Effort 101: TBS Primer on Mendenhall's Defense

<i>(<b>EDITOR'S NOTE</b>: This in-depth defensive feature was printed in the 2004 spring issue of <b>TOTAL BLUE SPORTS</b> magazine.)</i> <P> The 2003 BYU football season was notable for a number of reasons, both good and bad. Perhaps the most noteworthy event was the complete overhaul of the defensive scheme.

Bronco Mendenhall, the newly hired defensive coordinator, orchestrated arguably the most dramatic defensive turnaround in BYU history, transforming essentially the same group of players in one year the 69th-ranked defensive unit nationally to the No. 14 overall NCAA defensive ranking in the country.

How can we explain this amazing new success on defense? Upon arrival, Bronco implemented a new 3-3-5 defensive scheme noted for its aggressive nature. More importantly, he introduced a new mindset and expectations that represented a dramatic new paradigm shift in BYU's defensive philosophy: "If you hit them hard enough, anyone will put the ball on the ground." Pure vintage Bronco Mendenhall.

The cornerstone of Bronco's defensive philosophy is mental toughness. He insists all his players go all-out on EVERY play. Every football program, regardless of level, expects its players to try hard on every play, but sometimes they get lazy, complacent and simply go through the motions.

If that happens in this defensive scheme, and the offense happens to run a play in that area, Bronco's defense is extremely vulnerable. He's aware of that, so he trains his players using specific drills that instill mental toughness and fanatical effort during every minute of every practice and every down of every game.

With that intensity and toughness drilled into them, his players either deliver that all-out "effort" or they are watching the game from the sideline. Effort is a word used by all coaches, but when Bronco uses it, it takes on new meaning. That's how he lives his life. He passionately believes in the concept and demands his players believe it as well.

Bronco is known for spending however long it takes on a basic tackling drill to ensure his players are ready for the next level. If they don't show the effort, they simply don't play. He wants players that lack egos, but have confidence that they will get the job done. He doesn't put up with prima donnas and those in search of the spotlight.

Last year, Bronco told TOTAL BLUE SPORTS in an interview, "What I'm looking for is all out fanatical effort from my players. If a player is just talented, then that won't earn him playing time in my system. I need players that are willing to give me the effort necessary for this system to work."

Another issue involved with effort is swarm tackling. If Bronco sees one person dogging it to the ball, they are yanked: All-American or not. He emphasizes that all 11 players rush to the ball, even if the tackle happens right away and the play has ended. If a player doesn't jump up and sprint all out to the pile, he will be pulled off the field.

Bronco is especially careful to spend time coaching the little things that make a big difference. For instance, whenever there is a fumble, all 11 players, as well as his players on the sidelines, must immediately point for a fumble in their favor, even if it appears the other team has the ball. It may be a simple part of the game, but he has gotten balls back that shouldn't have been his. His players are coached to instinctively remember the smallest details that can make a difference in the outcome of a play, or even the game.

Details like this are obviously important, but often overlooked at the college level. Many coaches believe that concentrating on "the basics" is a waste of time and the players should know how to react already. The fact is that experienced players are just as capable of getting complacent as their coaches. Bronco is always on guard against this complacency and ruthlessly stamps it out at the first opportunity.

The most obvious difference between Bronco's defense and traditional schemes is the use of five defensive backs in the base set. The most unusual feature is the use of two strong safeties called "Katbacks" or "Kats," who are often near the line of scrimmage and are used to contain the outside by either pass rushing against offensive tackles or taking on lead blockers out of the backfield.

This versatility means the Katbacks are often the toughest, most athletic players on the field. They often go unnoticed, but end up making noise with their sack statistics.

Other differences include the alignment of the players and how often they change. With the old defense employed by BYU (4-3), many opponents knew the exact set they would see 99 percent of the game. With Bronco's new defense, they see multiple sets and lots of stunting/blitzing. More specifically, they often don't know where the pass rush is coming from.

Any good defense begins with control of the gaps between players along the defensive line. The two gaps on either side of the Center are known as the "A" gap. The two gaps between both offensive guards and tackles are known as the "B" gap. The one or two gaps between the tackle and tight end on either side are known as the "C" gap. Every defense's goal is to control these gaps. Similarly, it is through these gaps that an offense often attempts to attack the defense.

With Bronco's base defensive line usually consisting of three players, it is their responsibility to control the gaps they are assigned. If they don't, his defense will not work.

For the most part, the defensive line are almost like linebackers in that they try to get through their gap as fast as possible, under control, and must still ensure the ball doesn't run right past them. Consequently, you will frequently see contact with the offensive line as they are making their way to the gap. Keep in mind that Bronco is, in no way, limited by how many players he puts on the line of scrimmage and will occasionally employ four or five man fronts based on the situation.

The nose tackle often is responsible for one of the "A" gaps. Usually, the middle linebacker or one of the defensive ends will have responsibility over the other "A" gap. More often than not, the defensive tackle is the stud of the line in Bronco's scheme, not getting much attention because of the load they take on in double teams, getting trap blocked, etc.

