A great interview with Jerry Gordon, author of Coaching the Under Front Defense. The book was so good, I had to talk to the author. And it was definitely worth it. The big message here is to keep the defense simple, so that your kids understand and play with confidence.
Coach Gordon brings plenty of experience to the show with a resume that includes the University of Massachusetts, the Boston Breakers (USFL), Northeastern Universty, Yale University, Sandwich High School (MA), Potomac Falls High School (VA) and most recently with Woodgrove High School (VA).
We talk about the importance of building relationships with your players players, how the off season has changed our game, and of course, the Under Front Defense.
Give this episode a listen to find out how to adjust your Under Front Defense to the Wing T, the Option, the Spread Offense, and more.
Enjoy the interview? Get the book! Click here to read my review of Coaching the Under Front Defense!
Transcription of Episode 20 – The Under Front with Jerry Gordon
Joe Daniel: Great, we’ll definitely get that information. I’ve been really impressed and I think the most impressive thing about the book for me was how simple it was and we’re going to get into that shorty. Can you tell us a little about where you’ve been as far as coaching and how you got to this point?
Jerry Gordon: Sure. Well, I was pretty lucky I was a walk-on football player at the University of Massachusetts and I played football there for like 4 years and I was Captain my junior and senior year while I was there. It’s interesting, a lot of folks they have always wanted to coach their whole lives and I never really thought about it. While I was going to college, I was a business major and I was going to end into the business world and my college defensive coordinator Jim Reed who is at the University of Virginia right now and he said, “Hey Jerry, have you ever thought about coaching before?”. I said “Well, a little bit but”. He says “ Well, I might be able to get to something”. My first job was probably the best job I’ve ever had. I was like a GA for the Boston Breakers which is from the USFL. That was located in Boston, Massachusetts and I got to kind of be an assistant to them and met some really neat guys.
From there I coached college football a little bit. I coached at Northeastern University, I’ve coached at a University of Massachusetts for 8 years, and I’ve also coached at Yale University which was very interesting. After Yale University, my wife and I decided that we wanted to move to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It’s some place that I’ve always wanted to live and I was able to get a teaching and coaching job at a high school down there called Sandwich High School. We loved teaching there and being there. My wife and I actually ran a bed and breakfast for a number of years there. And then what ended up happening was her daughter, my step-daughter, ended up having a couple children and they lived in Virginia and I told my wife I bet I could get a football and teaching job there with just as easy. And we came down to Loudon County in Virginia. I was at Potomac Falls High School for 4 years. And then from there I was able to go to a brand new high school out here, Woodrow High School. I’ve worked there for 2 years. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.
Joe Daniel: You mentioned Jim Reed and that you got your start with Coach Reed and we’re both in Virginia. I mean, Coach Reed like you mentioned is that in University of Virginia. He must be the hardest working guy in all of football.
Jerry Gordon: Well, I coached for him, he used to be the head coach in University in Massachusetts and we all worked hard. He’s quite a guy. He’s quite unique. In fact, a lot of the stuff from my book came from what we used to call Weak Eagle back in those days and call the under front now but I learned it as Weak Eagle on to the 52 defense and we ran the stuff that I played in college and we ran much of the stuff while I was in college actually.
Joe Daniel: Well, that was one of the questions that I was going to get to. We might as well talk about where did this under front come from? Is it from what you ran in college?
Jerry Gordon: From my perspective, it’s something that we ran in college. When I was a player and then when I was coaching up at University of Massachusetts, I coached for two guys, Ted Roof who’s now Penn State’s defensive coordinator. I was also defensive line coach for Jerry Azzinaro, he’s at University of Oregon right now.
And so it’s been part of a package and it’s something that I really, really, liked. I always liked it. I put my own little flavor on it just from doing it all these years. But that’s the Genesis of it; Jim Reed, Ted Roof, and Jerry Azzinaro.
