and open up those alley runs.

All five guys have been running hard. But you can see plays where a more talented back would run over or step out of a tackle and be gone. It will come...

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Branden Ore does not get enough love for the talented runner he was. Patient at setting up his blocks, too.

Dat jump cut though. Beautiful.

Probably because he got kicked off the team.

It's Time to go to Work

If Ore at his best was on the 04 or 05 team, my god. The bigger what if: what if Jason Worilds had stayed for 2010 and we had a semi-serviceable defensive line.

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Speaking of which...

Wasn't that a beautifully executed screen on Saturday? I'm referring to the one heading into the South End Zone on the 'back side' to Peoples. I suspect we will see more of that in the weeks to come.

Is it basketball season yet?

I expect that to be a once in every 3-4 games type of call. I bet we see it against Miami.

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Great write-up. Like most, I like seeing him get to his second read. Four games have hopefully helped him feel comfortable doing so. What worries me now is if he'll have enough time to get to that 2nd read with the big Clempson front four. Can our line give him time?

They have been good so far. Lawrence versus Gallo/Pfaff will be tough. Clemson blitzes from all over, so identifying the blitz and sliding protection is a big piece of the pie.

ODU exposed some weakness by lining up their ends super wide and then stunting them using space to stay clean. I didn't cover it, but Yosh Nijman didn't look like an NFL left tackle in that first quarter. Then again, neither did the Koundijo kid from Alabama that JR Collins worked, and he still got a huge payday.

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Completely agree. I really think being able to identify where the blitz is coming from will be the difference in the game. I have total confidence that we can hang with and beat Clemson, but the OLine will be key.

For the record, before i get hell for it- I'm not saying I doubt the ability of the OL. Just that I wouldn't underestimate the machine that is their front 7.

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And pass locking isn't just the OL blocking ability- it is setting the protection to roll to the blitz. It is the RBs picking up the correct unblocked defender. And it is the QB moving in the pocket to not cause the OL to lose the blocking angle.

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That last line really resonates after watching Jarrett Stidham struggle against Clemson a few weeks ago. The guy had 0 pocket presence, likely because he hadn't played a down of live football in over 2 years at that point. Grier looked 10x better week 1 than Stidham in week 2. That could be due to a new OC at Auburn, but still.

If any, Keene can be the difference I believe.
Thank you for the analysis as always.

Well, anything Keene happen!

Let's Go


Great write up and great film examples.

I think we can make them overcommitt on the blitz and use some mis-direction, pop-passes and stretch plays. One thing I haven't seen much is the underneath slot play (ala Willie Byrn), hopefully we can execute that against clemson

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I've always heard you say the H-back is a very important position in Fuentes offense and DK seems to be doing well blocking but hasn't really been targeted in the passing game. Once the staff opens up the playbook do you see that happening more?

I think it is less a playbook issue and more an issue of maturity. Keene is a very good player, but he was a HS QB and LB. route running is a new deal. I wrote that he will be a work in progress as a route runner when I previewed Keene's role in the offense (I will link to it when I get out of this meeting.) He isn't running great routes, but because of his experience as a wildcat QB he is a bull in a china shop after he makes the catch. That makes him better suited to play action counter routes than high volume precise timing stuff.

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Thanks French!

Now that Cam has proven he's a top WR in the country, do you think Clemson will put extra effort in taking him away more so than our previous opponents have? I'm worried about them shutting down Cam and forcing us to utilize our less experienced offensive options

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I wouldn't say we want that, but I feel if Cam does attract extra attention that makes it better for our RPO and misdirection, short route game with Savoy, Clark, RBs, Keene and Cunningham.

Those players definitely need to step it up but I think it would be dangerous to open a hole like that to a CornFu offense

Agreed. I expect putting Cam in motion to fake a jet sweep would garner a lot of attention from the linebackers and safeties, which should own open things up for those guys you mentioned

I gotta say I think that would be the worst possible use of Cam this year. We've got other quick athletes who can take a jet sweep and draw some attention but nobody else is the receiving threat that Cam is right now.

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I don't know if the Clemson defense would consider Cam on a jet sweet to be a huge threat. Cam's not slow but he's not the kind of lightening you need on a jet sweep to scare people. If James Clark can become more of a receiving threat I think putting him in motion is going to be far more scary. In fact if James Clark gets even two receptions early in the game that opens up all kinds of things. To me this sets up a pick your poison situation. With a fast vertical receiver lining up what do you do if he motions?

