BYU's 3-4 Defense

The revamped Cougar defense is the subject of a lot of speculation this off-season. A long-time advocate of the 3-4 defense, guest columnist Michael S. Smith gives his thoughts on implementing the new scheme at BYU.

When BYU Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Bronco Mendenhall announced last March that he would be changing the defensive alignment from the 3-3-5 to a 3-4, knowledgeable fans shouted for joy. Since its implementation at BYU in 2003, the 3-3-5 saw uneven success. While it is true that the defense achieved a top 14 finish in 2003, the 3-3-5 has been largely ineffective since then, dropping to a horrific ranking of 91 out of 117 teams in 2005.

To be fair to Coach Mendenhall, transfers and honor code casualties eviscerated his 2005 defense. He had neither the depth nor the talent to consistently hold opposing offenses. This became painfully apparent in the overtime losses to TCU and Utah. BYU's defense was as effective at stopping the Hornfrogs and Utes as the Maginot Line was in stopping the Germans in 1940. Who can forget the 3rd and 23 touchdown surrendered to Utah in the 4th Quarter?

What the 3-3-5 ignores is simple history. The alignment requires quality players two-deep quality at each position. Consistently recruiting quality defensive backs—especially cornerbacks—has always been a problem at BYU (though there are signs that a change is afoot). For every Tim McTyer there has been six or seven cornerbacks of questionable D-I quality. The problem was so acute that the team used safeties as cornerbacks, usually a bad idea. Most teams do it the other way around.

On the other hand, the 3-4 aligns with BYU's recruiting history. The team consistently recruits quality linebackers and defensive linemen. A cursory glance at NFL rosters will reveal the names of several BYU standouts—Brett Keisel, Ryan Denney, Chris Hoke, Colby Buckwoldt, Rob Morris, and Brady Poppinga—to name just a few.

As for those who are currently on the BYU roster, the 3-4 makes even more sense. This year's team is absolutely loaded at LB. The quality linebackers go three-deep. Beneath probable starters Cameren Jensen, Aaron Wagner, Bryan Kehl, and Markell Staffieri, are Chris Bolden, Kelly Poppinga, Dan Bates, Terrance Hooks, and Gary Lovely.

The talent pool at linebacker must have Coach Mendenhall licking his chops as the team enters fall practice. He has always been a big advocate for putting the best 11 players on the field, but the 3-3-5 constrained him from doing so last season.

"After reviewing our defensive personnel, there are players on our team who we can design scheme elements around to make sure we get our best 11 football players on the field, " Mendenhall said. "We believe the coaching assignment changes are in direct alignment with the strengths of our returning defensive personnel."

Translation: we're loaded at linebacker and we're going to use them.

While Mendenhall is experiencing an embarrassment of riches at linebacker, the secondary is another story. BYU has neither the quality nor the numbers to fill out a two-deep secondary in a 3-3-5. Going to a 3-4 reduces the number of safeties required by one-third. Fortunately, BYU has several talented recruits, redshirts, and returnees who will vie for starting positions in the secondary. The recent hiring of Coach Jaime Hill will be a boon to the secondary as well.

The 3-4 Defense

Overall, do not expect to see much of a change in how Bronco's defense plays when it lines up against Arizona. Fans will see the same level of blitzing, pursuit and gang-tackling to which they have become accustomed. Like the 3-3-5, fanatical effort will remain a staple in Bronco Mendenhall's 3-4. However, the 3-3-5 will not be entirely gone. In passing situations, a fifth defensive back may be added.

Besides the extra linebacker, what does the 3-4 do for BYU? First and foremost, the 3-4 puts a greater burden on the linebackers to make plays, particularly sacks. Proponents of the scheme also believe that it is more effective in combating today's sophisticated passing attacks, because a fourth linebacker allows a defense the luxury of better disguising its blitzes and coverages.

The challenges faced by opposing offenses when playing the 3-4 can be looked at this way. If the center blocks the nose tackle and the tackles take on the defensive ends, the guards presumably, must handle the inside linebackers. That leaves the outside linebackers unaccounted for. Of course, Cougar fans hope that the outside backers are in the opponent's backfield, wreaking havoc.

The 3-4 will give Coach Mendenhall maximum flexibility. One of the outside linebackers can quickly come up to the line of scrimmage, drop down into a three-point stance, and voila, an instant 4-3. He can also stay on the edge as a decoy, blitz from a two-point stance, cover the tight end, or pick up a running back in the flat. The options are numerous. Coach Mendenhall is bound to have fun with it.

As for coverages, the 3-4 has its benefits, too, but less than the 3-3-5. In the 3-4, linebackers can jam receivers and the tight end, thus taking away the rhythm of the passing game. Timing is everything. The 3-4 allows a defense to drop all four linebackers in coverage as well, creating difficulties for QBs and hopefully interceptions or sacks.

Another positive is that two inside linebackers, rather than one, give the defense more help inside. Ideally, BYU's nose tackle can handle his own, but if he does need help, Jensen and Co. will be there if needed.

In reality, it is key for the nose tackle to hold his ground. If the nose tackle is getting blown away every down, the defense will have a very long day.

The ideal nose-tackle should weigh at least 280 pounds and be strong and quick. He must be skilled enough to take up space and occupy the center and, hopefully, a guard. He must also be able to hold his ground and stay on his feet. BYU has little experience at this crucial position, but senior Hala Paongo and newcomers, Romney Fuga and Russell Tialavea, have both the size and potential to do well here. Their development will be important in the unit's success.

Defensive ends in the 3-4 must be versatile. First and foremost, they are linemen. They must be able to shed blocks, stuff runs and rush the quarterback. Quickness, speed, and strength are all hallmarks of a great defensive end. These traits also come in handy in those situations when Bronco calls upon them to drop back in coverage.

The 2006 version of the BYU Cougars will feature a high-scoring offense, perhaps one of the best and most balanced in the nation. In order to achieve a winning record, the defense will need to step up and improve over last year's 91st ranking. With the adoption of the 3-4 defense, Coach Mendenhall may have taken the first step toward achieving that goal.


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