The book came about because there’s just not a whole heck of lot of information about under front in books. I’ve read a lot of book over the course of time, and you know, whole chapters of defensive, book about linebacking, and the Eagle & Stack defense by Ron Vanderlinden is a very good book that I’ve read, but I just couldn’t find a book about under defense and so my wife encouraged me to go ahead and write one. And I did.
Joe Daniel: Yeah and an excellent job with it. I want to come back and talk more about the under front specifically. Although I’m sure this is all tied in with a lot of your coaching philosophy. There were two things that really impresses me beyond the defense itself. First was the attention to detail and just it was very apparent and sometimes it just helps to write it all down. I know, you know, from having written a couple of different books that when you write it all down all of a sudden these things that are in your mind you get them on paper but it’s very apparent that you know exactly how you want each position to be coached. So tell us about the attention to detail as far as the fundamentals just of defensive football.
Jerry Gordon: Well, thanks and that’s the one thing that I want to… there’s not a whole heck of a lot of scheming I mean people can add their own scheme. I’m not really one of these guys that blitz every down. We do have a pretty good blitz package. But to me, the kids really need to understand what we’re doing and that’s the most important thing and we just really try to keep it simple and we just try to be technique oriented. One of the great things about not doing too much, in my opinion if you’re a defensive coordinator, anyone can draw up defenses in it and they’re all pretty sound but how do you fix? How do you know where your defense is broken because, you know, it’s going to break somewhere and the kids need to have confidence that you as a coach are able fix it. And if it’s too complicated, I’m not too smart and I won’t be able to fix it. So that’s kind of why we’ve always kept it real simple. And keeping it real simple, we’re going to focus on fundamentals and she, pursue, tackle and those are basics of any good defense really.
Joe Daniel: Yeah and that’s what it comes down to can you get off a block, can you get to the ball carrier, can you get him down to the ground? And I think that what’s really impressive in your book was the attention to details, stance, and keys and reads. We’ll talk some more of those specifically later.
The other thing that you’ve mentioned there as well is just keeping it simple. Not many fronts, you know you have a few front adjustments that are in the book, not a whole lot of coverages. And one of the things that I’ve found is that sometimes coaches want to see all those things in a book but you did it in a way that really was impressive. How important is just keeping that package limited and keeping it small to your defense.
Jerry Gordon: Well to me, this is high school football and I wrote a book for high school football coaches. And I’m reading Richard Bell’s book right now and I like it but it’s very complicated and I find myself reading the page over and over again. Not to put him down but that’s just not the type of book that I wanted to write. People can have what they want. To me, you can run what you want as long as you can teach it and fix it and coach it. There’s a lot of other things that you can do with this. I just wrote what I knew and I thought that other people would appreciate it. And if they want to take it further, they can. I got to tell you, you take my book and I don’t run my whole book each year. I don’t even run everything in my book. We didn’t run any zone blitzes last year for instance. We just thought that we were better off with a man coverage. It was just for my kids.
Joe Daniel: You mentioned Ron Vanderlinden’s book which I had to reread probably 3 times before I grasped the defense. It’s beautiful, it’s great.
Jerry Gordon: You know, we take him, some of his stuff. And I, just like you said, didn’t really invent any of these. It’s just little bits stolen from different people and you put your own little package right there.
Joe Daniel: One of the things with the under front is, and you’ve mentioned it’s developed from 5-2 way back when people ran a 5-2.
Jerry Gordon: And it was adjusted from a 4-3. You know, they’re all just dots.
Joe Daniel: Yeah.
Jerry Gordon: Everyone’s got a gap.
Joe Daniel: Exactly. How have you found the under front as far as… and I know we use this a change up to our 4-3 over. How have you found, especially in running the under front in the base, as far as adapting to the modern spread when you’re getting doubles formations, trips formations, you got one back in the backfield, guys all over this field, and adjusting what was essentially a 5-2, adjusting it to those different fronts or to those different formations.
