Kentucky played quite a bit with five defensive backs last season. Much of it was out of necessity, but with the way college football has evolved with the spread offenses, the nickel is becoming a primary defense for some schools.
A true nickel defense is a five defensive back package with either three linebackers and three down linemen or two linebackers and four down linemen. Typically the fifth defensive back is a slot corner who will be there for pass support, but you can use a third safety if that’s the coach’s preference.
With the SEC always having quality, physical running backs, Kentucky will need to be able to play the run effectively with five defensive backs on the field. When your fifth guy is a 5-10, 185-pound corner, your ability to defend the run will take a hit. You need a hybrid-type player to take over at this position.
Last season Kentucky’s fifth defensive back was usually Blake McClain, a true freshman. He played well considering his lack of experience. But teams were able to take advantage of him in the run game. While I fully expect to see him play a lot again this year, I believe Kentucky will use two other players more often in the nickel and allow McClain to play in other roles.
Playing five defensive backs can have its advantages and disadvantages. Teams are able to scheme to be a little more run-heavy when they know you’re lining up a smaller fifth defensive back, such as Blake McClain. But when you can put a player on the field who can not only cover, but be a factor in stopping the run, you can disguise what you’re trying to do.
Deception and unpredictability are invaluable to any defense. If Kentucky can get what they want from the fifth DB, they can line up in a 4-3 defense and still defend as if they are in a nickel formation.
Two players who may able to fill in as the fifth defensive back are Marcus McWilson and Daron Blaylock. McWilson is listed as a safety and Blaylock is a linebacker who was converted from the safety spot. McClain could still also fill this role as well, depending on the linebacker personnel.
The tendencies of the opponent could also dictate which linebacker is removed in favor of the hybrid defender. If the team is slanted more heavily to the run, the weakside linebacker is more than likely to be replaced by the hybrid. This keeps your strongside linebacker in the game to help in run support.
The exact opposite scenario is also possible. The hybrid player would replace the strongside linebacker if the offense is expected to lean towards the air. This allows a better pass defender (the weakside LB) to be on the field.
Kentucky isn’t bursting at the seams with defensive talent, but the linebackers may be the thinnest group on the entire team. Using larger safeties will help supplement the position group and also more than likely get faster players on the field for the Wildcats as well.
Mark Stoops talks about being multiple in their looks. There will be times where Kentucky will play a 3-4, times where they’ll play a 3-3-5 and maybe even a 3-2-6. Versatility among the defensive backs will go a long way in making these schemes successful.