The Cincinnati Bearcats, Space Players and a Role For Ralph David Abernathy IV

Jamie Rhodes-US PRESSWIRE

I recently came across Nickel Rover's excellent piece on Tavon Austin. The question posed by the presence of a player like Austin, namely what is he? Is more relevant to the Bearcats than you might think. As conventional an offense as Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian ran, they still stockpiled a lot of prototypical spread offense mighty mites.

The conclusion that Rover eventually came to was that Tavon Austin is a running back.

Tavon Austin is really a running back. You get him the ball in a prepared setting and let him go to work. Getting caught up in whether he obtains possession through a handoff, toss, or forward pass misses the greater point, which is what comes after he has the ball.

Running Back is an odd designation for a guy who averaged 1,200 receiving yards his last two years, but the point is very well taken. Chris Brown of Smartfootball.com, Grantland, and occasionally SB Nation has the best term for the position, the space player.

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Modern football defenses are obsessed with two things. Truth be told, that is an economist cover like lie on my part. Defensive coordinators are an obsessive lot in general, and there are many things that grab their attention. But they are far more likely to concede an interest in one of two things than any other, stopping the run, and stopping the deep pass. And by conceding an interest, I mean shoving as many banal cliche's as possible into any statement to the media. Such as "If we want to win Saturday we have got to make sure that we stop the running game" or, conversely "We have to stop that quarterback from making big plays." Neither statement actually says anything, they merely give a hint at what is causing them to lose sleep this particular week.

The secrecy is odd given that most offensive coaches know before hand how they will try to play them. If its a team that is proficient passing the ball they will see a bunch of looks that have both safeties in deep coverage most of the time. They will anticipate that because that is what they see week to week. An opposing coordinator that is known for running the ball will also anticipate the looks that he will see. He will anticipate the defense dropping an 8th defender into the box to stop the run, because that is what everyone else does to them.

Those are two basic strategies, or more accurately, the rough outline to them. But it gives some insight to how defenses approach the game. The idea behind both is simple. Make the offense work, make them string together plays. But in execution both strategies tend to concede free yards to the offensive coordinator and quarterback willing to work in the spaces of a defense, be it between zones, or on the literal margins on the field, the flats.

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Whether or not Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw will take advantage of that area of the field is, and will remain, an open question. What is not in question for me is that the Bearcats have the ability to work those areas of the field to positive effect. But that is the question. We here at Down the Drive have spilled countless thousands of words this spring trying to figure out what the Bearcats will do on offense this year. It is to the point now where I can say in a sentence or two* what UC will do.

* The Bearcats running game will be the inside/outside zone as a base, but they will run enough power and counter trey to make the play action passing game effective. The passing game will be based on one back/west coast staples like 97, 96, drag and drive with a few other basic concepts like mesh and levels.

What I am less sure of is how the existing personnel fits into the scheme. The roster that Butch Jones built for Gran does have some of the pieces in place. The offensive line is excellent and will ease the transition immensely for everyone involved. The running back position is pretty well stocked with Ti'on Green, Deionte Buckley and Ralph David Abernathy IV. TE is pretty well set between Blake Annen, Josh Russ and D.J. Dowdy. Receiver is similarly well off with Anthony McClung, Max Morrison, Chris Moore ( both fresh off a great spring) and a hopefully healthy Alex Chisum. These guys, or some combination therein, have the potential to make a top shelf offense; But there is plenty of opportunities to stick square pegs in round holes, starting with RDA4.


But the question about RDA4 is the same one that plagues Austin in the run up to the draft. What is Ralph David Abernathy IV? There is no real clear cut answer to that question. It is clear that Abernathy was used as a running back in 2012, but is he actually a running back in the conventional sense? Not really, he is a space player who was used as a running back.

Last year Abernathy had 707 yards from scrimmage on 97 touches. Abernathy averaged 7 yards for every non return touch, which is sounds good. But digging into the data it becomes clear that Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian didn't do as much as they could to present the defense with a direct threat with Abernathy. They were too myopic in their approach to his role.

Jones and Bajakian were, and are adherents to base personnel groupings. The Bearcats of their vintage would never be described as a "multiple" offense. 80 per cent of the time they rolled out three wide outs, and a tight end with a running back. That is a great personnel grouping for George Winn, that is not a great grouping for Ralph David Abernathy IV.

To that point 68 of RDA4 69 carries came on first or second down. Those are standard downs where the defense usually deploys its base defenses. RDA4 has shown that he can be effective in those situations, but its not where he is at his best. Abernathy only had 3 third down touches last year. Two of those touches were receptions on third and long that went for 19 and 14 yards, both first downs. The one run was a third and medium that went for two yards.

Third down and medium to long should be Ralph David Abernathy's exclusive territory. There is not a defensive back or linebacker in the country that can cover him in a zone or man to man. He is simply too quick and too slippery with the ball in his hands to be contained. On third and medium or long defenses have to go nickle or dime against the Bearcats, and that is the ideal time to run Abernathy, but that is not what Jones and Bajakian did.

The question is will Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw make the same mistakes with Abernathy that the previous staff did? There is no concrete evidence one way or the other. RDA4 is a running back in his skill set, but using him as most running backs are used, on standard downs makes it far too easy for defenses to stop him. The new staff must find more ways to get him the ball in space this year.

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