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UTSA’s safety positions, explained

The Roadrunners list three safety positions on their depth chart but how do they differ?

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Texas-San Antonio Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Most defensive coordinators make the claim to being “multiple” in their defensive approach. It’s an ambiguous term usually meant to show a defense’s ability to play in many different formations. In actuality, it typically translates to a defense that has a capable nickel corner on their roster.

While many defenses feign multiplicity, UTSA defensive coordinator Pete Golding delivers with a unit that utilizes a 4-2-5 defensive base with several differing odd man fronts mixed in. The Roadrunners go heavy in the front seven against run teams (see UTSA using three defensive tackles against New Mexico) without sacrificing in pass defense thanks to the way Golding employs his safeties.

UTSA lists three safeties on their depth chart: a “Lion” strong safety, a “Ram” strong safety, and a traditional free safety. I recently received several requests from readers to explain the differences between the three positions. Here’s my best attempt to do so albeit with the added caveat that I’ve never been in the film room with Golding to break down each player’s responsibility.

“Lion” Safety

Current starter: C.J. Levine

Alignment: Typically right outside the tackle box on the strong side of the field or over the slot receiver in man coverage.

Desired body composition: 5’9” - 6’1”, 170 - 200 pounds.

Michael Egwuagu lined up at Lion safety for UTSA in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl

UTSA’s “Lion” safety is essentially the linebacker/safety hybrid that every 4-2-5 defense depends on to maintain run support and field coverage in the passing game. This position is very similar to that of a nickel cornerback with additional responsibilities against the run. The “Lion” must be the most flexible player on the defense as he must be able to cover slot receivers as well as lower his shoulder to take on blocks and bring down ball carriers when the offense attempts to rush the ball outside.

Former UTSA standout Michael Egwuagu was a perfect fit for this position thanks to his strength and athleticism. The Roadrunners will replace him with junior C.J. Levine this season. Levine has already proved his ability as a pass defender but he’ll need to show the ability to make plays against the run if UTSA’s defense is to successfully replace Egwuagu’s impact.

“Ram” Safety

Current starter: Darryl Godfrey

Alignment: All over the field depending on offensive formation. Typically shadowing the strong side of the field.

Desired body composition: 6’0” - 6’3”, 200 - 230 pounds.

Jordan Moore lines up at “Ram” safety against Southern Mississippi.

The “Ram” safety is expected to be the enforcer in UTSA’s secondary. This player needs to be able to cover ground, react to wide receivers’ breaks towards and away from zones, and read quarterbacks’ eyes. That’s a lot to ask. The “Ram” safety will also be asked to contribute in the run game but not quite as often as a “Lion” safety will. In essence, the “Ram” is your traditional strong safety.

Last year LSU/TCU transfer Jordan Moore roamed in UTSA’s secondary as the “Ram” safety. Moore is now competing for a roster spot with the Atlanta Falcons so Darryl Godfrey must step up to fill the void. While Godfrey isn’t quite the athletic freak of nature that Moore was, the first year starter should be able to make up for his relative lack of speed and strength by having good coverage skills.

Free Safety

Current starter: Nate Gaines

Alignment: Shadowing “trips” wide receivers, roughly fifteen yards back from the line of scrimmage or playing “centerfield” in the middle of the field.

Desired body composition: 6’0” - 6’3”, 180 - 210 pounds

Nates Gaines aligns at free safety against A&M.

At an absolute minimum, free safeties are the last line of defense. Ideally, they’re ball-hawking defenders that terrorize quarterbacks. As UTSA often employs a hyper-aggressive approach on defense the Roadrunners’ free safeties often need to play a bit further back off the line of scrimmage than usual so that they have space to catch up to streaking receivers or running backs that break away from the second level.

UTSA’s free safeties are typically sitting in cover one or cover two at the top of the secondary, meaning that they’re reading the quarterback’s progressions in the hopes of getting the jump on a pass to their section of the turf. Out of all three safeties the free safety is asked to make plays against the run the least often however the occurrences where the free safety has to bring down a ball carrier are often the most pivotal tackles in a football game. One misstep or flailing arm tackle usually means six points for the opponent.