Chalk Talk: Personnel Basics and How Auburn Gains An Advantage


Aug 30, 2014; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn with his players during warm-ups prior to the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever turned on a game to hear the commentator discussing 21 personnel versus 11 personnel, a bear front or a nine-technique? Football coaches use a very specific language when conversing about the game that is foreign to the ears of many football fans, and as more and more former coaches move into the booth, we hear it on an increasing basis.

Furthermore, there are fans that have shown an amplified interest in learning more about football from the inside out, which has led to more educational tools being made available, including books, articles, forums, videos and more. ESPN is jumping on that trend.

Why did he need to know the personnel prior to each play? Coaches can make an educated guess as to what the offense will do with a particular personnel group on the field. The players that were in the game at a given time generally dictate the type of offensive play that was called, and therefore, what defensive scheme should be used to stop it.

The Worldwide Leader gave us a Film Room look at the BCS National Championship Game, and has added an  ESPNU Film Room show as well.

Last night, the SEC Film Room debuted on SEC Network, which is a great addition to the new all-SEC channel. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin sat with former Georgia quarterback David Greene to discuss some of the plays and philosophies that went into the previous week’s matchup with South Carolina.

Here at Fly War Eagle, we will take a closer look at some of the nuts and bolts and X’s and O’s of college football, and the Auburn Tigers in particular. First, we offered a list of resources to increase your football IQ, and will now dive in to a basic concept that is often overlooked by fans: offensive personnel.

I was a high school assistant football coach for three seasons and was very lucky to work with one of the best coaching staffs around. On Friday nights, my responsibility was to sit in the booth and be the “eyes in the sky” for our defensive coordinator.

On each play, it was my duty to chart the opponent’s offensive play and their formation, as well as to relay the current down-and-distance, field position and personnel to our DC. (Note that because he is in the booth on game days, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson can see personnel himself).

Why did he need to know the personnel prior to each play? Coaches can make an educated guess as to what the offense will do with a particular personnel group on the field. The players that were in the game at a given time generally dictate the type of offensive play that was called, and therefore, what defensive scheme should be used to stop it.

For example, when a team came out in 32 personnel, we had to be sure our goal line package was on the field because a team with three tight ends and two running backs is likely to pound the rock. A team in 10 personnel generally dictated a nickel or dime package because they would feature four wide receivers. And more often than not, when we faced a team in 21 personnel, we could rely on our base 3-4.

If you look at the following chart, you’ll see each personnel grouping. Hint: The first number is the number of running backs, and the second is the number of tight ends.

[table id=31 /]

One thing to notice is that there is no differentiation between a running back and a fullback, so there are times when more detail is needed. Last week, Arkansas primarily operated from a 21, 11 or 12 personnel grouping. But, theoretically the Razorbacks could have 21 personnel with or without a fullback.

The Hogs might have Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall (both tailbacks) in the game at the same time, or they may substitute fullback Patrick Arinze for one of them. Therefore, a conversation between coaches could go like this:

“2nd-and-5, plus-28 yard-line, left hash, 21 personnel – fullback is in the game.”

Most of this is self explanatory, but the plus-28 yard line means the offense has crossed midfield and is now in the opponent’s territory. The minus-28-yard line is located closer to the offense’s own end zone.

A majority of teams give their intentions away based on personnel. When Arinze was in the game, Arkansas was much more likely to try and pound the football. However, some teams are much more difficult to predict based on personnel alone.

Auburn is one that does it better than nearly anyone. The Tigers often operate using 11, 21 and 20 personnel, yet Auburn doesn’t use personnel like everyone else did in the past. I touched on this in my 2014 SEC Preview electronic publication in the feature article “The Hurry-Up No-Huddle, Auburn’s Offensive Philosophy.”

"One thing that Auburn uses to its advantage is position flexibility. The offense can create almost endless formations with minimal personnel groupings. Defensive coaches rely on knowing what offensive players are in the game to set their own personnel and to make sure they have the right assortment of linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.When Auburn can use that to their advantage by putting players in a formation that you would not typically see with the personnel that is on the field, it puts the defense is a very uncomfortable situation.For example, CJ Uzomah is a tight end, but he often lines up as a wide receiver. The defensive coaches may have an extra linebacker or defensive lineman on the field in place of a defensive back with Uzomah on the field. When he lines up wide, there is less speed on defense and it can create a matchup problem for the opponent and an advantage on offense.In many cases, Auburn will line up in an empty set (with no running backs behind or beside the quarterback), only to motion a player into the backfield. He may be a traditional running back – he may not."

The best example of Auburn’s personnel and positional flexibility centers on the use of Corey Grant and Ricardo Louis at the slot receiver position, which is often used on a jet sweep action across the formation just before the ball is snapped.

On the roster, Grant is considered a running back, and an opposing coach would see 21 personnel if Grant was on the field along with Uzomah, Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams.

In that case, a defensive coordinator is likely to keep his base defense on the field. This week, San Jose State’s John Robinson would likely opt to stick with a traditional 4-3 defensive personnel of four down linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties.

Live Feed

Auburn vs. Texas A&M Prediction, Odds, Trends and Key Players for College Football Week 4
Auburn vs. Texas A&M Prediction, Odds, Trends and Key Players for College Football Week 4 /


  • 2023 Week 4 AP Poll Top 25: Every SEC team’s highest, lowest spot on ballotSouth Bound & Down
  • SEC Football: Florida, LSU rise in Week 4 2023 power rankingsSouth Bound & Down
  • SEC Tailgating: Where should you go in each town?South Bound & Down
  • SEC football standings based on yards per play through Week 2FanSided
  • Auburn Basketball: Projected starting lineup and depth chart for 2023-24 seasonBusting Brackets
  • However, with Louis (who is listed as a wide receiver) in the game for Grant, Robinson would see 11 personnel. Against most teams, Robinson would likely use nickel personnel and substitute an extra cornerback for a linebacker. But, because Auburn uses both players in in what is essentially the same position, and will run largely the same plays, the Tigers make life more difficult for opponents.

    Because Gus Malzahn will not hesitate to have Louis carry the football or throw to Grant, Robinson will have to do extra film study to try and determine whether or not Auburn is more likely to run or pass when one is in the game compared to the other, or whether or not the Tigers run certain plays with Louis that they do not run with Grant in the game.

    Then, Robinson will have to communicate those tendencies to his players (if there are any), and the San Jose State defensive players will spend practice time recognizing which Tigers are in the game and analyzing what that means to his individual role on defense.

    That’s a lot to worry about before the ball in even snapped. And it’s just one reason that Auburn should score early and often on Saturday.