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The Evolution of the Kirby Smart Defense: How The Mint Front Helped UGA Solve the Modern Spread

Georgia v South Carolina Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

Back in 2018, Kirby Smart presented at a coaching clinic and talked about defending modern college offenses. There probably isn’t too much exceptional about Kirby Smart and UGA LB’s Coach Glenn Schumann talking to a bunch of football coaches about defensive strategy in its own right, but this talk is exceptional in that it ended up on YouTube.

He starts by talking about his first years as the defensive coordinator at Alabama. From 2009-2013, Smart’s defenses ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense every season. Other than one year each, those Alabama defenses were in the top 10 in rushing and passing defense as well. In 2014, Smart’s unit ranked 12th in total defense. While they were still ranked in the top 5 in scoring defense and rushing defense, the Tide’s passing defense had dropped down to 58th. Something was changing…

Here’s the measurables for the 2009 Alabama defense.

Yes, they are fast… But mostly they’re immovable. At one point, Smart looks into the audience and speaks. “Look at that Nose Guard right there… 6’4”, 316. Are you gonna block that guy? Are you gonna spend all night sitting up at the office when you could be with your kids figuring out how to block him, double team, move him? Or are you gonna say piss on that… we’re fixing to find a way to run around him, throw the ball in space… It’s not the same kind of game. It’s hard to find people to move those kind of guys.”

I don’t know if Kirby realized he was encapsulating why offensive football has evolved so quickly and uniformly over the last decade with one hypothetical question or not, but he nailed it. Let’s look at Georgia’s defense in 2017.

The UGA defense in 2017 is significantly lighter, and that made it significantly faster than the units Smart ran in the early part of his Alabama tenure. Smaller linebackers play better in space. Smaller lineman can get down the line and cover screens.

Smart mentions that the coaches get weight reports on their players two times a week. In the summer of 2018, Jordan Davis went from 347 pounds to 320 in about two-and-a-half months. “Heavy guys don’t play for us. We need guys that can line up, play fast, be active, and run in space.”

Smart mentions the 2014 CFP Semifinal between Ohio State and Alabama. The Crimson Tide started three lineman over 300 pounds in that game. After OSU put up 42 points on Alabama, Smart went and met with his counterpart in that game, Tom Herman. The Buckeyes didn’t even try to test Alabama inside. They ran the ball sideline to sideline in an effort to wear out the bigger Alabama defenders and negate OSU’s size advantage. All of those body blows eventually resulted in a knock out punch when OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott busted through the line for an 85-yard touchdown run that put the game out of reach. The big Alabama lineman were too tired by that point in the fourth quarter to keep contain.

Smart’s defense to that point had been based on the opponent’s personnel. If an opposing coordinator felt they had more of an advantage against Alabama’s four-man front than their three-man front they could just stay in certain personnel packages. Smart saw that as a problem.

In his three-man fronts, Smart needed bigger linebackers because they would have to take on the guards on every play. In the SEC, guards are often 300 pounds or more. The problem? Those big linebackers also had to go cover in space. Smart puts it bluntly. “You’re not gonna cover Alvin Kamara with a 250 pound linebacker.”

The spread was stressing Smart’s defenses. The solution? Georgia’s MINT front.

The Mint Front is still technically only three down lineman, but the Jack LB is up at the line of scrimmage. Some Jack LB’s of the past include D’Andre Walker, and Azeez Ojulari. The Jack can rush the passer, play the run, or get out and cover the running back on screens and pass routes. When talking about what he wants in those three down lineman, Smart emphasizes butts.

He tells a story about going to the NFL Combine when he was coaching for the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban. At the combine he told Smart to stick with Bill Belichick. Belichick liked to get behind the defensive lineman when they lined up to run the 40-yard dash. Why? He wanted the biggest butts possible in the trenches. Butts take up space, and it’s easier for linebackers to fill gaps when they can crash behind big butts.

With the nose tackle in zero technique and the two down lineman in a 4I technique, the guards are occupied. Now UGA can bring rushers from anywhere they want, and the lineman are occupying all four inside rushing lanes. The run game can’t gash the defense up the middle. Remember that Smart’s defenses have gotten lighter and faster at the linebacker position. Those linebackers have the advantage filling around the outside lanes against the run.

Another change that Smart made on defense was that he went from rushing four to rushing three in order to deal with modern quarterbacks who could run when everyone was covered. When Smart and his staff studied it, almost every QB run that was going for a first down was through big gaps up the middle.

UGA now has an “aggressive spy” on the quarterback on almost every snap. The inside linebacker is sitting in the middle of the field. and as soon as the QB gets pushed off his spot or a lane opens up, that linebacker can take off. This took away the wide open running lanes up the middle for quarterbacks. Now if a QB was going to run they would have to go outside and beat the spying linebacker. Very few quarterbacks are beating a guy like Roquan Smith, Monty Rice or Nakobe Dean to the sideline. Additionally, that three man rush can become a four man rush if a clean lane opens up for the spying linebacker to rush the quarterback on a delayed blitz.

