It's no secret that Charlie Strong is considered one of the country's top defensive minds, helping to create the "30 Stack" defense — his own take on the 3-3-5 defense created by Joe Lee Dunn — to help overcome a lack of talent at South Carolina under Lou Holtz.
The overall premise was simple — stack the field with more athletes to add more speed to the defense. In implementation, it was less so. First, the five defensive backs included two cornerbacks, one free safety and two strong safety/linebacker hybrids, allowing for a 3-4 look, but with more speed than a traditional four-linebacker set like the one that Strong coached at Notre Dame.
But one of Strong's more interesting tweaks was at the front of the defense. Three-man fronts are typically thought of as two-gap alignments. That is, you have big players play straight up on a single offensive lineman to control the gaps on either side of said player. By mucking things up in this way, and hopefully drawing double-teams at the point of attack, it allows the linebackers an easier flow to try and find the ball. Not so with Strong.
Strong, above all else, favored speed and quickness, meaning that he played a three-man front like a four-man one, asking players to slant and stunt and blow up single gaps (known as one-gapping), with the linebackers behind also asked to attack their own single gaps. Depending on which players were coming, the type of fire zone called, etc., it created confusing alignments for offensive lines while also putting the defense in solid, gap-sound run fits.
In short, while so-many teams were out searching for the 320-plus-pound nose guard, Strong would rather have had the 280-pound defensive tackle who could win up front with his quickness.
But that's not the end of the Charlie Strong story. Because while his 3-3-5 was undoubtedly a success, Strong wasn't always coaching at places where he was under-talented. And like most great coaches, he showed the ability to adjust to the personnel available to him.
Strong rode his South Carolina defense to one at Florida, where he had better access to elite talent. When the Gators won the 2007 BCS National Championship game by holding Ohio State to 82 total yards and one offensive touchdown, Strong started off the game with a 4-2-5 to counter the Buckeyes' spread attack under Troy Smith. Going with a four-man front made sense, as Strong had two outstanding four-man-type defensive ends in Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, both of whom would go on to be first-round NFL Draft picks. The duo combined for five sacks and terrorized Smith all night.
Strong often stuck with four-man fronts at Florida, only to shift back to the 3-3-5 look early on as head coach at Louisville. Again, the emphasis was on gaining speed, especially up-front, with none of Louisville's 2011 starting line of defensive ends William Savoy (6-1 246) and Marcus Smith (6-3 252) and tackle Randy Salmon (6-3 291) qualifying as war daddies.
But like Strong showed in the past, the 3-3-5 served as somewhat of a placeholder until he could upgrade the unit's overall athleticism. By 2012, Louisville was back to running more four-man fronts, and 2013, the Cardinal fielded one of the country's top defenses, even when filtered for quality of competition, in the entire country. Louisville was seventh nationally in Defensive S&P+, including a high mark of fifth in Passing Downs S&P+. Smith had grown to 260 pounds, and the end opposite Smith was linebacker-sized Lorenzo Mauldin (6-4 243). And while Preston Brown (6-2 260) and George Durant (6-0 245) were good-sized linebackers, WILL James Burgess (6-0 214) was built more like a safety.
The common theme, with each front Strong and new Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford rolled out, was ATTACK! There wasn't any room for plodders. And with Bedford and Brian Jean-Mary, both of Louisville, joining Strong at Texas, it's pretty easy to start to get a grasp on what they want to do.
If you're looking for a coach who is used to dealing with multiple fronts, Alabama is an outstanding place to start. While the Crimson Tide have had a recent reputation for running a 3-4 — and they still do against two-back run teams like LSU and Georgia — the truth is that they've run just as much 3-3-5 to get more speed on the field against spread teams.*
* Alabama actually came out in a 3-3-5, with three safeties, to open the game against Oklahoma.
The other part is that while there might just be three defensive linemen in name only, Alabama has typically employed massive, defensive end-type athletes at outside linebacker like Courtney Upshaw (6-2 265) and most recently Adrian Hubbard (6-6 252), often walking those players up to the line of scrimmage to create a four-man front. It's highly variable, dependent on what the Crimson Tide wants to do in each situation.
And that's why the hire of Chris Rumph at defensive line coach makes all the sense in the world. Not only is Rumph somewhat of a recruiting rainmaker, but he has experience with both three and four-man fronts. He's also not afraid to tinker, as he showed this year in playing freak freshman A'Shawn Robinson (6-4 320) both at defensive end and nose tackle. Robinson wound up leading the team in sacks.
That leaves Chris Vaughn, perhaps the most intriguing hire of the defensive staff, to handle the back end. Why is Vaughn intriguing? Because not only does he have experience coaching all levels of the secondary — he coached strong safeties, then all safeties at Arkansas, coached defensive backs at Ole Miss and was most recently the cornerbacks coach at Memphis — but he also coached the outside linebackers for five years at Arkansas before shifting over to the 'all safeties' position.
Remember: a key part of Strong's 3-3-5 defense includes fielding two linebacker/safety hybrids, and with Texas likely to be in a bunch of five-DB sets to combat the league's spread offenses, Vaughn presents an interesting teacher, someone who can explain both the safety AND the linebacker part of the player's job with experience doing both. Vaughn is known as an outstanding recruiter, but the way that he seems to fit this staff, from an X's and O's perspective, shouldn't be undersold.
The biggest question at this point is: How does it all fit together? And the answer is that Strong, as he has always been, will be multiple. Even when Strong had four-man fronts as parts of his base defense, he'd still show three-man fronts and even ran 3-3-5 stuff as sub packages.
Several teams that Texas faced this season ran what I'd call a "multiple" defense; that is, they could call it a 3-4, or a 4-3 or even a 4-2-5, but the multiplicity came from the versatility of the personnel, one that allowed the team to line up in different fronts and looks while keeping the same players on the field. It often looked something like this: three defensive linemen, one defensive end/linebacker hybrid, two linebackers, one linebacker/safety hybrid. Strong did something very similar at Louisville, and I'd expect that to carry over.
Using that, a defense could line up in just about any formation it wanted to, from a 4-2-5 to a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 to a 4-3, with any shifts coming just before (or even just after) the snap. It creates a variety of looks for the offense to try and determine, and can certainly help to take away pre-snap reads that makes the quarterback's life easier.
All of those are things that Strong, through his stops at South Carolina, Florida and Louisville, has put on tape. All are defenses that he's shown the ability to coach. And that's why Strong, when combined with the collective brainpower of the rest of the defensive staff, could pose an interesting problem for opposing offenses, especially when combined with Texas-caliber personnel.
Texas Coach Charlie Strong's Defensive Staff
Defensive Coordinator: Vance Bedford, Louisville
Defensive Line: Chris Rumph, Alabama
Linebackers: Brian Jean-Mary, Louisville
Defensive Backs: Chris Vaughn, Memphis