Jerry Gordon: Well it’s really interesting that you mentioned that because all the years I’ve always started teaching, you know years ago I would start teaching versus 21 Personnel, pro and slot, and we would start from there as a base. But now, with the advent of all the spread stuff we’re actually teaching it, we start off with 2 by 2 and 3 by 1. And sometimes if a team will substitute their tight end we might have two Sam’s, for instance, a heavier guy and a lighter guy and they’re both going to have to learn that position. We do some 4-2-5 stuff but we’re limited with what we could do with that because we just don’t have the guys. I’ve seen, there’s never going to be up on the hash like some of these 4-2-5 guys will do. And to me, it’s limiting what the defense can do but also limits what teaching it has to do as well.
Joe Daniel: If you limit the teaching, what it comes down to, I think especially in high school we worry about alignment. You know, as long as you’re sound and your kids are confident enough in themselves to play fast, you can’t ask for much more than that, can you?
Jerry Gordon: It’s what I always talk about in high school football, and I think all of football, it’s all about relationships, simple scheme, having stamina, and then technique and fundamentals. In that order too because you really need to have kids in shape and built to run all game long because it doesn’t matter how good your fundamentals or how good your scheme is if they’re out of shape. And we will emphasize getting in the weight room and getting these kids get all to run. Run to the ball 100 miles/hour all the time and constantly, constantly doing it at full speed.
Joe Daniel: You mentioned the weight room and I want to come back to the relationship building because I think those are two really, really important aspects that a lot of coaches love to look at scheme but when we sit down and look at it there are certain things that are more important. How has the weight room and the importance of the weight room and the off-season conditioning changed over the years in football?
Jerry Gordon: Well, we’re asking so much from these kids it’s really incredible. I sometimes wonder if I would even play football if I had to what all these kids have to do. They’re in there 4 days a week and I’m on them at school and they work hard, they really do. And we encourage them to play multiple sports, play track. We have a couple guys in the team that wrestle and it does help as well. We want them to compete, we want them to win.
The other thing is that what we’re doing now is so much more sound i think, i guess, than what we were doing. We do full squats. We’re kind of old-fashioned in that way. We’re not one of those teams that are going to be doing tire flips and carrying things and the ropes. We just have four platforms and we do the Olympic lifts and we run hard. And that’s pretty much it. It’s not that complicated.
Joe Daniel: Yeah, it’s a lot more work but I think it’s necessary today for these kids to be out there. If everybody else is doing it, you got to keep up with them.
Jerry Gordon: The other thing is the advent of these 7-on-7 tournaments and 7-on-7 leagues. The kids can throw much better now, they really can. I don’t know what people say but the kids are better football players now than they were 10 years ago and I do believe that.
Joe Daniel: Well absolutely, I don’t think you can deny that the kids are, high school football players, are better than they were 10 years ago. And I know just in the State of Virginia with changes in what we’re allowed to do. You know, I think we’re seeing for people who aren’t from the area, we really didn’t used to be able to do a whole lot of anything other than the 7-on-7 tournaments. Virginia’s kind of slowly catching up in their rules to some of the rest of the nation, I think. It’s an immediate improvement; just in a few months.
Now the other thing you mentioned was building relationships. How do you go about building relationships? What is it that has to be done with these kids to build a good football team?
Jerry Gordon: You know, I don’t think there’s one thing that you can put your finger on it. To me, just being there and being genuinely interested in your players. I teach a class, I teach at the school and I think that’s usually important. The kids come down to my room in between classes. Something that’s really interesting is that we have open lunch. My kids, they have 55 minutes and an hour for lunch so they’ll be in my room and they’ll be watching Hudl and just goofing around. And also another important thing is having good communication with their parents. Communicating with the parents about the program and communicating with the parents about the kids. It’s no magic formula. I think it’s just genuinely caring.
Joe Daniel: Don’t tell our kids about that open lunch or they’ll be on an all-out rebellion. They have about 25 minutes to run down and eat and get back.
Jerry Gordon: I know. That’s the way it is across America. I think it’s great for the kids and it’s also great for a team; any team. The soccer team does it, the basketball team does, the football team does; it’s great.
