Making a Case For the 4-4

Prior to the start of the season we talked about Tennessee's use of the 3-4 defense and some of the advantages it presents for a team loaded with excellent linebackers, particularly a special talent like Kevin Burnett.<p>

UT's staff talked down the significance of the 3-4 alignment — saying it's something that's always been in their multiple defensive package — but have since admitted to spending a lot of time developing the look in order to showcase the skills of Burnett.

Tennessee indicates they will continue to deploy the 3-4, but without Burnett it won't be quite as effective. By the way, one of Burnett's goals this season was to lead the nation in sacks which means he was aware he would have a lot of opportunities to pressure the passer.

Even with Burnett Tennessee's base look on defense would continue to be the 4-3. That's the alignment UT's personnel is most familiar with and the one for which they were recruited to play.

You always pursue personnel to fit your defensive philosophy and that's one of the reasons the Vols will occasionally pass on solid instate prospects. Gatlinburg-Pittman linebacker Eric Brackens is one example of an excellent player the Vols weren't completely sold on because, although a quality middle linebacker, he didn't meet their need for speed and quickness. Brackens went on to enjoy a highly-productive college career as a middle linebacker at Michigan.

Sometimes there is a middle linebacker who meets UT's requirements, like Ahmad Brooks last season, but it's not unusual for the Vols to find their middle linebackers playing outside linebackers in high school, or their outside linebackers playing safety. Sometimes they find high school middle linebackers that make good defensive tackles or defensive ends. Last season Keyon Whiteside played outside linebacker for Tennessee, but this year he has moved inside where he looks more at home.

Billy Ratliff was a middle linebacker in high school who became a standout defensive tackle at Tennessee. Bernard Jackson and DeAngelo Lloyd were both all-American linebackers in high school who became starters at defensive end once they arrived on The Hill. Dominique Stevenson was a tailback in high school who started three seasons at middle linebacker for the Vols. Eddie Moore was an outstanding running back at South Pittsburg High School who has developed into a superb linebacker for the Vols. And the list goes on and on.

Of course Burnett was a standout safety in high school who was transformed into a prototypical outside linebacker at UT. What made Burnett special is the fact he retained his great speed while adding about 25 pounds of bulk. He also proved to have great instincts and an uncommon capacity for producing big plays.

The point is that although you recruit prospects to fit your defensive scheme, you also have to be willing to make adjustments to take advantage of a unique talent.

With that consideration in mind, I'm going to suggest another adjustment Tennessee might unveil at some point in the future — if not this year then certainly in the next couple of seasons.

The alignment I'm suggesting is the 4-4 which is a basic eight-man front. It is a very balanced attack that allows the defense to do a lot of gaming with so many linebackers near the line of scrimmage. It's particularly strong against the run and its balance makes it an ideal alignment when the ball is in the middle of the field as opposed to one of the hash marks. Likewise it doesn't require a lot of adjustments for the two-tight end set.

Like the 3-4, it allows Tennessee to take advantage of its depth at linebacker and there is ample support for the cutback run. One of its only drawbacks are runs to the wide side or open field, but with Tennessee's speed on defense runs outside the tackle are a no-win proposition.

The 4-4 is particularly effective for disguising coverages, stunts and blitzes and it can be easily converted into a wide-tackle six without shuffling personnel on and off the field. It is usually deployed with a three-deep secondary which is a departure from UT's preference for man coverage. (By the way, the three-deep is a not necessarily a prevent coverage although it is often used in conjunction with a conservative approach. However the three-deep is safe because it keeps everything in front of the DBs and it also presents more interception opportunities as the secondary plays the ball more than the receiver.)

The real selling point of the 4-4 in UT's case is a player on its roster with unique abilities who hasn't settled into a position yet. Jason Allen arrived on campus last January from Muscle Shoals High School where he earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors for Alabama. Allen was a running back in high school who rushed for 1,740 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior.

