Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Film Review: Michigan State's Vayante Copeland and What to Expect in '16

A lot of Spartan fans were excited about the play of RS FR Vayante Copeland last season, despite playing in less than two games due to injury. I had a chance to go back and reassess his brief play, and honestly, was more impressed than my initial reaction. While there are areas where he needs to improve, he did show a lot of natural ability. In this post, I'm going to review Copeland's film and give my impressions of where to expect him to play going forward.

  • Copeland played most of his time at the Field CB position
  • He rotated out frequently in MSU's blitz package, though not always
  • He rotated more frequently out against Oregon while healthy, but also got some snaps at Boundary CB. He eventually played his last snap of the season during the Oregon game, suffering from a season ending injury.
  • Most understand Oregon's talent at WR, but I think it's important to note that WMU had a pair of very good WRs as well. One would have started on probably half of the B1G teams, the other will be a mid-to-late round draft pick when he declares for the NFL draft. This was good competition he played.
The Good
Eye Discipline
Early in the season, Michigan State came out playing a lot more MOD coverage (Man Only Deep) rather than their base MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes). This was likely a reaction to two things: 1) Several spread teams having success isolating the Field Safety on the slot (the MOD gives an outside zone help, so no two way go for the slot) and 2) youth at the CB position.

Copeland is at the top of the screen here. See how he opens up pre-snap and plays in off coverage. If the WR goes vertical, the Copeland will play him in man, if he doesn't, he will bail into a deep quarter zone. But to protect against the screen game, he's going to read inside to handle any quick pass play, and that's what he does here. Number 1 releases inside and tries to block the OLB. He immediately reacts upfield, keeps proper relation to the ball carrier, keeps his hat on the outside shoulder of the ball carrier, breaks down, and makes a nice play in space. But this play all starts with his eye discipline and not getting lost with the vertical threat from #1.

Here's a great example of him getting his eyes inside when the WR tries an inside release and finding the #2 and maintaining proper relationa and making a strong tackle.

Here is a bit of a different screen threat, rather than a bubble, it's a tunnel screen. But again, it's eye discipline. Here, he does a good job of not getting turned by the initial vertical threat, he remains patient (more on this later, but it's an inconsistency in his game and was a smart thing for WMU to try to attack). But once he notices the receiver work back to the ball, he identifies the #2 and works underneath the block and forces the play further inside to pursuit. This is all done because he has proper eye discipline post snap.

Flipping the Hips - Inside Turn
Now we are going to look at a couple instances of Copeland's ability to flip quickly and get into proper relation with the receiver. Here, the WR doesn't threaten an outside release, and instead stems immediately inside. Note that in most cases, Copeland is not playing a jam technique. This is MEG, this is press, but he is not jamming, which is what MSU is known for. This is another common aspect of the Spartan defense early in the season.

The WR does get a little bit of space in the instance of a quick slant, but this is a tight window. While you'd like Copeland to be a little tighter on the hip early, he has help inside from both the OLB and the safety, and he's maintaining the proper relation on the WR's upfield hip. The QB never gets to that side of the field in his progression, but the coverage is good so the point is still valid.

Similar thing, good first turn but loses contact a little too easily, but has inside help. This shows consistency. He's at the bottom of the screen here.

Flipping the Hips - Outside Turn
This is a great example of Copeland's natural flexibility on the outside. Here, he flips his hips with ease and doesn't lose speed while doing so. This allows him to maintain in-phase coverage throughout the whole route. The WR never has a chance to work back inside, Copeland is in contact with the WR throughout the whole route (watch the back hand a little at the end of the play, but his eyes are back to the ball because he's in-phase), and there is never any threat. His ability to flip his hips in this case made this nearly an impossible throw to make.

Here, the receiver is just running a go route and never threatens inside. This is MEG coverage all the way. The WR releases outside and Copeland easily sticks with him. Notice that as he turns he gets a nice punch with his inside arm on the WR's inside shoulder pad. He then rides him down the field, maintaining contact so as to control the WR and maintain his relation on the upfield hip and inside of the receiver (the arm prevent the WR from being able to work back inside easily).

Note that the open receiver in the flat is a bust by the OLB, who should release off the hitch from the #2 and bail to the flat. This was a problem MSU had from the Star position more early in the season.

