In a game that featured poor play and poor coaching, Vanderbilt’s Oren Burks stood out as a bright spot in the Commodores’ 13-10 opening-night loss to South Carolina.
He is at the forefront of a defensive revolution in college football, as more and more defensive players are no longer anchored to just one position.
Burks, and his fellow defensive playmaker Zach Cunningham, have gone from being under-the-radar talents to the focus of offensive game-planning.
The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Burks is a former full-time safety. The Commodores now list him as their “star” linebacker. His task is simple, yet complex: make plays anywhere and everywhere.
In this era of spread offenses, defenses are constantly looking for new advantages and ways to adapt. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has been at the forefront in thinking up inventive ways to slow down prolific attacks.
The latest advancement is hybrid players. Some are a hybrid safety/linebacker, others are a hybrid linebacker/defensive lineman. They allow defenses to run different fronts and packages without having to substitute.
Burks provides Vanderbilt a true rarity: a player who can play at all three levels of the defense.
Mason moved Burks in order to get more speed and athleticism on the field, telling David Boclair of the Nashville Post: “We’ve tweaked this defense a little bit … (It gives us) more speed on the field, a different athletic look.”
Moving Burks to the “star” spot puts Vanderbilt, effectively, into its nickel or dime package on every play.
Throughout the matchup vs. South Carolina, Burks aligned at multiple spots — as a rush end, inside linebacker, slot corner and deep safety. Wherever Vanderbilt needed him, he was there.
Burks’ versatility comes with a number of advantages. The opposing quarterback has to locate one of Vandy’s best players on every snap, and it helps the Commodores disguise their coverages, particularly their zone pressures.
Vanderbilt’s inferior talent makes it tough for it to consistently play man-to-man coverage in conference play. It is forced to utilize more zone pressures, playing zone on the back end and blitzing defenders from multiple positions. The concept is designed to confuse the offense as to who is rushing the passer and yet still generate enough pressure by rushing just four players. These schemes usually involve a down lineman or on-ball linebacker dropping into coverage.
With Burks, Vanderbilt is able to disguise its concepts more effectively. The quarterback not only has to diagnose where Burks is aligned pre-snap, but his movements post-snap.
Furthermore, offensive linemen can be confused by all the movement.
Below is a good example: Burks lines up as an outside linebacker over the right tackle. Vanderbilt bluffs like it’s rushing five but drops Burks into coverage.
The right tackle sets to block Burks, who then drops into coverage, leaving the tackle out of position and off-balance as he attempts to regroup and block the pass rusher off the edge.
With the tackle in an awful position, the pass rusher gets a free run to pressure the quarterback, while Burks and the rest of the defense drop into zone coverage.
The Commodores managed to get a free rusher at the quarterback — who is forced to bail out of the pocket — and disguised their zone coverage.
Burks’ best play-making effort in the team’s opening-night loss was forcing a third-down fumble.
Again, he begins the play aligned as an outside linebacker. South Carolina calls a designed quarterback power play, with a pulling guard to clear out the interior of the defensive line, and a receiver sent in motion to misdirect the eyes of the linebackers and secondary.
The Gamecocks get what they want — the secondary bites on the motion man, and a linebacker reads the wrong hole.
The offensive line pass sets to disguise the quarterback run. Burks reads the play, plants, drives and gets to Brandon McIlwain, ripping the ball out for a turnover.
You can see below how Burks has read the play while the rest of the defensive line and linebacking corps is waiting to react.
For all his athletic ability, his instincts and ability to diagnose plays is equally impressive.
The concept of a hybrid “three-level” defender is making its way across football, from the NFL to the rest of college. These hybrid players are truly a precursor to the future of defensive football: teams playing with a couple of specialists on the defensive line and at cornerback alongside a number of hybrid athletes who move around to multiple spots.