At 6-2, 210, he was given a look at receiver, but has since switched to cornerback. Already extremely large for that position, there are serious questions about how long he can remain a corner as the natural maturation process adds 15 to 20 pounds on his frame. Despite his size, Allen has shown an ability to cover receivers one-on-one in practice and presents, perhaps, the best physical match-up against Kelley Washington.

Now let's consider the possibilities with Allen playing the fourth linebacker in the 4-4 scheme. Essentially, he would be a swing linebacker which means he could be used in coverage on a wide receiver, interior run support or on blitzes. He has the size to play a classic outside linebacker and the agility to cover like a corner.

Next year he would be a perfect fit in a 4-4 with linebackers Kevin Burnett, Kevin Simon and Robert Peace in the middle. This season he would fit nicely with Simon, Whiteside and Moore. Furthermore, you would have a three-deep alignment consisting of Julian Battle, Rashad Baker and Jabari Greer.

That later look puts three cornerbacks on the field to lock down the wide receivers in man coverage with perhaps the best free safety in the SEC in Baker roaming the deep middle. In a zone you could go two-deep and take advantage of Battle's ability to play either corner or safety. Plus Battle's size (6-3,205) gives UT a lot of punch in the secondary for run support. Another plus is that it would make UT's coverage less predictable and preparation more of a challenge. (Sure zone is a four-letter word, but that doesn't make it obscene.)

With the type of flexibility UT could put on the field, it would be extremely difficult for a quarterback to get a good pre-snap read and would eliminate most of an opponent's audible package.

The variety of blitzes that could be employed are virtually unlimited while the responsibilities of the front four would remain essentially unchanged. Moreover, it is a very malleable defense that can be easily customized to neutralize an opponent's strengths or exploit its weaknesses. That also makes it especially difficult to scout or prepare for with film work.

The 4-4 could be a good defense for Tennessee, but the talents Allen could bring to the role of swing linebacker makes it outstanding. Making a Case For the 4-4 By: JEFFERY STEWART Prior to the start of the season we talked about Tennessee's use of the 3-4 defense and some of the advantages it presents for a team loaded with excellent linebackers, particularly a special talent like Kevin Burnett.

UT's staff talked down the significance of the 3-4 alignment — saying it's something that's always been in their multiple defensive package — but have since admitted to spending a lot of time developing the look in order to showcase the skills of Burnett.

Tennessee indicates they will continue to deploy the 3-4, but without Burnett it won't be quite as effective. By the way, one of Burnett's goals this season was to lead the nation in sacks which means he was aware he would have a lot of opportunities to pressure the passer.

Even with Burnett Tennessee's base look on defense would continue to be the 4-3. That's the alignment UT's personnel is most familiar with and the one for which they were recruited to play.

You always pursue personnel to fit your defensive philosophy and that's one of the reasons the Vols will occasionally pass on solid instate prospects. Gatlinburg-Pittman linebacker Eric Brackens is one example of an excellent player the Vols weren't completely sold on because, although a quality middle linebacker, he didn't meet their need for speed and quickness. Brackens went on to enjoy a highly-productive college career as a middle linebacker at Michigan.

Sometimes there is a middle linebacker who meets UT's requirements, like Ahmad Brooks last season, but it's not unusual for the Vols to find their middle linebackers playing outside linebackers in high school, or their outside linebackers playing safety. Sometimes they find high school middle linebackers that make good defensive tackles or defensive ends. Last season Keyon Whiteside played outside linebacker for Tennessee, but this year he has moved inside where he looks more at home.

Billy Ratliff was a middle linebacker in high school who became a standout defensive tackle at Tennessee. Bernard Jackson and DeAngelo Lloyd were both all-American linebackers in high school who became starters at defensive end once they arrived on The Hill. Dominique Stevenson was a tailback in high school who started three seasons at middle linebacker for the Vols. Eddie Moore was an outstanding running back at South Pittsburg High School who has developed into a superb linebacker for the Vols. And the list goes on and on.