Joe Daniel: That is nice to have. Now kind of getting back to the defense itself, just in game planning. When you’re game planning your under front defense to get ready to play an opponent, what are some keys to setting up your own game plan?
Jerry Gordon: What we’re going to do is identify the top pass plays, the top run plays and then we do a down and distance study and you know high school football, a lot like professional football is you have to stop people. How are going to stop so and so? If you get the ball, how are you going to stop ‘em? Like most defensive coordinators, we’re going to stop them on first and force you to pass and try to get you into a one-sided game. And that’s pretty much what it is. I mean, people with the advent of Hudl, it’s been incredible. We’ve been able to take some of its work and spread it out amongst coaches. We’re able to do it from home and everything gets all put together at once and it’s made life great for us as defensive coordinators.
Joe Daniel: Yeah, without turning into an ad for Hudl, we love it, we use it all the time. And like you said the fact that you can split this stuff up, it used to be a full day of work getting your game film into exchange tapes of however you do it, getting those broken down and whatever else you have. The ability to split it up among 4 or 5 coaches and go home into it.
Jerry Gordon: And the other thing is we tag a lot of our film and it teaches the kids to recognize things now. You don’t have to have these meetings and its tough to meet as a high school. The kids watch the Hudl with the meeting, know what’s on it and come out and talk about it on the field. They can recognize well as you know it’s slot chips to left and they’ll full back set to stop this way. What are stops and plays? Well, speed option and zone. What’s the top pass play? 3-level read. It makes for a better game. And kids that use it and teams that use it and teach the kids how to use it, it gives an advantage I think.
Joe Daniel: Definitely. That’s one of the things we found is showing the kids, pulling it up and saying here’s how you get to this and get to that. We have some kids that are really, really getting into it. I think one of the biggest advantages of it is these young kids and kids who haven’t been in your system before have the ability to go on there and learn on their own time outside of the limited amount that you have of actual practice time. It’s been great for us and we’re talking about game planning. Those kids can know your game plan. I mean they can not just know your game plan but they can look and see what you’re talking about.
Now the other question as far as game plan is you mentioned that you don’t blitz a whole lot but you do have a lot of blitzes and stunts in your book. Not a lot but a good selection. Certainly an adequate selection of blitzes and stunts in your package. I mean you may not use all of those. First question is how much of that are you going to carry into an individual game or are you just depending on the situation of the kids?
Jerry Gordon: The book?
Joe Daniel: As far as how much of the blitz package and how much of the blitzes and stunts you’re going to carry in.
Jerry Gordon: Well first of all, we’re going to carry in about 75% of the book, really. Even more. Pretty much certainly between full blitz. But the one thing that we’re going to do is we might install one different blitz and we’ve just to kind of keep it fresh for the kids. But we’re going to run what I’m calling “lucky dog” or “rover dog” over and over and over again. And to me, in my opinion, if you’re running all these crazy blitzes with the kids and you don’t know how to react, you might get to the quarterback or you might be able to disrupt in a certain time. But going to championship teams, you need to be able to have 4 to 5 blitzes that the kids know that work and the kids feel comfortable running them. And all the different formations and all the different plays, you going to see against each blitz.
Joe Daniel: Yeah absolutely. What type of blitz philosophy, are you going to stay primarily based or just kind of situationally planned to use your blitzes?
Jerry Gordon: Yeah, we usually situationally blitz and the blitz tempo picks up as we try to create a big play. When it’s third and 10, I’m sure people have got us so you’re probably going to see 50-75% blitz. Whereas if it’s 3rd and 1, you might not get that. At that point, you’re going to see more line stunting. To me, I just don’t want to be guessing. That to me is a guess. Sometimes you guess right, sometimes you guess wrong. A team has an 85% chance of running an isolation. Well it’s a good idea to blitz them but if it’s 50-50, I’m not taking that chance. I’d love to have my kids play and react to the ball.
Joe Daniel: You talk in your book about bubbles. How you like the under front because it creates only one bubble. Can you tell us all about that philosophy of how many bubbles a different front creates and why you like the under front for that reason?
