MADISON, Wis. — When the front seven for Wisconsin’s defense lines up on the football field next season, Badgers fans will see plenty of familiar last names in red and white jerseys. Where each player is positioned, however, isn’t likely to be the same.
Generally speaking, a new coaching staff brings different looks to a team anyway. But the change on defense should be especially drastic at Wisconsin, as the Badgers switch from their traditional 4-3 base defense into a 3-4 base.
The schematic difference comes from the mind of new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who experienced a great deal of success with a 3-4 in pervious stops at Utah State and Hawaii. Last season, Utah State ranked 14th nationally in total defense, allowing 322 yards per game — sandwiched right between Michigan and Wisconsin on the list. The Aggies also ranked No. 7 in scoring defense, 13th in rushing defense and tied for sixth in sacks per game. While defensive coordinator at Hawaii in 2010, Aranda’s defense led the country in turnovers forced (38) and set a school record by scoring five defensive touchdowns.
So what are the biggest differences in schemes?
For starters, the 3-4 is considered more complicated, which is why most college football teams choose to run a 4-3 base defense. It also requires a specific personnel grouping that utilizes bigger defensive linemen to draw blocks from two offensive linemen at the same time. Many college teams don’t have the right type of bodies to take advantage of a 3-4.
The biggest difference is that a 3-4 defense declares three rushers in a non-blitz situation, while a 4-3 declares four rushers. In other words, a quarterback can face unexpected pressure on any play in a 3-4 because he doesn’t know where the fourth rusher is coming from. As a result, the quarterback also has a more difficult time recognizing which players are dropping into coverage, which can create a higher rate of interceptions.
“It’s an NFL-ready scheme,” Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch said. “Coach Aranda knows what he’s doing, that’s for sure. We can give the offense a lot of looks. That’s important as far as they can’t just get a baseline on what we do week in and week out. We can change a lot of things up. It’s very versatile, so that’s a positive.”
Landisch is among the Wisconsin players trying to prove he fits into the Badgers’ new scheme. Six of Wisconsin’s starting front seven players return — linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong as well as defensive linemen Brendan Kelly, Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen and David Gilbert — but the departure of senior linebacker Mike Taylor leaves an opening.
Landisch, a 5-11, 227-pound junior, has played in 28 games and made his first career start at Penn State last season while filling in for an injured Borland. He quickly demonstrated his ability by recording a career-high 11 tackles.
“It showed me what my strengths are, what my weaknesses are,” Landisch said. “Penn State at Beaver Stadium, that was an experience. It definitely gave me some confidence.”
Another player trying to crack the playing rotation in the front seven is linebacker Conor O’Neill, a 6-foot, 222-pound redshirt senior who has played in 40 career games at Wisconsin with 50 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception. He is among the players most intrigued by the defensive switch because of his familiarity with the scheme.
O’Neill played at high school powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida and said he ran a 3-4 defense then and is better suited for the formation. O’Neill thrived in the 3-4 in high school. He was named all-state his last two seasons and tallied 144 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles during that span.
“It allows me to use my speed within the box rather than being outside as an outside linebacker like I was last year,” O’Neill said. “I was in space more. I’m a lot more confined and I’m allowed to be able to shoot gaps. The 3-4 is a lot more about feel for the ball and just playing.”
The biggest change Wisconsin fans and players surely hope a new scheme will bring is more turnovers. Last season, Wisconsin tied for 105th in the country with just 15 turnovers forced. To understand just how poor of a number that represents, consider that the 15 other FBS programs to force 15 or fewer turnovers last season finished with a combined record of 51-131 (.280 winning percentage). Only two of those 15 teams — Ball State and Texas Tech — reached a bowl game.
Not surprisingly, the fewer turnovers a team forces, the less of an opportunity it has to win games. Badgers players hope they can find themselves on the other end of the spectrum in a new defense.
“Everybody is pretty hyped up about it,” O’Neill said. “All the defensive linemen are getting used to it. I know the linebackers are embracing it. We’re loving it so far.”