Slot­backs take pride in block­ing

Key to triple-op­tion, corps posted 14 knock­downs against Mem­phis de­fense

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGES - By Bill Wag­ner

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.”

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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