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The 3-4 is this year's campus craze
The last thing you’d ever call most college football coaches is "trendy." Joe Paterno isn’t wearing skinny jeans anytime soon, Jim Grobe most likely doesn’t have bands like Animal Collective or MGMT on his ipod, and I highly doubt Dennis Erickson spent the summer touring the country, doing the summer indie music festival circuit.
But when it comes to offensive and defensive game plans, college football coaches are no different than the 16-year-old girls wearing Silly Bandz at Justin Bieber concerts. Whether it’s the triple option, the Pistol, Wildcat/WildHog/WildFrog/Wild Rebel, the 3-3-5, or the spread offense — if it’s hip, trendy, and all the rage, they want in.
Last summer, the craze was, indeed, the spread offense. After a 2008 season where just about every Big 12 quarterback threw for more than 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns, many of the nation's coaching staffs did their best to a.) implement some sort of spread scheme into their offense, and b.) figure out a way to somehow stop it (or at the very least, slow it down).
Like a case of chicken pox, the spread, well, spread. In the SEC — a conference long known for conservative offenses and power running games — Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Florida all featured wide-open gameplans with receivers spread from sideline to sideline. The Big 12, as was the case in 2008, saw just about every team — except perhaps Nebraska — employ the offense in some form. From James Madison to Ann Arbor, the spread was everywhere. It was like that movie “Outbreak”, only Urban Meyer and Mike Leach played the leading roles instead of Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman.
But as the spread offense seeped its way into several offensive playbooks last summer, Alabama coach Nick Saban and his staff opted to ignore the craze and focus on fine-tuning something quite different in Tuscaloosa. Though he’d been using it since he was a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in the early '90s, Saban perfected the Tide’s ultra-aggressive 3-4 defensive scheme.
The results? A 14-0 season, a dominant defense, and the school's first national championship since 1991.
With 360-pound Terrence Cody serving as the run-stopping nose tackle, Rolando McClain being Saban's coach on the field at one of the inside linebacker spots, and future first and third-round picks Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas playing cornerback, Alabama featured the second-ranked scoring defense in the nation, surrendering just 11.7 points per game in ’09. The Tide's 3-4 defense stopped the run and attacked the quarterback from all angles on passing downs, and helped lead the way to a national championship.
A year after the spread offense took the college football world by storm, the 3-4 defense is now the fashionable trend.
Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh is among the many to make the move to a 3-4 defensive scheme.Stephen Dunn
Brian Kelly is bringing the 3-4 to Notre Dame, Jim Harbaugh's staff is implementing it at Stanford, and new defensive coordinator Al Groh will employ three down linemen in his base defense down at Georgia Tech. Several other top-25 teams will be making the switch, too.
Though it finished the season with an 11-3 record and won its first outright conference title since 1990, Georgia Tech allowed at least 30 points in six games last season. Shortly after the Orange Bowl, head coach Paul Johnson let defensive coordinator Dave Wommack go and brought in Groh, the longtime Virginia head coach to overhaul his defense into an aggressive 3-4 force.
Groh, of course, was a defensive assistant under Saban and Bill Belichick in Cleveland during the early '90s. He's a 3-4 guy. "I like the flexibility of the defense," Groh told reporters this month. "It provides different options to play against all of the spread formations that we are dealing with. When you have four players (linebackers) standing up and able to make adjustments, it gives you more options than if you only had three linebackers standing up."
And that’s the very crux of it. The 3-4 defense, more so than the 4-3, creates confusion and chaos for those very spread offenses that were so en vogue last summer.
Furthermore, as coaches and recruiting gurus all attest, there’s more talent at the high school level at the linebacker position than on the defensive line. Instead of force-fitting linebackers into defensive ends with their hands in the ground, the 3-4 allows high school linebackers to play the college game standing upright. Fourteen college teams will use a base 3-4 defense in 2010; seven of them were 4-3 squads last year.
Though Bud Wilkinson is often considered the “godfather” of the scheme, 17 of the 32 teams in the NFL used some sort of 3-4 alignment last year. It’s no coincidence, then, that a bevy of new coordinators with pro pedigrees are bringing the scheme to the college game this season.
Brian Stewart, the new defensive coordinator at Houston, is two years removed from a stint as defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. Clancy Pendergast comes to Cal fresh off defensive coordinator gigs in Arizona and Kansas City. New Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the man in charge of linebackers DeMarcus Ware, Keith Brooking, Bradie James and Anthony Spencer last year in Dallas. Vic Fangio at Stanford has over 23 years of NFL coaching experience, including gigs where he ran 3-4 defenses in both Baltimore and Houston.
Brian Kelly is bringing more than just two-and-a-half hour daily practices to South Bend. He’s bringing in a 3-4 scheme with four linebackers very close to the line of scrimmage, in what’s being described as a “no-crease” defense. After the Irish defense surrendered close to 400 yards per game in Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 defense last season, Kelly is looking to sophomore inside linebacker Manti Te'o to serve as his Rolando McClain “coach on the field."
"What you do is you knock a guy backwards, you stay squared up on him," defensive line coach Mike Elston explained at the Irish’s media day . "If the ball goes to the left, you tackle the ball to the left. If it goes to the right, you tackle it to the right. The linebackers are on the same level as the D-line. There’s no creases, no vertical, no horizontal creases between them."
"I think that they’ve grasped the roles very well and understand exactly where they fit in the defense,” Elston said of his young defense.
“They have the ability to make the play and/or set somebody else up for the play. They’re not trying to work outside the framework of the defense just to make a play."
But change doesn’t happen overnight. At Stanford, for example, junior Thomas Kaiser and sophomore Chase Thomas were starting defensive ends last season. In Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, they’ll be outside linebackers. Though both players are excited for the switch, there will certainly be a learning curve.
"It's what I feel best about," Fangio told the San Francisco Chronicle last week, "particularly in this day and age, with so much spread offense and option game. To have another guy on the field with the ability to drop when the offenses are spreading you and to have more diversity as to who your fourth and fifth rushers are... I think it's a good way to counterbalance that stuff."
Stanford’s longtime rivals in Berkeley will have someone other than Bob Gregory running its defense for the first time since Jeff Tedford took the head coaching gig in 2002. Pendergast’s version of the 3-4 is expected to be even more aggressive than the one Gregory ran during his nine-year tenure.
The 3-4 has made its way down to the Lonestar State this summer, too. In addition to Houston, both Texas A&M and Texas Tech will be making the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 in 2010. Texas A&M, of course, had some pretty nasty 3-4 squads during the Dat Nguyen Era in the early '90s. Naturally, the Aggies hired Nguyen — a former All-American and longtime Dallas Cowboy — to serve as the team’s inside linebackers coach. With high-scoring spread offenses all over the Big 12, first-year Aggies defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter hopes his 3-4 defense can have the same kind of success in College Station as it did when he was at Air Force last year.
"I want us to be aggressive on defense," coach Mike Sherman told reporters in in July. "I think we have an offense that should be able to move the ball, if everybody does their job, and I want to be able to force takeaways. I think the 3-4 structure can present issues on where the pressure is coming from, particularly against spread offenses."
SMU, long the laughingstock of Conference USA, has risen from college football’s ashtray into a competitive program over the past two years. Though head coach June Jones has received the lion’s share of the media credit and fanfare for SMU’s resurgence, defensive coordinator Tom Mason and his 3-4 scheme has had a lot to do with the turnaround, as well.
Like the or retro '90s basketball jerseys , the 3-4 defense is the hip and latest trend. Everyone’s doing it.
Will it work? We’ll find out in a few weeks.
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