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Football Basics

Date: November 17, 2017
Words: 1,250
Publisher: Gobbler Town

At the end of the day, football is a simple game—move the ball down the field until you reach the other team’s end zone. Then stop them from doing the same.

That’s where the simplicity ends. From dozens to even hundreds of different plays, intricate rules, and complex verbiage that describes everything from formations to techniques to variations of pass coverage, America’s most popular sport can quickly become overwhelming for the casual, and even not-so-casual, fan.

While the lexicon can at times seem foreign and confusing, an understanding of the basics can go a long way in making the game more enjoyable. In the following article, I’ll break down some common football terminology and how it all relates to Virginia Tech.


In football, there isn’t one right way to do things. A team can have success running any of the multitudes of schemes and formations that exist on offense and defense. The key becomes choosing a system that best fits the abilities of the available personnel, and then mastering that system.

The 4-3 is the most common defense in football. The name simply denotes that there are four defenders on the line of scrimmage, who typically have at least one hand on the ground, and three linebackers positioned behind them. In recent seasons, the Hokies have run a 4-2-5, a variation of this base defense that substitutes a smaller defensive back for one of the linebackers. The extra defensive back helps deal with the increasing number of spread-based offenses the Hokies are facing each season.

Behind the 4-3, the 3-4 is next in popularity, becoming increasingly common in college football of recent. Like its name implies, the 3-4 uses three down linemen and four linebackers. The linemen are typically bigger in this defensive scheme, and are used more to tie up blockers which allows the linebackers to make plays.

Offensive formations are more complicated, but they can be broken down into three basic categories; under center, shotgun, and pistol. Formations where the quarterback is under center have him lined up directly behind the center to receive the snap, as the name implies. From here you have one back or ace formations with one player (a running back) lined up typically five to seven yards behind the quarterback, and two back or I formations with a running back and a fullback in the backfield.

Shotgun formations have the quarterback lined up typically five yards behind the center. The pistol was designed to blend the two schemes, putting space (usually three yards) between the quarterback and center and then having the running back line up directly behind him. This promotes more downhill running while still using a shotgun-like alignment, and since the back isn’t lined up to one side of the quarterback it does nothing to give away the direction of rushing plays.


It’s not uncommon to hear avid football fans talking about things like the A gap or the 3-technique tackle or an inside shade. All of these are subtle, yet important to understanding the finer aspects of the game.

The gaps between offensive linemen are denoted by letters. Between the center and guard on either side are the A gaps. Between the guards and tackles are the B gaps. Outside the tackles come the C gaps. If there is a tight end, the gap outside of him is the D gap. So, there’s at least an A, B, and C gap on both sides of the line. Defenders typically have a gap to fill on running plays, and these letters are used to denote gap responsibilities.

A different system is used to denote where defensive linemen are positioned along the line of scrimmage. Alignments differ situationally and between schemes, but the basics remain fairly unchanged across the board.

These alignments are denoted by numbers. 0 starts directly over the center. A 0-technique tackle is typically the nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. The 1-technique spot is over either the left or right shoulder of the center. Just like with gaps, the same numbering is repeated to the left and right. It continues all the way out to 9 on both sides.

In a four down linemen defense like the Hokies run, there is a 1-technique tackle (referred to as the nose tackle), a 3-technique tackle, and two ends that typically line up in a 5 or 7 technique. In a 3-4 there is a 0-technique nose tackle and two 4-technique defensive ends. These alignments are not set in stone and shift sometimes depending on the defensive play called, the offensive formation, and other tendencies. But they are a good general guideline.


Defenses employ many different types of coverage to defend against the pass. There are two basic types of coverage; man and zone.

In man coverage, each defender in coverage has responsibility for one receiver. They mirror their designated offensive player anywhere he goes.

Zone coverages can get much more complex. In zone, each defender that is not rushing the quarterback has a responsibility for a particular part of the field. It is similar to man coverage in that if a receiver comes into a zone, the defender responsible covers him as he would in man coverage. When the receiver vacates the zone, the defender passes him on to the next zone. Zone coverage is more confusing, both to operate and pass against, and requires cohesion and understanding by every defender.

Several zone coverages are named based on the number of deepest defenders. Cover one means there is one deep safety behind every other defender. This scheme employs man coverage underneath the deep safety, sometimes with a linebacker in an underneath zone.

In cover two there are two deep safeties. The corners typically play the shallow sides of the field and linebackers drop into underneath curl zones in the middle of the field. In an inverted cover two the corners have responsibility for the deep zones and the safeties come toward the line of scrimmage.

A cover three zone, or thirds, has three deep defenders. Any combination of the corners and safeties (usually both corners and one safety) split the deep part of the field into thirds.

Cover four (quarters) has both corners and both safeties drop deep. This is a coverage Virginia Tech has become known for using because it allows both safeties to provide strong run support if there isn’t an immediate threat to their zones.

Cover 6 is slightly different. It employs one deep defender to cover half of the field while two others split the other half into quarters.

These are just the bare basics of zone coverage. There are dozens of variations to each coverage listed and an exhaustive checklist of rules and adjustments for each concept. On top of that, teams combine zone coverages with a variety of blitzes and even man coverages. All of that together makes for a defense that takes more than just a little practice time to master.

The Hokies defense employs different zone coverages in different situations as well as significant amounts of man coverage. Typically, linebackers that aren’t blitzing drop into underneath zones or remain near the line of scrimmage to contain mobile quarterbacks. It’s not uncommon to see defensive ends dropping to cover the wide parts of the field.

Under Coach Loeffler, the Hokies offense has worked primarily from shotgun formations, although the spring game comparably saw many more plays from under center.

In the next article I’ll detail some of Virginia Tech’s stand-out players and how they contribute to the Hokie’s success.  

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