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Should UK Switch to a 4-3 Defense?

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Midway through fall camp, the word from everyone around the football program is that the Cats will be improved.  At this point, offensive improvement under Eddie Gran is a forgone conclusion.  He has a talented roster featuring quality depth all over, particularly at the skill positions.  The assistant coaches working under him on offense are upgrades over their predecessors, so we should see better developed players this season.  Perhaps most importantly, Gran has a plan for what he wants to do with the football, a stark contrast to the nonsensical play-calling we were subjected to last season.  I believe Gran’s unit will reflect the characteristics of their leader, operating with purpose and discipline.  This should bring increased productivity – specifically better down-distance situations, sustained drives, and ultimately more points on the board.  While scoring more points will undoubtedly make the team more fun to watch, it may not equate to more wins if the defense doesn’t also take a step forward in 2016.

Given his experience and expertise on that side of the ball, I think BBN had high hopes of becoming a defensive force when Mark Stoops was hired.  That has simply not come close to happening.  The defense has yet to really become a factor in his time at UK.  Some would argue that Stoops should have brought in an experienced defensive coordinator – either when he was hired, or even before this season – but that’s a debate for a different post.  DJ Eliot is our DC, so we need him to raise his group’s level of play this season.  We may be able to win six games on offensive improvements alone, but if we want to become a team capable of pulling off some upsets the defense must also make significant improvements.  I believe our best chance to progress on defense is to switch to a 4-3 base package.  

I have never been a fan of the 3-4 alignment because UK hasn’t had the quality depth at linebacker necessary to play this defense effectively.  But if the coaches are committed to the 3-4, then they should commit to it.  I would disagree with that decision, but at least it would be a decision.  Instead, the defensive coaches like to refer to our system as “multiple.”  Multiple is a nice theory, like we can just magically morph into whatever defense the opposition struggles against.  But that is just a theory — in reality, multiple means we aren’t really good at anything so we try a lot of different things and hope something works.   Multiple seems like an empty buzzword, like we don’t have anything to hang our hat on so let’s just say we’re multiple.  Multiple, to me, means no identity.  I bet Shannon Dawson uses the word “multiple” to describe his offensive attack.  I think that the Cats’ defense needs to find an identity if they are going to improve in 2016, and the best base identity for us defensively is the 4-3.

Kentucky’s secondary should be good no matter what defensive front we play, but the front seven will need a little more help being effective.  My argument for playing a 4-3 is built around getting UK’s best frontline defenders more opportunities to influence the game.  Matt Elam and Courtney Miggins could both be more productive playing alongside each other as tackles in the interior of the defensive line; Elam could eat the blockers while Miggins applied pressure and created push up the middle.  Denzil Ware could be a superstar on the edge.  I don’t want my best pass rusher trying to play pass coverage; I want him creating chaos on the edge all the time, which he could do as a full time 4-3 defensive end.  I think Eli Brown could be the next great tackling machine at UK, but his best chance to prove me right would be roaming sideline to sideline as a Woodyard-type weak side 4-3 linebacker.  The 4-3 would put our most talented linemen and linebackers in the best position to make plays.

While I am against a multiple scheme, I am all for players who are versatile.  The Cats on the roster who can make an impact from different spots on the field need to be put in position to do so.  I think the 4-3 allows us to more fully utilize the talent we do have in the front seven.  If we need to get bigger against the run we can bring in another big body beside Matt Elam in the middle and push Miggins to DE to help set the edge.  With pass rush expected to be a problem this season, we need to get our best pass rushers on the line with their hand in the ground when the time comes.  Guys like De’niro Laster or Josh Allen, who would be outside linebackers primarily in the 4-3, could slide up to defensive end opposite Ware and wreak havoc on opposing QB’s in obvious passing situations.  The 4-3 defense gives Kentucky’s best players more opportunities to make momentum-turning plays. 