Consequently, they are not involved in a lot of sacks or big tackles and the glory goes to the defensive ends, linebackers or secondary players.

The defensive end's base responsibility is lining up correctly. They often line up REALLY wide, usually on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. However, they often do not rush that "C" gap.

When an offense looks at BYU's defensive line set, they often get excited because they see one nose tackle over the center and a HUGE gap between him and the defensive ends, lined up WAY outside on the offensive tackles' outside shoulder.

And herein lays the deception of Bronco's effective scheme. The prototypical defensive end, in this scheme, is almost like a linebacker, requiring unusual quickness to reach his assigned gap on each play. Often, you will see him come all the way across both the offensive tackles and the offensive guards face to smash into the "A" gap and man it.

Other times, he will take either the "B" or "C" gaps as well. The defensive end position is very difficult to play against in this defense because you have no idea which gap he is going to attempt to take. If you are an offensive tackle and try to mirror him into the "B" gap, you will most likely run into the offensive guard next to you.

In the meantime, a blitzing linebacker or Kat is blitzing into the "C" gap that the defensive end was lined up in before the ball is snapped, thus causing the offensive play to break down.

Bronco's linebackers are generally responsible for filling their gap responsibilities up front. They often rely on the defensive line to take on traps and double teams so they can get through their assigned gaps.

In addition, the linebackers will often drop into pass coverage, filling holes for blitzing Kats. The linebackers also cover running backs out of the backfield and, in certain sets, have outside containment responsibilities. In Bronco's defense, speed and sure tackling skills are the most important attribute required by linebackers.

The "Katbacks" or "Kats" in his defense are most similar to the traditional strong safety. They drop back into pass coverage and line up closer to the line of scrimmage than the free safety (Cougarback) plays. They are jacks-of-all trades, when it comes to their skills.

Unlike a traditional strong safety, they are taught pass rushing against the offensive line as well. No matter their size, they are expected to get around the corner on offensive tackles and sack the quarterback often. In addition, they will drop back into coverage in both man and zone (deep) coverage.

The cornerback or the "Gunners" main responsibility is to prevent wide receivers from going deep on them. They often play man coverage and must excel at it. They are the key to helping stop the pass. With strong cover corners, this defense becomes nearly unbeatable, as the rest of the players can focus on stopping the run.

If the "Gunners" are weak, the defense must compensate by opening lanes up front and allow the Kats and linebackers to get to the quarterback early and often. Gunners don't have a large responsibility in stopping the run since they don't blitz often. Their first priority is making sure the wide receiver doesn't go deep on them, and then stop the run.

You will often see BYU's "Gunners" as the last men to the ball because of this, but it's still required by Bronco. If a "Gunner" beats another defender to the pile, that defender is often yanked because there is no reason a "Gunner," who is the furthest from the ball at times, should beat that player.

The Cougarback position is one that Chicago Bears All-Pro linebacker, Brian Urlacher, made famous as a standout defensive player for Bronco at New Mexico. There is a misconception that the Cougarback has to be someone of the same mold as Urlacher. That is simply not true.

Urlacher arrived at UNM as a 190-pound free safety out of high school. He had loads of speed and hit like a truck. Over the years at New Mexico, he played Loboback, but kept growing while still maintaining his speed. His increased size was not an issue for UNM and they kept him there.

The Cougarback is often the best tackler of the defensive backs, with an innate ability to sniff out the ball like a good linebacker, but he also must have the ability to help out either "Gunner" on the deep ball. Often, the Cougarback will have the most tackles on the team because he is relied on to make tackles if a gap is not filled.

It is true that the Cougarback is a key position because he is the last line of defense and often has to fill holes up front when a defensive weakness has been identified or a gap is unfilled. Aside from that, it's hard to identify a "key" position because this defense relies so much on team effort; if one person does not keep their assignment, the entire defense could be exposed to a long gain. Every position has key assignments to fulfill.

The "Gunners" are critical because they are often locked in man-to-man pass coverage with hardly any help deep. In a traditional defense, most corners have help from one of the safeties.

The defensive line is important because they are responsible for creating havoc up front, confusing the offensive line enough to open lanes for the blitzing linebackers and Kats to come in and make big plays. The defensive line doesn't get much recognition, stat-wise in this defense, but anyone that appreciates good defense and understands it, can appreciate their critical role. Bronco does.

The linebackers are vital because at least one of them will be blitzing on every play and they are often called on to help fill in pass coverage for the areas that the Kats vacate when they blitz. This is why Bronco traditionally doesn't care for overly large linebackers – like BYU has typically recruited in the past. He'd rather have them quick and nimble, so we can expect to see a lot of linebackers come into the program around 220 pounds range and not much bigger. The one exception may be the middle linebacker.

The Kats are equally critical and are arguably the toughest players on the team because they are called on to do pretty much everything that every other position on the team does. They will drop into deep pass coverage on one play and cover a speedy receiver, then on the next play will be up stunting on the line of scrimmage, ready to take on a 300 pound offensive tackle in a pass rush.