Another example, top of the screen

Exactly... (top of the screen)

Flipping the Hips - Recovery
Here, he's beat. He turns and opens up inside and allows the WR easily outside of him with a lot of separation. But he recovers exactly how you want him to because he is fluid flipping his hips. Here, he is able to recover and almost immediately get back in phase despite having flaws off the LOS.

Attacking the Block
One of the things that immediately jumps off the screen with Copeland is his willingness to be physical. This is evident both in his tackling and his willingness to attack the block.

Here, he loses a bit of his eye discipline, which was normally solid. He's too tied into the WR in front of him and is late to realize the pass in the flat, which causes him to be late coming down to make a play. But when he realizes the flat receiver has the ball, he steps up, gets low, bends at the knees, and fires up and out with his hands extended while maintaining his helmet outside the blocker. He has the sideline defended and he doesn't give up any unnecessary ground.

This time he sees the play but is just a little late reacting. He appears nervous of the offense going over the top (given the situation, it's probably the right choice), and so doesn't form a wall as quickly as you'd like to see at the point of attack. But the main positive here, again, is how he takes on the blocker and allows the defense to get to the football.

Needing Some Seasoning
Redirecting on Breaks
Probably the biggest issue I saw from Copeland was his reacting to a second turn. That is, once Copeland flipped his hips on the first turn, he at times got a bit lost on the receiver, lost relation and contact, and got beat on the second turn.

Here he is at the top of the screen. He flips to the outside, but he loses contact with the receiver, thus not allowing the CB to be controlled. When the WR works to cut back inside, Copeland has a long stride and can't break down as quickly and runs past the WR. So the problem is two fold: he loses contact with the WR and can't slow him down and his straight line stride makes it difficult for him to breakdown when a receiver makes a downfield break.

That seems like a small thing, but here's a look later in the half. The main problem here is that he isn't patient enough. The WR looks to commit outside and Copeland is opening up immediately. Once he opens, the WR breaks back inside to the football, Copeland can't maintain contact with the WR because he has opened up too far up field of the receiver (he opened up to early and didn't stay on his front hip, he instead got over the top of him) and is forced to regather with several false steps, and is then well behind the play. Because of that, he also can't make the tackle in space, and the result is nearly a TD.

A couple plays later, again, he isn't patient enough with his technique. He loses his inside leverage and commits to opening outside, and this gives a free release back inside on the slant that the QB doesn't throw, but it is open (particularly in a red zone situation)

Closing Down his Stride
This was touched on with the previous issue, but that was more focused on committing too early or over committing to the first turn. But it does relate to closing down his stride. Copeland appears to be a bit of a long strider. This means there are some difficulties redirecting when running. I've been impressed with Copeland's ability to break from a flat-footed position forward and to flip his hips from a back peddle, but he has some struggles redirecting in space.

Here's an example where he's playing the #1 on the fade route and does a great job with his eyes. He puts himself "in-phase" with the receiver by having proper relation and being able to use his body. This allows him to get his eyes back to the football, which he does, and nearly makes a great play breaking off his receiver and undercutting an out route. But because of his stride, he gets his center of gravity out from under him and he slips a bit, allowing the receiver to make a play on the ball. This is an instance where he does some really nice things, but just doesn't finish the play.

Playing the Deep Third
Background: MSU runs a blitz scheme that plays 3 deep coverage zone. It's often been the case that MSU's DBs haven't been as sound in this coverage, and MSU has gotten away with that because they are so great up front at applying quick pressure that they get away with it on the back end. MSU doesn't practice this technique as much, because the payoff doesn't make sense. It isn't a necessity. So this isn't a revelation for MSU CBs.

The difficult part about zone defense, particularly for young players, is properly playing the man within the zone. Here, Copeland doesn't get proper relation between the receiver and the QB to be able to play the man and the ball. The result is that he fails to prevent the receiver from getting over the top of him, he loses the man because he gives up too much separation. This leaves him open down field, although the QB misses.

I did notice early on he got subbed out a lot in MSU blitz package. My feeling is that they were simply more comfortable with other guys playing the deep 1/3. It's something I honestly don't see sticking going forward, there really isn't part of his game that precludes him from being as good at this technique other than experience during these early season games.

Inconsistency with Hands and Patience
I noted previously that Copeland played a lot of press coverage, but not a lot of jam technique. That doesn't mean he's avoiding contact. Proper jam technique is difficult. If you don't have the technique down, it leaves you left in the dust. Copeland being a young player, Dantonio and Co. likely chose to play more press without the jam to avoid getting beat over the top. But that doesn't mean it's a hands off approach, it just means that you utilize your hands a bit further down field once the receiver commits to a release (this is different than a jam technique, which prevents the release all together).