Mark Stoops is twelve days from kickoff in what is universally viewed as the make or break season for his UK coaching career.  I really believe he will get the job done this year.  The roster is now full of his recruits, he has finally surrounded himself with his coaches, and after the unveiling of the new practice facility he has officially put his stamp on the program.  Put simply, this is his team.  Mark Stoops has put this program in position to turn the corner; now all that is left to do is improve on the field and in the win column.  To do so, the defense must take a step forward this year.  Stoops has more riding on this season than anyone, so I’m sure that he and his staff will put us in whatever situation they believe gives us the best chance to succeed.  I believe the 4-3  gives the Cats defense its best opportunity to have success in 2016.  What do you think?

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Article written by Brad Sherman

24 Comments for Should UK Switch to a 4-3 Defense?

  1. CB3UK
    9:53 pm August 22, 2016 Permalink

    First, well written column. A break of fresh air on here for us football fans amongst all all the other fluff on KSR these days.

    Secondly, I’m in complete agreement. We have always struggled when we’ve tried to use 3-4 schemes here because we never have the quality LB we need to run it effectively. Mike Archer tried to implement it as I recall with disastrous results. If Stoops is going for it then he needs to stick with it and recruit like hell to make it work.

  2. shelby
    10:28 pm August 22, 2016 Permalink

    Disagree; this staff is recruiting its ass off; we’ve sufferered some key personnel losses, but we’re headed in the right direction. If the staff believes in the 3-4, we need to keep building towards it. We have good YOUNG talent. IF Matt Elam would live up to his potential it would greatly improve our overall defense and take pressure off the linebackers.

    • 3dcatfan
      10:45 pm August 22, 2016 Permalink

      5 OL going against a 3 man front is going to take a lot more than Elam producing. All 3 better be studs or the linebackers will have their hands full.

  3. 3dcatfan
    10:43 pm August 22, 2016 Permalink

    Finally a well written football article that makes total sense. Joker and Brooks defense their last 3 yrs out performed Stoops (with better recruits) his 1st 3 yrs. The 3-4 is weak against the run and in a run happy league you’re doomed, unless you have a bunch of studs and we don’t! There’s a reason why most CFB programs primarily run a 4 man defensive front.

  4. Angelo
    1:14 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    Agree 4-3 is our only hope. Elam is no nose tackle. Stoops should ask Brooks for advice!

  5. GroundControlToNumber9
    4:48 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    Defenses should keep offenses guessing. The best ones always do.

    I think your criticism of the defensive scheme being chosen is short sided because it’s demanding a decision. This is Stoops “show or go” year (4th recruiting class – so all the players are his). If your going to criticize him it has to be “this years team” with his scheme as that’s the best view of a future with him.

    Granted, Barnhart will ride any pony he picks until it starts showing up drunk on golf courses at 2am in the morning. So you never know if Stoops will get a 5th year regardless of the record this year.

  6. tnlongdrvr
    8:33 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    In my opinion, the iinebacker corp is one of the deepest position on the team(albeit young). I feel like when the linebackers get their feet on the round, it will be one of the better units. the linebackers are some of the best atheletes on the team also, stud linebackers are much easier to recruit than stud. defensive linemen. if we have a team that gets good linebacker play, you see a much improved bring up that the defense under m archer never developed. the reason it failed becaue we did not have quality linebackers, jmo

    • Sentient Third Eye
      9:09 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

      The linebackers are deep in numbers, but thin on experience. Hanging them out to dry in the 3-4 may do more harm than good. Perhaps it would be better to play more 4-3 early, and gradually switch to more 3-4 as the young guys mature?

  7. Sentient Third Eye
    9:07 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    I love the 3-4 as a defense, but it puts the onus on the linebackers, and we are particularly thin at that position. It makes sense to use more 4-3 for that reason, though since our multiple defense incorporates both, it’s really just a matter of adjusting the percentages that we are in each.

  8. CrazyCayts
    9:49 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    Agree and Disagree…. you are right in saying we don’t have the quality depth at linebacker for a 3-4, but I would argue we certainly dont have enough quality depth at DL to run an effective 4-3. Teams that run a 3-4 are typically fast/ athletic defenses that attempt to defend offenses that spread the ball around (which is exactly what the teams who we need to beat tend to do. Even Bama is trending toward that style with Lane Kiffin). We run a 3-4 but we are also using one LB slot as a “hybrid” position to help the pass rush so at times, we are basically running a 4-3 anyways. I agree with the whole “Multiple Defense” malarkey;even though several NFL defenses are now a “Multiple Defense”, the difference is, they have the athletes to do so effectively.