Jerry Gordon: Well if you’re looking at a 52 defense, there’re two bubbles. If you’re looking at a 43 defense, there’s three. Some coaches will say that’s wrong. I don’t know. But to me, there’s three bubbles if you have a tight end. If you have a offensive coordinator talk he’ll say of we’re gonna attack the bubble. Well, the under front defense also eliminates that bubble. The other I like is the short side or to the split end side, you’ll have a 3 and a 5 technique there and also makes it hard to run outside. And to the tight end side, you have a 5 and a 9; also makes it hard to run outside. And so to me, it forces everything back inside and we would account for those interior gaps and then I’ll still do some gap exchange stuff with the defensive line.
Joe Daniel: The reason I bring that up is because you’ve mentioned the isolation play and I know in the 4-3 over front, team will try to hammer that weak side B gap with the 1 and the 5 on the weak side because it’s a pretty significant space. We feel good about it because of the way out linebackers play it. We’re going to get the Mike and the Will filling up that gap. Do you see less of the isolation play with the under? There’s not really a natural like that weak side B gap and like, you mentioned, in an odd front defense there’s kind of a natural bubble there.
Jerry Gordon: You know, we don’t see it that much. I don’t think this because they’re front. I just think teams just don’t really run isos anymore. We just don’t see a lot of these teams line up and really try to hammer that. We used to see a bunch of Wing-T teams that used to try to do that. But they really couldn’t, they didn’t have much success with that. Are we better than they were or is it because of scheme I don’t know. I always try that, you know, isolate with the cross blocking scheme. We held a what I would call the belly iso. We just don’t see that isolation anymore.
Joe Daniel: You know, once upon a time, I know when I came in coaching in Virginia, that was in 2002-2003, almost everybody at our district was running the I on the wing-T and we just don’t see it that much anymore.
Jerry Gordon: Besides what we were doing last year, there was only one or two teams running the I. We still do it.
Joe Daniel: Now I want to close out with just kind of asking you about some specific offenses and your philosophy in going in to face these offenses. The first one would be, I don’t know how much you see it, a dive option or triple option team.
Jerry Gordon: Sure. With the philosophy?
Joe Daniel: Yeah, how are you going to prepare for that, for like a veer option.
Jerry Gordon: First of all, we’re not going to see a veer option team. But during double sessions, we will always run the veer because to me, if a defense can’t stop the veer option, you’re not sound. Whether you see it or not, if a defense can stop a veer option, then you’re sound, in my opinion.
We’re a block down step down team, you know, we block down. And if your a defensive end any block down and get to dive and linebacker comes over the top because he’s got a cloudy gap, he’s on the quarterback and our force player is on the pitch. It’s not even a big a deal for us because it’s just part of what we do from day 2 practice really.
Joe Daniel: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. It’s just basic run fits.
Jerry Gordon: Right, exactly. We don’t make a big deal out of it. But then again we don’t really see it around here either.
Joe Daniel: Sure. The next one is wing-T.
Jerry Gordon: Well, to me, the under front is one of the greatest fronts for the wing-T. And the thing I’d like to do is I’ll put the nose on the center and sometimes I put them on the guard because I know wing-T blocking rules change when center’s covered and when the center’s uncovered. And then we’ll also move a lot during that to make a line switch their calls because their calls are alignment based. And having with 9 guys on the blocks is great. And then we have leased to make not block . We have it called not block down step down.
A guy just emailed me the other day, and teams with a great fullback – we’ll just put safety on him and just play man. And we’ll put it in the man basically.
Joe Daniel: You’re going to use line stunts against the wing-T?
Jerry Gordon: Yeah, we’ll take the strong side defensive end and bring him inside. We’ll put the nose guard on the guard. We’ll slant the line towards the tight end. We’re not going to sit still. The other thing is we’re not going to really blitz the linebacker. Lots of wing-T teams will have a tendency to run if it’s 3rd and 2, they like to run the crossback iso. We’ll put the linebacker, put the safety into that gap.
