Breaking down the 3-3-5 defense

With the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, Arizona will likely use the 3-3-5 defense in the future. Read on to see how that defense fits the current Arizona team and what to expect from the 3-3-5.

With Rich Rodriguez taking over as the head coach at Arizona, changes to both the offensive and defensive philosophies currently employed by the Wildcats are on the way.

On defense, the 4-3 look will be abandoned in favor of what is known as the 3-3-5, an alignment made famous by Rodriguez during his West Virginia days. Defenses that employ this formations sacrifice a bit of size for speed, and high-levels of athleticism are required from all 11 players on the field.

The 3-3-5 is all about creating pressure and on the opposing offensive line, as it utilizes endless blitz combinations and misdirection with its speed, with the goal being to create problems and confusion in blocking assignments.

Along the defensive line, the three defensive tackles are charged with controlling running lanes by occupying linemen while also creating pressure on the quarterback on passing downs. Their primary objective is to eat up space and prevent the opposing team's linemen from reaching the linebackers and defensive backs to allow them to flow to the ball and make the play.

On the roster, Sione Tuihalamaka, Kirifi Taula, and Justin Washington are all good fits, with Reggie Gilbert having the opportunity to come in on obvious passing downs to create more pressure. Each has the size to occupy opposing linemen and the ability to get after the quarterback when necessary.

The outside linebackers in the 3-3-5 scheme have to be very versatile and possess the ability to drop into pass coverage and make tackles in the running game. Their responsibilities vary from play to play, an it's up to them to make a quick read and adjust recognize their job almost immediately.

On passing downs, it's often times the outside linebackers that are applying the edge pressure, so they have to have the ability to engage offensive linemen and shed those blocks to get to the quarterback.

After breaking out in the 4-3 scheme with his tackling and pass coverage abilities, Tra'Mayne Bondurant has an opportunity to be a very effective outside linebacker in the 3-3-5 as a sophomore.

An interesting player in this scheme is Dame Ndiaye, who is currently redshirting as a defensive end. However, Ndiaye has the foot speed to make the transition to outside linebacker and actually be very effective at it. A former track athlete in high school, it will be interesting to see what Rodriguez decides to do with Ndiaye and what position he'll put him at.

From Mike Stoops' 2012 recruiting class, Rodriguez has a pair of players who would likely excel in his system. Irvine (Calif.) Woodbridge High School outside linebacker/defensive end Kyle Kelley has good speed and excels at getting after the quarterback, and he's exactly the type of player that Rodriguez would be able to mold into an effective outside linebacker in the 3-3-5 scheme.

Rodriguez should make it a priority to re-secure the verbal of Spring (Tex.) Klein Oak High School A.J. Hilliard. While he's a smaller linebacker, Hilliard's strengths are his speed and ability to disengage blocks and would have a chance to compete for playing time as a true freshman due to his physical maturity and his being an ideal fit for the defense.

In the 3-3-5, the middle linebacker's job is to shed blocks while flowing to the ball and make plays on the ball carrier. With the defensive line occupying the offensive line, the middle linebacker must be a sure tackler with a nose for the football.

Jake Fischer will be returning from injury after registering 58 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and he'll be on track to be an impact player at middle linebacker in Rodriguez's system. If he's able to pick up the scheme quickly, it's likely that sophomore Rob Hankins would be given a chance well due to his speed, tackling ability, and nose for the football.

For the cornerbacks, the only thing that changes from the 4-3 to the 3-3-5 is a switch from man-to-man defense to zone. The UA defense will get a huge boost from the return of Jonathan McKnight from his knee injury, with Shaquille Richardson, Cortez Johnson and Jourdon Grandon holding down the opposite corner spot.

The major changes in the scheme are coming for the safeties. In the 3-3-5, Rodriguez will use two strong safeties and a free safety, all three of which have to be very versatile and be able to do just about everything on the field.

The strong safeties have to be the most versatile athletes on the field, as they are required to play in pass coverage, as well as be able to provide support in the run game. The strong safeties have a lot of duties in pass defense, but they also have to have the ability to play some middle linebacker if the unit switches into the 3-4 scheme.

Arizona played a version of the 3-3-5 defense in Saturday's game against Arizona State, and Marquis Flowers spent a lot of the game down in the box at linebacker. That experience, while limited, should help him adapt to his new role in 2012. And with the return of Adam Hall from his injuries, UA should have a pair of strong safeties that are well-suited for Rodriguez's system.

Finally, the free safety in the 3-3-5 scheme is regarded as the smartest and most explosive player on the defense. In zone coverage, the free safety has a lot of chances to make plays on passes down field for interceptions.

While a free safety option may have to emerge during spring practice, any of the three cornerback options may be given a chance to learn the position.

The 2012 recruiting class has some intriguing options as well, as Inglewood (Calif.) High School defensive back Devian Shelton is known for his playmaking abilities as well as his versatility. Since all of the defensive backs will start from scratch, Shelton has a chance to come in right away and compete for playing time.

Rodriguez should also look to get San Antonio Sam Houston High School defensive back Leo Thomas back in the fold. Thomas is well-known for his playmaking prowess and is the type of player that would excel as a free safety in Arizona's new defense.

While new faces will be brought in with the 2012 recruiting class, Arizona has the players already on the roster to make a smooth transition from the 4-3 to the 3-3-5 defense. It may take some time to pick the scheme up, but the speed and opportunity for playmakers to make their impact on the game will allow Rodriguez's new scheme to make a splash in 2012.


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