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D-Line Handlers

by Adam Simon

I should start by saying that I am an incredibly blessed ultimate player. For the past few years, I have had the coolest job in ultimate. "Go cover whoever you want, and when we get the disc, get it moving, then put it up. Your receivers will be Beau, Jolian, Mangan and Martin." Uhhh, yes please? (I imagine Jeremy Cram felt the same way when he was choosing between Nord, Chase, Andrew Fleming and Mark Stone). 

Ideally, everyone on your team does everything well. Everyone is a threat both with and without the disc. But, of course, no team (with the possible exception of JAM in 2008) has an over abundance of complete players. I think the percentages of such players on the top teams rises each year as current players continue to develop their skill set and young players bring new skill sets each year, but even now every team seems to have a mix of specialists and general practitioners. Obviously, not all of the best athletes have the best throws and not all the best throwers are the most athletic, but each still contributes in a major way to their respective teams' success. 

So where do you put your complete players? The people that are good at everything go where? Thinking simply, success is based on some combination of your offense holding serve more often than your opponent's offense and your defense breaking more often than your opponent's defense. Since both of these are factors, you want to put some of your complete players on offense and some on D. 

When playing offense, they should probably be a cutter (or at least have the option of going deep from a handler position) to maximize the offense's options and force the defender to commit to stopping one direction (either in or out) with his/her positioning. You want the defender to feel screwed. If they stop the in and take away this player's throws, this person is such an attractive and effective deep target that the offense will happily use hitting this player deep as a perfectly reliable plan A until the D decides to do something different. If you force them under, they wreak havoc on you with their throws. My prototype for this role is Mac Taylor. Other players that come to mind are Fortunat, Kurt Gibson, AJ Tiarsmith, Grant Lindsley, George Stubbs, Damien Scott, Mike Grant, John Hassell, Jeff Graham, Teddy Tripoli...I could go on. Team USA is filled with players like this. 

When playing defense, your complete players should be handlers. The word "quarterback" comes to mind. I would say Ben Wiggins is that last true O-line quarterback. Other teams seem to have multiple players through which their offense can run. Defensive offenses tend to rely much more on one or two guys running the offense. There is usually a higher average level of disc skill on an O-line while defenses tend to have a higher average of athleticism. So disc skill is in greater demand on defense. If you have 7 solid athletes on, you want the ones with the most disc skill handling. 

Athletes and smart defenders get blocks. D handlers get breaks. So let's build the ideal D handler. 

First things first, your not going to score if you can't generate blocks, so you gotta have someone that is a fundamentally sound defender—Someone that understands downfield positioning and marking that can put significant pressure on his/her matchup over the course of the point. Ideally, the person is a totally badass athlete and absolutely dominates his/her match-ups consistently, but chances are that player could better serve your team as a target than a thrower. So acknowledging that this isn't a role for your best athlete, I'd say you want a diverse athlete—someone that can play effective D on both receivers and handlers. It's not always in the best interest of a team to put their D handlers on O handlers b/c on the turn, you never take your O player out of his/her comfort zone. Your opponent handles for part of the point, then he covers a handler after the turn. He's always around the disc. He's still doing what he does best and it's tough to exploit him because chances are, if he's handling on offense, he knows how to cover handlers as well. If you can mix it up and put at least one of your D-line handlers on a cutter, you can send him into squirrel mode off the turn. Cutters are often much less effective covering handlers than handlers. There's nothing O cutters hate more than having to cover someone shorter than he is that doesn't stop running. It's annoying and difficult, and should you fail to score, renders him less effective with each subsequent O possession which pays off huge late in games. 