I think VT can minimize Cam being doubled through formation. It is much harder for Clemson to double him if he aligns wide to the strong safety side. If they play him in the slot or boundary, Clemson will have a deep safety over the top. I don't think they can bracket wide to the field because then they have an outside linebacker one on one with Savoy or Carroll.

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Thanks French!

"Hey Bud, you wont have to hold the opponent to 17 points anymore."

James Clark (if healthy) can play a big role against Clemson taking the top off the defense. The dude can burn and having a vertical threat will keep Clemson honest and create more space for Cam. Savoy on the jet sweep also has some big potential in this game to spread them out, and it will be a boom-or-bust type offensive flow for us with how aggressive Clemson is defensively. J-Jack protecting the ball and checking down will be critical.

Clemson is very good, but tight games with Auburn and 3 quarters vs. BC certainly makes them beatable. Kelly Bryant has 2 passing TDs and 3 INTs this year and has been sacked 10 times. He is a super athlete, but he isn't Deshaun Watson and Bud can create a strong game-plan and Tremaine/Mook will be spying him to avoid his legs beating us. I like our D's odds against Bryant.

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Yeah but I don't know if James can high-point the ball. It's all good to have speed but you need to also be able to catch the ball over the defender and not assume you can just run past them.

Yep and can Jackson hit him if he runs past everyone. He has a couple of underthrows on deep balls

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His deep ball underthows have been so frequent that I wonder if he's been coached that way. The case can be made in college football that an underthrow has as good of a chance of drawing a PI as an interception.

PI is a higher percentage than the completion. Fuente did say that the deflection pass to Peoples was a late throw by Jackson.

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The only thing about Jackson's play that bugs me is his tendency to stare down his primary receiver. I'm scared the Clemson DBs will quickly take advantage of it.

French, do you see this as an issue or am I just making this up in my head?

Almost all college QBs do that, and in these spread offenses, a bunch of the routes are designed to clear out for one or two guys. He is better than most first year starters, especially young ones.

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"I think maybe he assumed a little too much on the play," Justin Fuente said on Monday regarding Jackson's pick. "We've done that deal several times and I think he assumed how the player was gonna buzz and he didn't buzz and was right underneath it."

Can staff tell me the difference between, say, Cover 3, Cover 3 Buzz, and Cover 3 sky? If only so I know what i'm doing in my Madden games.

I can tell you what cover 3 is. The rest I have no clue. I do know that the INT came on a play designed to get that safety to go to the flat. If buzz means man up on on the first guy that runs through your zone, then yes, he didn't Buzz.

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pretty sure buzz means the LB or other first-level pass defender on the outside plays the flat instead of dropping to a medium level

Thanks, French! On point analysis as always.

How do you think the Clemson D-backs injury situation plays into the game Sat.? Word is that 3 out of 4 of the starters are out. Do you think that makes it harder for them to concentrate on doubling Cam? Easier to get a busted coverage situation?

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I don't want to spoil my preview . I will say that Clemson used an OLB (O'Daniel and then No. 30 when O'Daniel got kicked out) on the slot last year rather than bring in a nickel. Given the lack of corners, that could present some opportunities.

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French, awesome as always. I've become a little obsessed with skilled position blocking. I can't help but think that if you have a lack of explosive talent your bread and butter has to be getting good blocks from your skilled position players (let's assume your line can block). How big an improvement have you seen this year over last year (with the exception of Sam Rogers) in skilled position blocking and how much of a factor do you think it will be in this weekend's game?

Keene is a MUCH better blow clear than Sam. Sam was better at everything else, but blocking and getting movement wasn't his strong suite.

Clark's blocking, when I noticed it, is good. Cam's is so/so. Savoy's effort is great, the results are inconsistent. Same with Cunningham on most plays. Carroll has struggled at times. Tailbacks are a work in progress besides Peoples blocking, and he missed an assignment or two va Delaware.

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The TD Carroll was so beautiful live. Lovely second read.

Always choose joy.

Is Murphy bending his route on that completion to pull behind the LB? Is that just a misplay by the defender? Or some of both? It definitely looks like Jackson anticipates his receiver cutting hard on that play, couldn't tell if that was just familiarity with how Murphy would always run that route, or if they were both reading that defender.