  9. BluKudzu
    9:51 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    Any coach anywhere, will tell you stopping the run, is an absolute must. The 3-4 since it has been deployed by this staff and this DC, has given up over 5 yards per carry to opposing teams.

    This defense has been nothing more than a Heisman highlight reel on continuous loop every weekend for the opponents backs and ends throughout every season.

    It does not matter if this defense can show multiple sets. So far it has shown how inept this 3-4 system can be. Anyone remember 31 straight from Louisville last year? multiple looks but “we did not prepare for that.”

    Whatever. thus far you can’t convince me this is the “direction we need to go with this team and this DC.

  10. Glenn Fohr
    10:00 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    How I wish we would go 4-3. I hated to see Bud Dupree out in pass defense when clearly he was our best pass rusher. I don’t want Ware to have to do the same thing.

    • Brad Sherman
      11:12 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

      Denzil Ware is really the single biggest reason I think 4-3 would be better. I too hated to see Bud wasted in coverage.

  11. CrazyCayts
    10:01 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    We talk about out defense like it is the worst thing to ever step out on a football field, granted its not great but honestly, how many times in the past three seasons could we go back and say “If we could have just scored on that drive would would have won”. You could make the argument that our defense has actually been better than given credit for, if you look back, there are several games they did their part in and kept it close enough for us to win if our offense would have just scored!!!

    • theWilkman
      10:43 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

      Very good point. I don’t care how good your defense is, a full season where your offense can barely muster more than a 3 and out will wear you down. I’m surprised we’ve been as good as we were.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      11:12 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

      And, as I have pointed out a number of times, the defense looked worse than it really was because the offense kept going three-and-out, which fatigued the defensive players often before halftime even.

  12. houndstooth
    10:20 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    Do we have enough D lineman to run a 4-3? We will have injuries and we will have less lineman as the season goes on. So what choice does Stoops have? Use 3 lineman and blitz a linebacker every play essentially running a 4-3? I don’t think we have the size at DL to run a 4-3 so we put more speed on the field running a 3-4. We probably don’t have the size at DL to run a 3-4 but at least we get more speed on the field. I just don’t see how we have enough DL for a 4-3.

    • Brad Sherman
      11:19 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

      I see where you’re coming from with this argument. In order for the 4-3 to work we would actually be moving some OLBs from the 3-4 (most notably Denzil Ware) to DE – some full time and some situationally for the pass rush. I know there isn’t a perfect answer with this group, but I just think the 4-3 would be better. Definitely room for discussion on this issue though.

    • BluKudzu
      12:53 pm August 23, 2016 Permalink

      I totally agree with the numbers of bodies that could play, but currently we don’t have the quality depth it takes to run the 3-4. Keeping this defense on the field, kills you in traps, counter traps, pulling guards, tight end sets and full backs lead blocking out of the back field. These are the plays when we had the opponents in third and long, and they converted. Add a mobile QB, and he gets to the edge, game over.

      This defense, thus far, has not been able to contain, for whatever reason. With three guys up front, we just give up too many yards per carry, and get no pressure on the QB. Is the fourth guy with his hand on the ground the answer? I don’t know. What I do know is giving up over 5 yards per carry to the opposing team is not going to win very many games.

      We have done it the same way for three years, without the players or the depth. I get commitment to a system, how about commitment to a better defense than what we have had? Something needs to be tweaked, and I think if they move some LBs up closer than the typical 3-5 yards of the LOS, good things can happen for us.

  13. theWilkman
    10:38 am August 23, 2016 Permalink

    Well written but there’s one glaring weakness to your argument – DL is our weakest and thinnest position. Adding another to the field when we will struggle to find 3 quality starters is not a recipe for success. And as great as I believe Stoops and Company’s recruiting has been, there just aren’t that many DL available to recruit as there are LBs. We can more easily identify sleepers and late-bloomers at the LB position than we can convince top DL recruits to forego Alabama, LSU, etc.