Think of a time when you’ve seen a QB gash Georgia up the middle on a broken play since Smart took over. You can’t.

It should be noted that this is why Kirby Smart has traditionally done really well against Dan Mullen’s offenses. Mullen and Smart have met 13 times since Mullen became the head coach at MSU in 2009. The first time Mullen put up more than 20 on Smart was this past year. That offense was totally different that the usual QB run based system that Mullen has been using since the days of Alex Smith, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. He plans to go back to a system more similar to that for 2021 because it fits the skill set of an athletic guy like Emory Jones. It should be closer to the offense we saw Mullen run with Nick Fitzgerald and Dak Prescott. I would guess that nobody is happier to hear that than Kirby Smart.

One of the other effects of the Mint Front is that the alignment of the defensive lineman plays on the spread’s reliance on the open B gap bubble found in most defenses. The B gap is the lane between the tackles and guards that naturally occurs against most four man defensive fronts. Think of the Oregon offenses of the Chip Kelly era. Know where a lot of those big holes were? The B gap.

It goes without saying that clogging the B gap is a must in modern college football. Nearly every FBS program has zone-read run concepts and RPO’s that they run off of those base packages. Recognize this guy in the photo below? His name is Dan Mullen. Here he is as the offensive coordinator at Utah, diagraming his base run package and talking about the importance of those B gaps.

When Smart was at Alabama he helped to design the scheme that stopped the spread offense that Mullen and Urban Meyer ran during the Tim Tebow era at Florida. Any updates, variations and new packages added to Georgia’s defensive scheme will make sure that those B gaps are accounted for.

A major emphasis for any defense is 3rd down, and that’s no different for Smart. During the early Alabama years, Smart and Saban almost always brought five and six rushers on third downs. The logic was to get to the QB as fast as possible and force the ball out quick. The problem was that bringing those linebackers meant everything over the middle was open. Alabama’s DB’s played outside leverage technique (this means they were lined up to take away routes that broke towards the sideline) because they had safety help towards the middle of the field. In 2014, teams killed Alabama on slants, rubs, mesh routes and other in-breaking concepts, particularly on third downs.

An emphasis on third down defense has also been a hallmark of the Smart tenure at UGA. The Mint Front has allowed Georgia to deploy situational defenses that allow the linebackers to fill lanes against the run, rush the passer, or drop into man coverage from the same alignments and packages.

It’s brilliant in it’s simplicity. On the play above, Georgia still only has three down lineman, but it gives a look like it’s going to bring six pass rushers. The backer who is a step off the line of scrimmage is responsible for dropping back and occupying the middle of the field. Those in-breaking routes are taken away. The LB at the top of the line can cover the RB on a route or take him on if he stays into block. Four rushers can turn into five, and if it’s a run play there’s plenty of guys close to the line of scrimmage. It’s intelligent football, and the rushers and coverage guys can be anywhere on any play. Here’s the same scheme with a different alignment and a different linebacker dropping into the middle of the field.

This accounts for anything an offense can do. If the opposing RB stays in to block, the linebacker is going to get a one on one matchup against a back. Smart, Schumann and Lanning spend a lot of time trying to create those matchups. “If we get the right guy in the building then he should win,” says Schumann.

Smart was bringing five and six rushers to try and create that matchup at Alabama. If one of those rushers didn’t get to the quarterback quickly it would result in massive plays for the offense. Now he gets that matchup while only giving up four defenders to the rush. The defenders in coverage aren’t alone on an island.

Georgia can run Cover 2, Cover 3, and anything else they want to off of these looks. Quarterbacks get used to seeing defenders near the line of scrimmage, but they never know who will be dropping or blitzing, and if the coverage will be man or zone.

“When we do bring everybody, it almost panics the quarterback because there is real pressure and there is real push,” says Schumann.

As if it’s not hard enough on the opposition’s quarterback, Georgia has also been very good at creating pressures by blitzing its defensive backs.

By now, Georgia has adapted its defense plenty, and I’m sure we will see further tweaks after a full offseason and the addition of Will Muschamp to the staff. The high powered passing attacks across college football have created the need for more packages that deploy five and six defensive backs, but the Mint Front will still be a huge part of UGA’s base defense.

What should make you excited if you’re a Georgia fan is the way Smart and Schumann’s presentation ended that day. The final slide featured a quote from Albert Einstein.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

You can get Smart once, but chances are he’s going to take away what you did successfully the next time you play his defense. The lack of ego and attachment to a system that Smart labels as his own is commendable, and also somewhat rare in the coaching profession. If anyone can solve the type of offenses that Alabama and LSU fielded in 2019 and 2020, it is likely to be Kirby Smart.

If he happens to find some of those answers in time for the 2021 season, it could be the edge Georgia needs to end its national title drought.