Two Way Street

West Virginia's 3-3-5 stack defense presents a number of difficulties for opponents, but there are also some challenges the Mountaineer coaching staff faces in putting it together.

The defense, which is also run by a handful of other schools, is difficult for opponents to prepare for. Since most schools won't see it more than once per year, coaches aren't as familiar with all of its nuances, and often have to put in extra time to prepare the blocking schemes and formations that are necessary against the formation. It also causes problems for opposing players, as they aren't used to having defenders in some of the spots that they are in.

For example, with the four-man front coming back into vogue, centers aren't used to having a nose guard line up over them on just about every play. That problem was effectively demonstrated in the 2003 WVU-Virginia Tech game, when Mountaineer defensive lineman Ben Lynch dominated Virginia Tech all-American Jake Grove. Few would claim that Lynch had more natural ability than Grove, but the hardworking Mountaineer nose used his quickness to totally frustrate the Tech star.

However, the problems of putting together an effective 3-3-5 defense might be just as difficult as those faced by the offense in finding a way to combat it. The 3-3-5 demands some different types of players at different positions, and even recruiting takes a different form when some spots are talked about.

Up front, the defense demands three down linemen that are big and aggressive. Ideally, they should be able to generate some push in a straight ahead pass rush, but their biggest demand is to tie up blockers and keep the linebackers, spurs and bandits free to flow to the ball. Great players at that position can also defeat blocks and make plays on their own on occasion, and West Virginia believes it may have a couple in the form of Keilen Dykes and Andrae Wright.

Moving to the secondary, there's not much out of the norm. Two corners that can run and cover in open space, and a free safety that can diagnose plays and get to the ball, but also cover in the deep third, are pretty much standard for any defense.

It's in between those spots, at the unique position of spur and bandit, where the differences really begin to be noticed. Although those positions have existed in other defenses over the years, the names, and the duties, of them are beginning to become a bit more standardized.

"You're starting to hear ‘spur' and ‘bandit' some more around the country now," assistant coach Bruce Tall said recently. "There are a few teams that are running the stack now, and as it begins to get around, you start to hear some of the same names and terms for it."

While familiarity with the scheme may be growing, the methods for recruiting the positions remain anything but routine. Deciding what makes a good spur or bandit isn't like identifying the characteristics of a pass rushing defensive end or a cornerback. The methods in which the defense is implemented often dictate different requirements for the spur and bandit, so much so that an Air Force might recruit a different kind of player than a West Virginia does.

Complicating the problem is the fact that not a lot of high school teams are playing the 3-3, so there are not a lot of chances to see a player perform at either of those positions.

Faced with that challenge, Tall and West Virginia fall back on the basics.

"Athleticism," Tall said definitively when asked what he looks for in a potential spur or bandit. "A good running back or a good receiver have a lot of the qualities you are looking for. Probably a good running back, more than anything, makes a good bandit or spur. You rarely look on the defense. You look for offensive guys."

Part of the reasoning behind that is the fact that most high schools put their best athletes on offense, with the idea of getting the ball in their hands. Sound thinking, but it also can lead to delusions of grandeur when every high school running back in the country sees himself as a 1,500 yard rusher at State U.

Obviously, not all of them are going to achieve that goal, so Tall and his fellow coaches try to identify players that might not be quite good enough to carry the ball in college, but are certainly wired to become speedy, athletic edge defenders. Tall makes it clear that he doesn't try to trap anyone with false promises, either.

"It can be tough to get players to make the switch to defense," Tall admitted, "but I think if you are straight with guys up front in the recruiting process you can get them to buy into it earlier. If you recruit a guy as a running back and then on the first day of camp move him over to spur or bandit, you've misled him and now you would have to overcome that. The thing we do here is tell the guy up front what we're recruiting him as. I've been places where we didn't do that, and where we told them later we were moving them. That can cause a lot of problems. We don't do that [at West Virginia], which works much better."

Tall also occasionally casts an eye at the depth chart at some of the skill positions, and occasionally sees a player who might me mired third or fourth that he could use. In those instances, if the coaches agree to the switch, Tall has a big carrot to dangle in front of his target.

"Playing time," he said with his rumbling laugh. "That's the number one motivator. Talk about playing time, and you can sell him on it. Playing time is the one way you get guys to work out. When a guy needs motivation you talk to him about playing time."

With the unique combination of recruiting players from other positions, whether it be in high school, or from his own team, Tall builds a corps of players that overcomes many of the problems of learning the new and foreign positions of spur and bandit. And hopefully, along the way, causes a few more for the opposition.

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