Slotbacks take pride in blocking
Key to triple-option, corps posted 14 knockdowns against Memphis defense
Memphis free safety Jonathan Cook read the play and filled the gap. The solidly built 198-pound player was in position to lay a big hit on Navy slotback Darryl Bonner.
However, Cook suddenly had his legs taken out from under him by another slotback. Calvin Cass Jr. upended Cook as Bonner blew past him for a big gain.
That scenario played out repeatedly during the Midshipmen’s 42-28 victory over the Tigers. Slotbacks teamed to total 159 rushing yards for Navy, which made Memphis pay for loading up inside to stop the mid-line option.
Mids slotbacks averaged almost 8 yards per carry. Dishan Romine had a 36-yard pickup, and Josh Brown took a pitch and raced15 yards. Cass and Bonner both had 11-yard runs.
In almost every case, the key block that sprang the pitch man was delivered by the play-side slot. It was a banner blocking day for the slotback corps, which repeatedly wiped out linebackers and defensive backs who appeared poised to make a tackle.
“We did OK. We set the bar pretty high, so we can always do better,” slotbacks coach Danny O’Rourke said. “All in all, I was proud of them. I thought as a group they played hard. We played a lot of guys and they all stepped up.”
O’Rourke is tough when evaluating game tape and tends to linger longer on the missed blocks. However, when the review was complete, Navy’s slots hadbeencredited with knocking defenders to the ground14 times.
“That’s a pretty good game for us. There were a couple more out there that we could have gotten,” O’Rourke said. “Unfortunately for those guys, I don’t take the foot off them too much. There were some mistakes when we went through the tape.”
Navy’s triple-option offense requires every member to block. Wide receivers are expected to stalk-block cornerbacks while the fullback often serves as the lead blocker for the quarterback. However, no skill position has as much blocking responsibility as slotback, even though players at that position tend to be undersized.
Toneo Gulley, whois 5 feet 8 and 196 pounds, does not rememberever having to block while playing tailback at Tremper High in Wisconsin. The former Milwaukee Player of the Year learned quickly that blocking was the No. 1 requirement for getting onto the field as a slotback for Navy.
“I didn’t do much blocking in high school. Once I got here, the older guys said that once you learn how to block, everything else falls into place,” Gulley said. “Youspend a lot of time at the prep school and during plebe year learning how to cut-block.”
Zerbin Singleton might have been the most tenacious slotback blocker to play for the Midssince the triple-option wasreinstalled in 2002. Bo Snelson and John Howell also make the short list of slots whowentafterdefenders as if their lives depended on it.
“We watched a lot of film on those guys and they were very, very physical as blockers,” Gulley said of those three.
Howell and Singleton were both 5-8, and Friday, 7 p.m. TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: S. Florida by 61⁄ Former tailback Toneo Gulley, gaining a first down against Houston, has also developed into an effective blocker, something all Navy slotbacks have to learn to do. Snelson stood 5-7. Seeing those players take out 6-3, 240-pound linebackers showed Gulley that size had nothing to do with blocking. In fact, being short is somewhat of an advantage for a slot aiming for the lower body of a bigger defender.
“It really doesn’t matter how big the defenders are. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” Romine said. “I feel like that resonates with the slotbacks. We block linebackers or safeties, whoever winds up in front of us. We don’t care how big they are.”
O’Rourke was asked what goes into teaching players who were primarily tailbacks in high school how to block.
“I think it’s pretty simple: It’s all want to. You gotta want to block, you gotta want to be physical. If you don’t, you’re not going to play. All these guys figured out early on that [they’d] better block if they want to play,” O’Rourke said. “We spend a ton of time working technique in practice, but it really has very little to do with technique. It’s a lot of desire and a lot of effort. It’s about a mindset of wanting to be tough and physical.”
Romine, who said he did have to do some blocking at duPont Manual High in Louisville, Ky., agreed with that assessment.
“When you get down to it in the game situation, I’d say about 30 percent of it is technique; the other 70 percent is will and determination. You have to go and engage the defender without any fear,” Romine said.
When a slotback catches a pitchout, he is almost always relying on the other slot to deliver the key block. Failing to take out the defender playing the pitch can lead to disastrous results as safeties with a running start can demolish the slot with the ball.
“If somebody doesn’t block well, they hear about it in the meeting room from the other guys at the position,” O’Rourke said. “It’s the culture of the group to take a lot of pride in blocking. They push each other in that aspect.”
Gulley, who has developed into a very effective blocker, said the perimeter pitch play has no chance unless the lead slotback does his job.
“Coach O’Rourke makes sure the bar is really, really high as far as cut-blocking goes because that could be the difference between a big play and a loss. He always emphasizes the importance of doing our job in general,” Gulley said. “I wanted to become a better blocker so my brothers could run the ball.”