Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith now play on Sundays. Their exit along with recruiting undercurrents abetted in Mark Stoops’ commitment to the 3-4 defense. Football philosophy or scheme can be difficult to understand. In my attempt at writing, one of my primary goals is to translate coach-speak to layman’s terms.
Before discussing the driving forces or “why” the 3-4 move, let’s begin with basic terminology. In defensive scheme identification (examples: 3-4, 5-2, 4-3), the first digit designates the number of defensive linemen. The second figure specifies the number of linebackers. So, the 3-4 features three defensive linemen and four linebackers. Due to brevity, this posts focuses on the defensive line. Linebackers will be covered in a later post.
The Big Fellas
DT/NG (Defensive Tackle/Nose Guard) lines up in the proximity of the offensive center; main responsibilities include occupying the center to prevent double teams, creating chaos with quarterback-center exchange, gap responsibility, and applying middle pressure versus the pass. By occupying the middle of the field, the NG influences running backs angle to line of scrimmage. Tackles and sacks are a bonus. Statistical excellence is rare. Prototypical size is 6’0 or taller and minimum 300 pounds. Strength; girth, and burst off line of scrimmage necessary. Nasty streak mandatory.
Projected starter: Melvin Lewis, 6’4 330 Sr
DT alignment varies, normally covering an offensive guard/tackle. This defender is more apt at rushing the passer, but also eats up blockers and maintains gap responsibility while making line of scrimmage tackles. Mainly he occupies leverage to force ball carriers toward linebackers. Terms like eating up blockers aren’t literal. Cannibalism isn’t a required trait. By maintaining contact with OL, blockers can’t release to second level linebackers who are then freed to make tackles. By occupational description, defensive linemen are selfless by nature. Optimal size is 6’2, 280-plus. Required traits are quickness, disruptiveness, and discipline. Based on down-distance, this position can also be played by a WDE (Weak-side Defensive End).
Projected starter: CJ Johnson, 6’3 300 Sr
SDE (Strong-side defensive end) is the pass rush specialist but also called upon to maintain edge containment with run-stop responsibilities. This is the glory position of the group. With headlines comes requirements. Winning one-on-one battles against offensive tackles is a skill set similar to a power forward on the hardwood. Both require individual moves, confidence, and fortitude. Sacking the quarterback is as much about attitude as technique and ability. SEC height-weight standard varies, but 6’4, 260-plus is standard.
Projected starter: Farrington Huguenin, 6’4 272 Sr
5 Reasons Why the 3-4 Makes Sense
1. Recruiting. Recruiting defensive ends is a difficult proposition. 4-3 scheme requires two DE’s compared to one designated pass rusher in the 3-4. Simple mathematics apply. DE’s also take time to develop. Example, 2015 class included one DE, Kengera Daniel who will be special in time. Defensive Line Coach Jimmy Brumbaugh’s late signing of junior college defensive linemen Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell will provide an immediate impact. DE’s are valued commodities. With recruiting battles over these prized possessions imminent, UK’s best course of action is sign one-two HS DE’s and one JUCO player per year.
2. Abundance of Tweeners. Kentucky’s roster is littered with defenders formally designated as defensive ends that are now listed as outside linebackers. Jason Hatcher, Denzil Ware, and true freshman Josh Allen come to mind. An additional, common tweener move is transitioning larger safeties to LB. Through the recruiting process, linebackers are often identified as Athletes first then moved to OLB out of necessity. Kentucky has a successful track record in this process.
3. In the Middle, Bigger is Better. Enormous, space eating nose tackles are required. UK has two. Potential All SEC DL Melvin Lewis is one of the most improved players in the Southeastern Conference. Listed at 6’4, 342 (cough) Lewis is disruptive and a timely pass rusher. Melvin’s 2015’s effectiveness lies in Matt Elam’s progress. The celebrated recruit experienced several “welcome to the SEC” moments. If Elam can provide consistent depth and quality minutes, expect a much improved run defense.
4. Immediate Support. Four linebackers takes immediate pressure off the strong safety (SS) and cornerback (CB) positions. Both 2015 concerns. One of the SS’s primary goals is close to the line of scrimmage run support. Through simple LB alignment, stress is relieved for immediate action freeing up whomever wins the SS race to pass coverage especially in play action scenarios. As for cornerbacks, same can be applied. 3-4 specializes in stretching offensive plays horizontally relying upon LB’s to make the majority of tackles. Again, having an additional LB in flat coverage and run support will free up cornerbacks to primarily focus on pass coverage. I can’t help to think this wasn’t a significant part of the scheme change.
5. Identity. Defensively, Kentucky is at an identity juncture. Historically, the Cats have tried, and failed to over-power conference opponents. Being a fast and aggressive unit better fits current culture. Building a roster with organic flexibility for inter-changeable parts is simpler in the 3-4. Most importantly, this team needs to take on the personality and identity of its Head Coach. Tackling and physicality are non-negotiable and required upgrades. Commitment to the 3-4 does not guarantee either. Personnel upgrade does. Schematic consistency builds confidence and familiarity. At the University of Kentucky, an attacking defense is more likely to succeed than the 4-3 that leans upon reading and reacting. In a league of Alpha predators, UK has to be the aggressor. In 2015 and going forward, the 3-4 is the best fit for Kentucky and I feel is more suited for its current roster.
I’m not a coach, nor am I a writer. I provide opinion. Hope it doesn’t stink.