As offensive philosophies continue to evolve and coaching staffs attempt to create mismatches against defenses, a fundamental shift has occurred in the type of personnel defenses use.
At Arizona State, head coach Todd Graham has tried to stay ahead of the curve with his defensive game plans, operating out of a base defense with a heavier front against run-first opponents and deploying a nickel defense with an extra defensive back on the field against pass-first, spread-offense opponents.
In the past, substitutions allowed defenses to track opponents' personnel packages and rotate between a base defense and a nickel look to avoid disadvantages as offenses packed three, four or even five receivers on the field. With the proliferation of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses aimed at preventing substitution opportunities for defenses, coaches like Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have been forced to rethink their scheme.
To counter against spread offenses with downhill rushing attacks and Pro-style sets incorporating Air-Raid passing concepts, ASU is determined to be more multiple defensively this season, meaning it needs to adjust its personnel accordingly.
The days when teams could effectively roll out a trio of 230-to-250 pound linebackers on an every down basis passed by a decade ago, but over the past few seasons, the effectiveness of the traditional nickel defense has slowly begun to fade.
Because spread offenses have determined successful tactics for running the ball against nickel defense packages, defenses are beginning to counter with perhaps the only balancing act they have left: The hybrid defender.
Hybrid defenders are the new wave of defensive X-factors -- players who can run and cover slot receivers and tight ends like a cornerback, but thump through combo blocks and punish ball carriers like a linebacker. Instead of tipping the scales at 240 pounds, these players typically check in around 200-to-215 pounds, caught somewhere in between the ideal frame for a front-seven bruiser and the prototypical bump and run corner.
Some hybrid defenders are born stars, position-less wonders like the Arizona Cardinals' Deone Bucannon and Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, but some hail from the Island of Misfit Toys, teetering between roles and never quite finding a home.
At ASU, the Spur linebacker is the position geared for hybrid defenders, and sophomore Tyler Whiley is the latest Sun Devil giving the role a shot.
Currently weighing in between 200 and 205 pounds, Whiley began his career with the Sun Devils as a receiver, before switching to cornerback. A four-star recruit out of Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Whiley is the type of local product who's success can help shape ASU's in-state recruiting narrative. But to find that success, Whiley first has to find a position.
"It (Spur) gives me a chance to be involved in the run, and also the pass," Whiley said. "I feel like I’m a bigger type of DB, so it feels good to be in the run a little bit. I can cover as well, so I think it helps.”
For the past two seasons, senior Laiu Moeakiola started at the Spur linebacker spot, and the 6-foot-1, 207 pounder manned the hybrid defender role with a game-changing presence. When Moeakiola was in the game, Graham considered him one of ASU's most pivotal defenders, but when injuries got the best of him, Moeakiola's absence left ASU searching for a new way to combat opposing offenses.
Moeakiola's injury history is an underlying problem to the conundrum every defensive coordinator faces. If game planning against the spread was as simple as moving a 205-pound safety into the box, the onus would be on offensive coordinators to reinvent the wheel. But finding the right hybrid defender isn't that easy, and it's not always that obvious.
Even though Whiley has the body type of a Spur linebacker, ASU coaches weren't sure what to make of him during his first two seasons. A player who could rely on athleticism ahead of work ethic at the high school level, Whiley is one of the first to admit his development as a player first required maturation as a person.
"He (Whiley) just really came back a different guy. It just sometimes takes kids a little bit to mature and he's really matured mentally, and I think physically he's developed himself," Graham said. "He's faster, and it means something, he wants to play. He's been one of the bright spots of this camp. A guy that has turned it around and still has a lot of work to do. But a guy that I'm really proud of and have a lot of confidence right now."
Over the past two weeks, Whiley has burst onto the scene with ASU's first-team defense, earning repetitions at Spur linebacker and at nickel corner. A player who once appeared destined to spend his college career on the outside looking in changed his attitude, changed his position, and now seemingly is poised to change his fortune.
“It’s kind of just like finding an opportunity for me to play," Whiley said. "I was corner, safety, I played receiver, everything like that. So, I’m hoping for any opportunity to get on the field and help my team.”
Whiley didn't become a Spur linebacker overnight, but after handling opportunities to play nickel cornerback, the 6-foot defender forced the hand of ASU coaches looking for a missing piece to the schematic puzzle.
"Nickel helped me out a lot, because nickel is pretty much like a Spur," Whiley said. "Just showing that I can make plays on the inside and make tackles and things like that.”
On Wednesday, Patterson wasn't ready to commit to calling Whiley a starter in ASU's defense. But the coordinator did suggest a player with Whiley's build has a role for the Sun Devils, especially as they deploy sub-packages to derail offensive mismatches.
"You know, who knows, it's one of those things, we're a sub-package defense anyway and I mean, we're going to match personnel depending on what we're seeing," Patterson said. "We've got a lot of guys that I think can play and perform well there (at Spur)."
A decade ago, Whiley might have been too big to play corner and too small to play linebacker. But as spread offenses look for new ways to exploit defenses inside the box, a coach's ability to think outside of one with a player like Whiley could be the key to defensive success.
“He (Whiley) has position flexibility and he’s a smart kid that can handle the changes,” ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said. “A ball player, and we’re trying to get him on the grass.”