Of course Burnett was a standout safety in high school who was transformed into a prototypical outside linebacker at UT. What made Burnett special is the fact he retained his great speed while adding about 25 pounds of bulk. He also proved to have great instincts and an uncommon capacity for producing big plays.

The point is that although you recruit prospects to fit your defensive scheme, you also have to be willing to make adjustments to take advantage of a unique talent.

With that consideration in mind, I'm going to suggest another adjustment Tennessee might unveil at some point in the future — if not this year then certainly in the next couple of seasons.

The alignment I'm suggesting is the 4-4 which is a basic eight-man front. It is a very balanced attack that allows the defense to do a lot of gaming with so many linebackers near the line of scrimmage. It's particularly strong against the run and its balance makes it an ideal alignment when the ball is in the middle of the field as opposed to one of the hash marks. Likewise it doesn't require a lot of adjustments for the two-tight end set.

Like the 3-4, it allows Tennessee to take advantage of its depth at linebacker and there is ample support for the cutback run. One of its only drawbacks are runs to the wide side or open field, but with Tennessee's speed on defense runs outside the tackle are a no-win proposition.

The 4-4 is particularly effective for disguising coverages, stunts and blitzes and it can be easily converted into a wide-tackle six without shuffling personnel on and off the field. It is usually deployed with a three-deep secondary which is a departure from UT's preference for man coverage. (By the way, the three-deep is a not necessarily a prevent coverage although it is often used in conjunction with a conservative approach. However the three-deep is safe because it keeps everything in front of the DBs and it also presents more interception opportunities as the secondary plays the ball more than the receiver.)

The real selling point of the 4-4 in UT's case is a player on its roster with unique abilities who hasn't settled into a position yet. Jason Allen arrived on campus last January from Muscle Shoals High School where he earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors for Alabama. Allen was a running back in high school who rushed for 1,740 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior.

At 6-2, 210, he was given a look at receiver, but has since switched to cornerback. Already extremely large for that position, there are serious questions about how long he can remain a corner as the natural maturation process adds 15 to 20 pounds on his frame. Despite his size, Allen has shown an ability to cover receivers one-on-one in practice and presents, perhaps, the best physical match-up against Kelley Washington.

Now let's consider the possibilities with Allen playing the fourth linebacker in the 4-4 scheme. Essentially, he would be a swing linebacker which means he could be used in coverage on a wide receiver, interior run support or on blitzes. He has the size to play a classic outside linebacker and the agility to cover like a corner.

Next year he would be a perfect fit in a 4-4 with linebackers Kevin Burnett, Kevin Simon and Robert Peace in the middle. This season he would fit nicely with Simon, Whiteside and Moore. Furthermore, you would have a three-deep alignment consisting of Julian Battle, Rashad Baker and Jabari Greer.

That later look puts three cornerbacks on the field to lock down the wide receivers in man coverage with perhaps the best free safety in the SEC in Baker roaming the deep middle. In a zone you could go two-deep and take advantage of Battle's ability to play either corner or safety. Plus Battle's size (6-3,205) gives UT a lot of punch in the secondary for run support. Another plus is that it would make UT's coverage less predictable and preparation more of a challenge. (Sure zone is a four-letter word, but that doesn't make it obscene.)

With the type of flexibility UT could put on the field, it would be extremely difficult for a quarterback to get a good pre-snap read and would eliminate most of an opponent's audible package.

The variety of blitzes that could be employed are virtually unlimited while the responsibilities of the front four would remain essentially unchanged. Moreover, it is a very malleable defense that can be easily customized to neutralize an opponent's strengths or exploit its weaknesses. That also makes it especially difficult to scout or prepare for with film work.

The 4-4 could be a good defense for Tennessee, but the talents Allen could bring to the role of swing linebacker makes it outstanding.


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