Secondly, you need someone that is comfortable being around and effective at handling the disc—a fundamentally sound thrower/decision maker with a good first step that can break the mark, run the reset and keep possession when the offense is struggling to gain yards off the turn. It helps, but is not necessary, to have a complete player in this role. It certainly gives you more options if your D handlers are also effective deep threats, but scoring percentages always go down when your best athlete makes an in cut and tries to huck it to your 5th best athlete. In general, it's best to keep your D handlers around the disc unless they are being defended in such a way that there is an easy goal to be had. Third, you need this player to be dangerous with the disc. On a D-line, there is usually an abundance of sick athletes. You need a thrower that can put it out in front of these players where they can go do what they do best and make plays. Every good D-line puts the disc up. It's icing on the cake to have good throwers in your downfield cutting lanes, but given that your handlers will touch the disc far more frequently, it's best not to have to wait for a cutter to get the disc. You want to be able to throw a goal at any time from almost any place on the field. And you can't do that if you don't have good deep throwers handling. 

It's tough to say which attribute is most important. D handler is an interesting position b/c it's rarely obvious who is going to be best at filling that role. All other positions at the club (O handlers, Deep D, Cutters) make themselves fairly obvious in tryouts, but D handlers don't. Many teams put their best defenders on the field together and by default, the one or two guys with the best throws start handling. I think the best D handlers I know are made from either O handlers that commit to becoming more athletic or good defenders that commit to developing their disc skill. If I could only pick two attributes, they would be big throws and a good first step. Intelligence is actually much lower on my list. I think it's the only position where careless, reckless idiots can still be highly effective. 

A D-line run by a poor decision maker with big throws and an itchy trigger finger is still going to score a ton of goals if he has good targets. A D-line run by a fundamentally sound decision maker with good fundamentals, but lacking the big throws or the quick first step is not going to do nearly as much damage. Most O-lines at the top level are excellent at getting the disc back, so your rewards decrease drastically if you have to make more throws. You will score more with the dumbass with big throws than with the genius that can't put it up b/c you will have significantly more (many times over) looks at the endzone in each D possession. 

Keeping that in mind, the best D handlers couple intelligence and good decision making with the deadly first step and big throws. 

The first player I ever played with that played this position exceptionally well was Colin "JV" Gottleib. When I was a freshman at CU, I noticed that the D got the disc almost every possession. When JV was in, the D scored and when he wasn't, the D didn't score. Part of it was having an under the radar Richter as a target to bail out the throws that didn't go where they were supposed to; however what made him great were his quick first step, his unwillingness to stop running hard and his big throws from both sides. I modeled a great deal of my game from his. I've never seen offensive players look so beat at the end of points as when they were covered by JV and then had to chase him around the field. 

Brandon Malacek is probably single handedly responsible for bringing this position into the limelight during Wisconsin's championships. It seemed like every time he got the disc he was putting it up. His throws were (are) huge, often pinpoint, and when they weren't or when he made a poor choice, Shane, Drew and Lokke could almost always bail him out. 

Jason Simpson currently fills this role for Chain, which always seems odd to me, because he's a phenomenal athlete and receiver. But once Chain picked up Rob White and Zip, they started using his lefty backhand to get it out in front of them. 

Stephen Poulos fills the role for Ring. That guy can chuck it a country mile. 

I think the world of Jeremy Cram for his disc skill, but I wish he would put it up more. 

My prototype for the position is actually Kevin Cissna, despite the fact that he played mostly offense in his career. His first step verged on uncoverable, and he was athletic enough to cover receivers. He was thick and really strong, so if he ever played physical D, it was almost impossible to get anywhere near top speed. He was a great decision maker and had deep throws in the wind. 

Not to give too many props to UC-Davis, but Jeff Eastham is also on my short list. He continues to be one of the best deep defenders in the game, and while Jam prefers to use him as a receiver (they benefit from having a staggeringly high proportion of complete players), he would throw the bulk of goals for any other team's D-line b/c he's very quick and has huge throws. 

huddle Issue 21 Team USA On Specialities

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Well-Rounded Deep Threats
by Gwen Ambler

What Else Makes A Good Handler?
by Cara Crouch

Handling: Vision
by Deb Cussen

Defensive Handlers I Admire
by Kathy Dobson

Schwa's D-Handler
by Chelsea Putnam

Handling: Doing The Little Things
by Jon Remucal

D-Line Handlers
by Adam Simon

Deep Cutting
by Dylan Tunnell

Cutting Thoughts & Techniques
by Bart Watson

Defense From The Handler Spot
by Seth Wiggins





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