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Gridiron Grandmasters Pt. 2: How to Develop Your Pieces, aka Throw the Goddamn Ball to Will Mallory

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My apologies for the long title, but some things just need to be said up front.

The chess term “piece development” can a little complicated, but I found the following up-front description: “Developing pieces is the absolute number one most important rule of the opening.” In both chess and football, you need all your pieces in play to have the best chance of winning.

In chess, development literally means moving your pieces out from their starting squares to positions that are ready for battle. Similarly in football, coaches focus on specific players early on by calling plays that put those players in a position to excel starting from the first quarter. Many players (and coaches) make the mistake of not developing all of their pieces (and players), which sets them up for failure against a high-quality opponent.

This week, Rhett Lashlee was up against Pittsburgh, which has one of the top five run defenses in the nation. Further, our starting tight end Brevin Jordan was out for the game with an injury. The Hurricanes’s offense ran twelve plays in the first quarter. The players targeted on those dozen plays shows Coach Lashlee’s development of his pieces.

1st Drive – 6 plays, including one called back due to a holding penalty: 3 rushing attempts, 1 each for Cam’Ron Harris (7 yards), Jaylan Knighton (8 yards), and Don Chaney, Jr. (2 yards) for a total of 17 yards; 3 pass attempts, all to Jaylan Knighton, with 1 completion for 7 yards.

2nd Drive – 3 plays: 1 rushing attempt for D’Eriq King (2 yards); 1 pass play turned scramble for King (8 yards); 1 pass attempt to Cam’Ron Harris with 1 completion for 35 yards and a touchdown.

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3rd Drive – 3 plays: 1 rushing attempt for D’Eriq King (1 yard loss); 2 pass attempts, 1 each to Mike Harley and Dee Wiggins, with no completions.

In total, 7 of the first 12 plays targeted the running backs with a run or pass. D’Eriq ran for 3 of the remaining 5 plays, though one was a scramble, and the last 2 plays were to the wide receivers. In total, Miami ran 6 times for 26 yards. Not bad against a top-five run defense. However, Miami also threw the ball 6 times, completing only 2 for 42 yards and a touchdown. Miami’s receivers went 0 for 2 and only 1 play targeted the tight end, Will Mallory, and that ended being the play that King scrambled for 8 yards. Basically, the only pieces developed in the first quarter were King and the running backs. The receivers saw action on the third drive while Mallory got nothing at all.

For a typical football team, it is not a big deal to only target your tight end once in the first quarter. But this is not a typical football team. Even with Brevin Jordan injured, the tight ends are still the most talented receiving group wearing orange and green every week. The stats show this, since Will eventually caught two passes for two touchdowns. Despite being a matchup problem, there were only about three passes thrown to Mallory the entire game. By comparison, the running backs were targeted four times in the first quarter. The wide receivers were also targeted more than Will throughout the game, including on the two passes that were intercepted by Pittsburgh. On both intercepted passes, King tried to force the pass to Mike Harley while he was covered. To my mind, if you are going to force a pass, why not force it to your tight end who is a matchup problem instead?

And so, even though King threw 4 touchdowns and Miami won the game, fans were left feeling that overall we did not play well on offense. I believe the failure to develop Will Mallory in the first quarter is a big reason for our discontent.

As an easy example, the first drive could have focused on targeting Mallory instead of Jaylan Knighton as a receiver. Rooster ended up with 5 catches for 27 yards while Mallory had 2 catches for 51 yards. Simply moving the catches and yardage from Knighton to Mallory would change the stat line dramatically, and likely would have enabled the offense to be far more effective as a unit. Instead, Mallory scored twice on three targets while Rooster received 12 touches for 52 yards and no touchdowns.

Now, Pittsburgh should receive credit for trying to minimize Will’s impact on the game. On the only play in the first quarter to target Mallory, the film shows great coverage by Pittsburgh. However, by committing so heavily to covering the tight end, Pittsburgh’s linebacker is out of position, which lets King to scramble for a first down:

Pittsburgh’s focus on Will Mallory creates space for King to scramble for the first down.

By making Will Mallory the focal point of the play, King is able to create a positive gain because Pittsburgh is so worried about covering the tight end. Similar plays were called early and often against Louisville and Florida State with great effectiveness. This is a huge advantage that we did not try to capitalize on against Pittsburgh, and our offense looked flat as a result. Fortunately, the defense played great, and Coach Lashlee’s had great play designs which created three massive breakdowns in Pittsburgh’s coverage that allowed Miami to win despite having six punts and two interceptions during the game.

Here is my point: everyone in Miami believes our players at the tight end position are the best in the nation, and clearly Pittsburgh agreed. More can and should be done to establish these players early in the game. This should take precedence over our receivers or running backs as receivers. In chess, the order you develop your pieces is just as important as the pieces Will Mallory should not have to capitalize on the running of D’Eriq King and short passes to Jaylan Knighton and Mark Pope; it should be the other way around. To put it another way: everyone in Gainesville knows the ball will go to Kyle Pitts early and often every game. Why are Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory being treated differently?

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