In this defense, they develop the best all-around skills, having to learn pass rush moves as well as good pass coverage technique.

Bronco takes a lot of pride in utilizing smaller players. You will hear him mention, "I have this linebacker that is only about 215 pounds, but hits with the best of them." He loves underdogs. This goes with his philosophy of rewarding hard-working walk-ons with lots of playing time; he respects and admires "heart" in his players. You could imagine a guy like "Rudy" (from Notre Dame movie fame) might see some playing time in Bronco's defense.

As far as defensive backs go, he simply doesn't care about size. He puts his five best out on the field, regardless of physical specifications. However, he will generally have the two best cover guys at the "Gunner" positions; his two toughest and most versatile at the Kat positions; and his best tackler at Cougarback.

Kats don't need the typical size of a strong safety (in the 200-210-pound range), but they have to be tough. If BYU has a Kat that is in the typical range, it's because we are lucky.

Typically, Kats will be in the 190-200 pound range. Size in a Cougarback is nice, with a preference for 6-1 or more, along with a weight in the 190-210 pound range. It is also imperative that the Cougarback has sufficient speed to assist the "Gunners" with the deep ball. "Gunner" size doesn't matter much; if they have enough talent and speed to cover well, they will play.

Bronco always emphasizes speed in his players. This is why we will see smaller but faster linebackers being recruited in the future. BYU has been used to seeing big, beefy linebackers in the 240-pound range. This won't be a common site anymore. Most of his linebackers will be in the 210-225 pound range. At times, we may see a 240-pounder playing middle linebacker, but Bronco wants to make sure they are quick and agile enough to play the position the way he wants it.

As far as the defensive line goes, Bronco will use player of any size. It's preferable that the nose tackle is big enough to take on double teams, but at the same time, they need to be quick enough to reach and man their gaps.

The defensive ends are ideally around 265 pounds. They will often be former linebackers that got too big. As converted linebackers, they have the requisite speed and the toughness to take on offensive linemen while pass rushing or slamming into their gaps.

Overall, Bronco likes smaller players. Would he like a blue-chip 245 pound linebacker with 4.4/40 speed? Absolutely! But he also knows how seldom he will land that type of player, so he has built his reputation of success with speedy players while de-emphasizing size. Speed is his biggest preference, with heart being right behind it.

Bronco likes to use the term "smoke and mirrors" in referencing his unusual defensive scheme. Some people claim it is a gimmick defense, but it isn't. Most teams can't stop it or figure it out in time if it is manned by superior athletes.

Bronco's main goal is to cause confusion for opposing offenses. He often starts the defensive backs five across, ten yards deep. When the quarterback comes up under center, the defensive backs, particularly the Kats, begin to edge closer to the line of scrimmage. This doesn't mean they are necessarily blitzing, so they really don't give much away.

By this time, the quarterback has made his read on the defensive secondary, so when the secondary makes their final moves, it can cause instant disruption in the offense's plan of attack.

At the snap of the ball, every player must get to his assigned gap on the line of scrimmage. Some have outside contain, some plug holes in the A-C gaps, and some have pass coverage responsibilities.

At times, it's comical to see the opposing team's offensive line freak out when they have more guys coming than they can handle, with "where did all these guys come from!" expressions on their faces. This is when Bronco's 3-3-5 defense is working perfectly.

The beauty of this defense and the personnel on the field is that Bronco has five defensive backs so they can shift into a critical pass defense (nickel) if needed.

Last year, BYU often shifted into a "cover-3" package where one "Gunner" would stay up and press his receiver at the line of scrimmage, the Kat on that side would drop back to help on his deep side of the field, with the Cougarback taking the deep middle and the other "Gunner" going deep as well. It was often very successful and this shift is a way for his defense to adjust to strong passing teams, while still being able to cause confusion up front.

Bronco Mendenhall also takes great pride in his job. He spends a lot of time preparing and sets lofty goals, but usually accomplishes them. He has a tough demeanor, but his players respect him. He's a fair coach, playing whoever works hardest.

Even in his well-documented recruiting script from TOTAL BLUE SPORTS Magazine's March 2004 Recruiting Spectacular, Bronco never makes playing-time promises. He simply tells heavily recruited athletes they will receive playing time only if they work hard enough. Perhaps not surprisingly, virtually all defensive athletes interviewed by TBS responded favorably to his honesty and candor.

Bronco's brand of truthful honesty can be startling, but it has already begun to pay dividends. Not only do the players enter the system understanding the effort that will be required, but there is also less room for hurt feelings over broken promises. These defensive recruits have subsequently bought into Bronco's system before they ever step foot on the practice field.

Bronco admitted last season that he had installed less than 50 percent of his total defensive package, which he will continue to expand this season.

BYU fans can look forward to even more sophisticated formations and techniques as the entire arsenal is revealed, but most importantly, the Cougars' new defense reflects Bronco's aggressive, tenacious personality and will likely continue pushing the envelope – and shut down some really good offenses along the way.

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