    • BluKudzu
      1:21 pm August 23, 2016 Permalink

      I like your comment. Pretty smart assessment, actually. But the problem is, building a team, with a 3-4 defense. It is true that we struggle to get the big guys here to play, and even more so using the 3-4.
      From what I understand, there are few HS teams that have the luxury of the 3-4. Plus, DTs at the high school level really are not interested in playing a 3-4, due to the high risk of injury with so many people behind you, and so many more in front of you.

      Adding one more player with his hand on the ground, makes a huge difference. Huge difference, when you are already playing a scheme, you do not have the players for. Recruiting for a four man front becomes a bit easier, as you are looking for something a bit different, and more plentiful.

  14. CatsGrad04
    3:13 pm August 23, 2016 Permalink

    I agree that unless you’re two- to three-deep at every position being multiple is a pipe dream. I disagree with most every other assessment. The only chance that the 2016 iteration of Kentucky defense has at forging an identity is via the 3-4. Lack of DL depth and athletic, if undersized, LBs force our hand here. If Matt Elam isn’t a prototypical zero tech for a 3-4 then one doesn’t exist; moreover, if he’s as effective as we’ve been waiting for him to be, then our implementation of a 3-4 has the potential to be downright dangerous. If he’s not then his upside is even further mitigated as a 3 technique, where his inability to take on a double team (which represents almost entirely the value proposition of an effective zero tech) becomes even more troublesome. In addition, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having, say, Ware drop into coverage from his OLB position if he’s capable; no top-caliber player just edge rushes every play lest he become really, really easy for any OC worth his paycheck to exploit. I wish it weren’t this way. I’d always rather see a 4-3 than a 3-4, but in this case the personnel just doesn’t support it. To see a 4-3’s artistry in motion, watch what Michigan will do under Don Brown this season and note the relative inexperience of their linebackers. Then note the size, speed and, most importantly, depth at DL (they’ll literally run 9-deep). Add Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers, and not only will Michigan be able to beat most teams without sending a LB or getting into exotics (which they still will), they’ll be positive on defensive splash plays (turnovers, sacks, TILs, TDs). I bring up Michigan because it’s a perfect example of how far UK still needs to go to be able to live in a 4-3.

    • Brad Sherman
      3:58 pm August 23, 2016 Permalink

      All good points, CatsGrad04. I know I mentioned Elam showing better with someone like Miggins butted up against him in a 4-3, but your mention of Elam here brings up a counterpoint I hadn’t even thought of when I originally posted. For UK to play the 3-4, Matt Elam HAS to be effective…and I don’t know anyone who can say with any kind of certainty that he will be, not even in short doses. And if he’s not effective at a zero technique in the 3-4, then it becomes even more important – in my mind – to have two guys plugging that gap in the middle, not one. For instance, it may prove better to have a combo of two of Elam/Dubose/Middleton/Miggins working to plug the middle then having Elam in there getting pushed around in a 3-4. The 3-4 could be a splashier defense given our personnel because we have some young talent at LB. I still believe the 4-3 would be our best bet to play solid defense, and it would put our most explosive defenders up front – Ware, Allen, and I guess Miggins on the D Line – in the best position to influence the game. And to me, Ware has Bud Dupree potential no matter where you play him. I know he can’t just rush the QB every down, but I do believe given the players he is surrounded with he would be more beneficial to our team as a 4-3 DE than as an OLB in the 3-4. But again, there is no perfect answer given our depth issues in all of the front seven, so we’re all likely just picking between the lesser of two evils in this case.

    • BluKudzu
      3:59 pm August 23, 2016 Permalink

      Great post, I like it. However, as you had stated, Elam needs to get there and soon. Your assessment of this defense to be scary was followed by 3 “ifs”.
      I do not think you would bet on the 3-4 success based on if.
      The current personnel may not support a 4-3, yet the current personnel has not supported 3-4 either.
      I totally get sticking to a system, but how long do you go before you realize it will not work? 4 years, 5 years? More?
      I also agree hardly anyone rushes every play from the edge, but having no way yo seal or contain has killed us every year. You don’t need to bring it, you need to keep it inside, and this defense has not done it.
      Seriously great post. You made excellent points
      If Matt Elam gets it done we have a chance. IF.