By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
USF's three starting linebackers read offenses well. How do they do it? They follow coach Wally Burnham's triangle read, a scheme that calls for them to watch three key players. And they've learned to read each other.
TAMPA - Wally Burnham and his linebackers don't watch football games the way most people do.
Of course, they see the quarterback, the receiver in motion, all the things most people see. But in the instant before and after a snap, their eyes are fixed on the two guards on the offensive line and the primary running back behind them.
That triangle of players tells them everything they need to know. On a USF team hoping to improve on last year's 6-6 mark, the Bulls' returning starters at linebacker - seniors Stephen Nicholas and Patrick St. Louis and junior Ben Moffitt - can thank a simple old concept for much of their success.
"This is the way I was coached. It goes all the way back to the '60s," said Burnham, who played linebacker at Alabama in 1960-61 under Paul "Bear" Bryant. "In high school, a good linebacker usually can just go to the ball. In college, you need more than that. This incorporates everything they need to see to be a playmaker."
Ask Burnham's linebackers - past and present - about the triangle read, and they smile with a certain reverence, explaining the scheme like one might share the core beliefs of a religion.
"We all respect Coach Burnham, and we all just fell right into his theology of football, tried to learn it as best we could," said Moffitt, who leads the defense as middle linebacker, making calls and adjustments on the fly.
Burnham's history was a big reason USF's three starters chose the Bulls. As linebackers coach at Florida State from 1985-93, Burnham taught NFL first-round draft picks Marvin Jones and Derrick Brooks.
Brooks said he still uses the triangle as he reads an offense. He likes the system because it's less complicated and cluttered than many others.
"That's how my eyes were trained to read my keys," he said. "It simplified the game. The old saying is, when you see a little, you see a lot."
Jones agreed: "We got to where the guards could make one step and I instantly had a sense of where the play was going. It's all a mental thing. Anticipation is the whole key for a linebacker."
Jones still likes to watch Brooks, to see how quickly he reacts to a play. Those two were superior athletes in high school, but Jones said their success was built on being a smart linebacker first.
"To this day, when I do clinics, I do the same things with the kids that Coach taught us," said Jones, who spent 10 seasons with the New York Jets and retired after the 2003 season. "When we'd get a new rookie with the Jets, if they didn't know the triangle, it's what you told them to help them out."
Knowing how to read that triangle starts in the video room. To make smart reads, you must learn a team's tendencies, and to learn tendencies, you must know formations.
"Coach emphasizes that we have to know that. Formations, formations, formations," St. Louis said. "You see this, you know it's this, this or this."
After recognizing the formation, a linebacker's read starts with the guards - are they up in a two-point stance or down in a three-point stance? Are they bearing down, leaning or light on their feet?
"The guard is the truest read in football," Moffitt said. "It's a thing you have to learn."
The linebackers look through the guards to the running back, whose first step can show the difference between a draw play and an outside run. See the guards pulling? The ball is almost always moving in that direction. See an interior lineman subtly rocking back upright? That could point to a passing play.
The system isn't unique to USF. It has been cobbled together from decades of Burnham trading insights with other coaches, tweaked here and there.
Understanding the triangle is the biggest prerequisite to a linebacker taking the field at USF.
"This is the first part," Burnham said, motioning to a dry-erase board in his office. "You can be a great tackler, run 4.5, be 6-foot-3. I've had Parade All-Americans that never played because they never learned the system."
Now, with 72 career starts among them, the three know the system well. Nicholas and Moffitt benefited from redshirting their first year.
"My first six months, freshman year, that's all I remember thinking: Triangle, triangle," Nicholas said. "You learn that right, you're a linebacker."
Just as a smart read can set up a game-changing play, the opposite - an episode of football illiteracy - can undermine a defense, as in last year's Miami game, a 27-6 loss in the Orange Bowl in which St. Louis said he didn't feel properly prepared.
"It killed me," St. Louis said. "I didn't know my guards. I always tell myself, 'The guard isn't going to lie to me.' Always, I'm watching him because he's going to tell me what to do."
The linebackers are so trained that they look for the triangle even when they're spectators, watching other teams on television.
"Every time I get a chance to watch football, I'm reading the guards," St. Louis said. "I'm watching to see if the linebackers are reading what I'm reading. 'Why aren't you going with the guard?' I'll say. He's probably reading something different, but out here, we always read the triangle."
All that time in the video room, all that reading can't help but get three friends on the same page. The three are close enough that they're all nicknames to each other: Burnham dubbed Nicholas "Snake" for his ability to slide through gaps as if he had no bones; Moffitt, married with two children, is known as "Father Ben"; and Nicholas has saddled St. Louis with the affectionate moniker of "Bullethead." Just as helpful as reading opponents, they know how to read each other.
"You know what the other guys are going to do, and you know how you're going to respond to it," St. Louis said. "They're my brothers."
Together, they're a reason for confidence on USF's defense.
"They're the best I've had here as a group," Burnham said. "All three, they've been around, seen a lot, and they're pretty damn good because of that."