BRAD LAWING IS not certain he should be tagged as originator of South Carolinas pass-rushing defensive alignment. Nevertheless, he deserves to take full credit for making it an integral part of the defense over his latest seven-year run as its line coach.
The alignment is a bit unorthodox with four athletic ends slotted along the line and carries with it a name that speaks to the speed of the participants.
It is called Rabbits, and Lawing has been tweaking and perfecting it for the better part of 25 years in assistant coaching stints at Appalachian State, Michigan State, North Carolina and USC (twice).
Lawing has no great philosophy for why he likes the alignment, instead offering a simple explanation.
If theyre going to throw the football, Lawing says, I want speed on the field so we can react to screens, we can play (against) all different types of pass protections and hopefully create some havoc.
Over the past two seasons Rabbits has been wildly successful at doing that, creating chaos while disrupting opposing offenses. Part of that has to do with having exceptionally athletic personnel with the likes of Melvin Ingram, who graduated to the NFL a season ago, and current stars Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor.
Rabbits works like this:
If a USC opponent is facing a certain passing situation usually on third-and-long Lawing removes his two defensive tackles. This season, that would be two among Byron Jerideau, Kelcy Quarles, Gerald Dixon Jr., Phillip Dukes and J.T. Surratt.
Those interior linemen all tilt the scales at around 300 pounds while ranging in height from 6-foot-1 to 6-4. They generally are called on to clog the middle of the line with their bulk, mostly on running plays. By moving them to the sideline, Lawing can then insert Aldrick Fordham and Chaz Sutton, more agile, athletic and wiry defensive ends.
Those tackles hate it when I decide those athletes are going in, Lawing says, but its the truth. Athletes are going in (for) passing situations.
The four-man front of Clowney, Taylor, Fordham and Sutton all stand 6-4 or taller and none weigh more than 269 pounds. For Lawing, it is a choice of sinewy over stout, slender over sturdy, speed over size.
It used to be that Lawing graded every player on a given play based on technique, execution and success. Eventually, he abandoned the rating system and went to one that simply determines if each play was successful. For that, Lawing need only check an opponents success or failure on third downs.
A season ago using Rabbits, Lawing often kept tackle Travian Robertston in the game and went with three ends, including the immensely talented and versatile Ingram. Opponents were successful on third downs 35 percent of the time, which ranked fifth in the SEC.
This season, Rabbits is grading better. Opponents have converted 25 percent of third downs through three games, good enough to rank second in the SEC. UAB converted 5-of-19 third downs.
Lawing traces the origin of Rabbits to his days as an assistant coach at Appalachian State from 1983-88. Although it is difficult to pinpoint when he first began replacing shot-putters with hurdlers along the line, there was one game in 1986 that made the alignment a staple of Lawings playbook.
In the fifth game of that 86 season, an undersized 6-2, 194 pounds end named Rayford Cannon recorded a program-record five sacks against Davidson while playing the tackle position in pass-rush situations. The record still stands, and Lawings Rabbits defense still flourishes.
Cannon got help that season from fellow end Anthony Waters (6-4, 224) in moving from the corner to the inside of the line. It probably is not coincidental that Appalachian State began stringing together Southern Conference championships that season.
Lawing says coaches live in a copycat universe, so it is entirely possible he picked up the package from watching another college team. Whatever its origin, other colleges and NFL teams now employ the alignment on occasion. The Indianapolis Colts use it with ends Dwight Freeney (6-1, 268) and Robert Mathis (6-2, 245) moving inside in pass-rush situations.
No matter who else uses it, it appears Lawing and USC could be the first in the college ranks to eventually gain national acclaim for playing like Rabbits with Clowney, Taylor, Fordham and Sutton as the fair-hared foursome.
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