What you see here is more of a jam technique. Copeland is squatting down, slide stepping, and trying to prevent the inside release. But he sells out on it and gets caught leaning as he's moving inside to try to maintain his proper inside position. But once get you caught leaning in jam technique, you often get burned because you don't have any strength to control the receiver. That's what happens here. This is inconsistency with hands, but it stems first with his feet and then with his patience (patience is, in my opinion, the most difficult aspect to teach/learn for jam technique), and that results in inconsistency with the use of his hands. It's the same with getting beat on down field breaks, it's not necessarily incorrect hand placement, or lack of playing strength, it starts from the feet and works up, and the issue is currently at the feet level.

This allows a clean outside release from the WMU WR. However, while he gets separation and he is briefly open, again, you see from Copeland his ability to flip his hips and he plays his out of phase coverage correctly to make this a difficult throw if the QB were to decide to throw it. Previously, I showed a clip where he did everything right except finish the play. Here, he makes a mistake at the start of the play, but does everything right after, and the QB decides not to make the throw.

Here, we again show a lack of patience. He turns outside quickly and that allows a free release inside, which is dangerous at this position. Now, he's a good enough athlete to essentially not allow great separation on the ball, but this is the difference between a catch with no YAC and potentially no chance at even a catch.

Cloud Support
The vast majority of the time, Copeland played the Field CB position. This is the normal development path for MSU CBs, who typically start to the field because they have less run responsibility (for the most part, they can focus on their coverage and not worry about the rest). Here, he gets put to the boundary. Oregon is unbalanced, and Copeland has cloud support responsibility with his run fit. CBs don't spend a lot of time working on run fits, but the best at MSU have done it really well in the past. But the RS FR wasn't really polished with this technique, and didn't really come up to make a play as you'd like (didn't maintain proper leverage, didn't break down).


Areas of Strength

  • Eye discipline on throws to the flat
  • Ability to flip hips from flat-footed and back peddle
  • Recovery ability
  • Being physical at the point of attack
Areas for Improvement
  • Redirecting on breaks (closing stride)
  • Playing the deep third zone in blitz package
  • Inconsistency with hands and patience in jam technique
  • Cloud support for run fits
As I said, I was more impressed with what I saw on film than my initial impression. Copeland appears to be a very fluid player. He flips his hips really well without losing speed/burst on his initial turn. Given MSU's scheme, this allows him to consistently play with tight coverage. As a young player, he still has some technique concerns. The biggest concern is currently his footwork and patience once the WR can gain his release. MSU played a lot of press and MOD with Copeland, but didn't jam as often as they have in the past. When asked to jam, Copeland did lose position on his receiver at times (though he displayed nice ability to recover). He also lacks patience at times. I said within the body of the article that this is one of the most difficult things to learn and do with consistency, but he often turns too early and gets too far up field, and that puts him out of position and allows him to get beat on down field breaks. While he didn't really go up against many double moves, based on what we see on film, that may be an area of concern.

But from a technique standpoint, and patience standpoint, that can be fixed with experience and more work. It isn't an inherent issue with athleticism or something. He flips his hips well, he recovers well, he's got a nice frame. The more difficult thing to fix will be his ability to breakdown in space from a full stride. Closing down your stride and sinking your hips so that you can react to downfield breaks may come down to some physical issues, and is at least something to do with his running form, which is more difficult to fix. So while a lot of the concerns of his game can be ironed out, there are some questions to what level he can reach: is he an eventual All American, All B1G, or something else? His natural ability, frame, and eye discipline suggests he'll switch eventually to boundary CB, and he has the ability to develop into an All Conference performer. If he can also iron out some of the more inherent concerns or perfect his technique to the degree that he can mitigate some of his flaws, he could be even better. Coming back for spring practice was huge for MSU and where they can expect Copeland to be come Fall. Technique takes coaching, which takes time, and takes reps, and Copeland still needs more reps. He got some in spring. He appears to be a player that will surprise some teams in Fall, though it may still be another year before he takes his leap.


  1. Great post! Love reading all of your stuff on MSU

  2. I love anything MSU, they really let us down this season smh. Never prepared for the departure of cook. Either way I love college ball and will continue to watch. If it's okay with you I found some really good sports slogans that I wanted to share here: Best Sports Team Slogans