‘Alley dogs’ a key part of Tech’s defense

HOUGHTON – Talk with Michigan Tech head football coach Tom Kearly long enough and the conversation will eventually (usually quickly) descend into the depths of football jargon and abbreviations.

Offense, defense and special teams are replaced by ‘O’, ‘D’ and ‘Teams.’

The words flat, belly and vert (vertical) often constitute a stand-alone description or occasionally even their own verb. It is the language of a man who has studied football as a life’s work, tricky to follow for even knowledgeable gridiron enthusiasts.

But the most peculiar of these 100-yard idioms comes when the eighth-year head coach starts throwing around the word ‘alley.’

For the uninitiated, an ‘alley’ basically defines the hybrid safety/linebacker position that acts as the fulcrum for Kearly’s preferred 4-2-5 base defense.

Kind of. Sort of.

Let’s start with the basics.

There are two of them – this year sophomore Brett Gervais and junior Ben Potter man the position.

On many plays, one of them will act as a traditional strong safety, while the other will take on the responsibilities of an outside linebacker.

But not always.

And it depends on the offensive personnel and scheme of the opponent.

On one snap Gervais may have the responsibility of taking the fullback’s block head on, and on the next he lines up against the No. 2 wide receiver. During these same exact plays, Potter’s duties will be just as varied.

You can see how it gets confusing for the unfamiliar spectator.

“My parents, when they are watching the game, they always ask me, ‘What position are you?'” Gervais said. “I say ‘Well, it’s going to be a long story.’ I have tried to explain it to them, but I don’t know if they get it yet. They watch me run around all over the place and they thinking I’m freelancing, doing whatever I want out there, but that is just the coverages we are in.”

Kearly has been running the 4-2-5 as his base defense since his first year in Houghton, but the veteran coach has relied on it more and more each passing year, preferring the base personnel to ‘nickel’ if he can get away with it.

Kearly didn’t turn to the 4-2-5 for an unconventional look or an effort to confuse opponents – in fact, he insists it is a fairly common scheme, perhaps labeled differently at other schools – but as a form of function and efficiency.

“I always said if I was a coach at a high school, Division III school or Division II school, where you don’t have a whole bunch of position coaches, that is the defense I would run because I think schematically it is sound and the ability to teach the defense you can by and large teach with just two people,” Kearly said. “The six front guys (four lineman and two inside linebackers) can be coached by one guy and the other five can be taken by the other coach. Those meetings would take place in two meetings. Where if you are a 4-3 or 50 (3-4) team, you can’t do that.”

The alley position requires a combination of speed, jumping and strength attributes that often define ‘tweeners’ in football. Tech has had their share of strong athletes at the position – Gervais and Potter ranking as two of the better – but Kearly is also willing to roll with more physically limited players if they possess other attributes. Recent Tech graduates Chris Nowak and Juan Wilson come to mind.

Specifically, the alley is for ‘Football Players’ (emphasis on the capital letters).

“The nice thing is this defense for those two positions, is you can play a football player. That kid doesn’t have to be a great athlete to play in the alley,” Kearly said. “A lot of times when you are recruiting for different athletes, that high school strong safety, high school outside linebacker, that high school fullback type of kid – you can’t recruit that kid in college because he is not athletic enough.

“But on this defense a kid that is a football player – has a knack for the ball, can cover but isn’t in man coverage all the time, tough, physical enough to force the ball into the flat – that kid can play in our defense. We want football players.”

That attitude gets to the heart of the alley position.

The athletic gifts are nice, a bonus, but a successful alley player in Kearly’s defense must be just as willing to throw his body around on the run as drop and turn in coverage. Physicality and toughness are in high demand.

“There are some days I see (fullback) Cole Welch across from me (in practice) and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I hope they pass,'” Gervais, listed at 170 pounds, said with a laugh. “But that is the position. If they are going to run, you have to be ready to do your job, and then if they pass, you have to get ready to run and react.”

Of course, all the talk of alleys and hybrids is moot if the defense doesn’t produce results.

So far this season Tech (3-2) ranks No. 1 in yards allowed and No. 3 in defensive scoring in the 15-team conference.

The Huskies also finished top-five last year while splitting the North Division title and ranked as the No. 1 overall defense just two years ago.

With just three seniors starting on defense, it is reasonable to expect the already-strong results to trend upward as a young defense grows into the unusual scheme.

“It really offers us flexibility as a defense,” Potter said. “Brett is the more pass-oriented guy and I’m probably more run-oriented, but we both have to be accountable for everything. that’s what I like about (the alley) best, just being all over.”