Again, I’m just not a real blitz guy. To the tight end wing side, we’re going to bring down that corner and that wingback blocks down we’re going to send them and play the corner really aggressive. If their best play is Buck Sweep, we’re going to shut that down and at least make him run something else.
Joe Daniel: Yeah, definitely, when you get him out of that base play.
Jerry Gordon: It’s really interesting. I mean, for the wing-T team that we’re seeing over the past years and the buck sweep wasn’t that base play really. It was something that they came back to. They were more of a power boot team than a buck sweep team. It was a little bit of a surprise and the trap team too.
Joe Daniel: Right. We used to see some buck sweep and now, like you said, we see a lot of power, some of the cross block and stuff. But not as much as the traditional wing-T and maybe that’s just our area. I know when I was out in Iowa we saw it every week when I was recruiting. So I guess that’s just where we’re at.
And the last one is your spread. And two different questions here; one is for the spread and zone read. Seems like everybody’s going to.
Jerry Gordon: Well, it seemed to me that it all depends on… we’re going to keep plus 1 in the box and run to the football, and we’ll have a call where we’re not going to be plus one. We haven’t really seen a whole heck of a lot of sophisticated teams, sophisticated spread option attack. One thing that we’ve done before was you got into what I call “wides” so I would have the defensive ends turning up sometime and we’ll be able to put in like another outside linebacker and have them on the quarterback.
Joe Daniel: And the last one is your passing, you know, the air raid and that sort of thing. I don’t know how much you’ve seen of that when team are going to start throwing on you.
Jerry Gordon: Well, we’re going to run our coverage. We’re going to mix in some more blitz stuff. And then if our team is really doing that then we might start zone blitzing a little bit. We’re not just going to sit back and let those guys dink us to death. So we’ll try to press the quarterback and put him on the ground.
Joe Daniel: How much man coverage are you going to run as far as bringing pressure? You mentioned bringing zone blitzes but I think you also mentioned running more man this past season.
Jerry Gordon: Well, we did but it all depends you have to cover and in how fast you can get there. Sometimes if we bring pressure from this field, many times in zone coverage we bring pressure from the other side, we can leave more man from there. It’s just easier for the kids to line. So it’s depends on the blitz and it depends on how we think we can get there. And I got to be frank with you this is high school football, sometimes we’ll just vacate the zone and send a guy and just place zone behind it. Quarterbacks around here aren’t sophisticated enough to find a hole just because this zone was vacated.
Joe Daniel: Okay this has just been great, I really enjoyed it. Again to talk about your under front defense. And again Coach Jerry Gordon who is the author of Coaching The Under Front Defense and just an excellent book. If anybody’s looking for, honestly any sort of basic defensive football now. It’s just fantastic on the fundamentals, keeping it simple and also a great defense. Not every book is this way but I can honestly say that you can take this book and use it as your playbook. I mean you could install the defense, you can hand the book to your assistant on your staff and say here’s the details and you could get it done. I just think it’s really a great, great piece of work.
Coach tell us how can coaches get in touch with you, say, if they have questions about the defense or just learn more about it.
Jerry Gordon: Sure but first of all Coach thanks for coming with it. I appreciate it. I had 2 or 3 coaches across the country, they actually said that they bought a book for the coaches and were able to just grab it and make it their defense. If you have any questions, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org and feel free, I answer all my emails. I might not get to you 2 seconds but I’ll do my best to get back to you in a reasonable time.
Joe Daniel: Great Coach I certainly appreciate it. I really appreciate your time. And I’m just going to keep looking at some of these stuff. I think the one thing I didn’t mention is we run the 4-3 over and the under is a change of defense for us. But I’m definitely stealing a couple of things out of it. So thank you so much for your time Coach.
Jerry Gordon: Okay, thank you Coach, thank you.
Joe Daniel: Thanks for listening to the Football Coaching Podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes to get the latest episodes and leave a review for us as well. You can find out more at FootballCoachingPodcast.com