Learning Curve

Coaches eager to learn West Virginia's spread offense beat a wide path to Morgantown during the off-season, but there were also other visitors interested in other parts of the Mountaineer program.

While the numbers weren't as great as those interested in picking the brains of head coach Rich Rodriguez and his offensive assistants, there were also several coaches and staffs looking at WVU's use of the 3-3-5 stack defense. The odd front look, which gained notice at Southern Mississippi and South Carolina in past years, has been implemented and refined with great skill by defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his staff at West Virginia. And although Casteel admits he knew nothing about the defense when he first started looking at it, he has shaped it into a formidable force.

Last year, West Virginia was eighth nationally in total defense and tenth in scoring defense. The Mountaineers were also fairly balanced against opposing rushing and passing attacks, finishing 13th in rushing defense and 24th in pass efficiency defense. Those numbers, as well as an outstanding 2.9 yards per rush average, testify to the effectiveness of the unconventional scheme. They didn't go unnoticed, either, as several schools, including those looking to implement the scheme to combat spread offenses, traveled to WVU for new ideas.

In most cases, however, the schools that studied West Virginia's defensive scheme aren't looking to make a wholesale change and commit to the 3-3 fulltime. Instead, they are looking at it as a situational defense.

"For the most part, people coming in are looking at it as a third down package," Casteel said. "I don't think anyone that came in is looking at it for full time use. There aren't many schools in the country that use it as their base defense."

With offenses adding more receivers and utilizing spread offense theory in many of their third down and long packages, defenses are looking for more efficient ways to combat four and five receivers that use all of the field for their routes. The 3-3, which can easily drop seven or eight defenders into passing zones, is a very effective weapon against such tactics, as it often forces the ball to be thrown short of the first down marker. Defenses that tackle well (as the Mountaineers did a year ago) are thus well-positioned to create third down stops and get off the field.

Several schools from the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences are also looking at the 3-3 as a way to combat the many offenses in the wide-open west that run the spread fulltime. And while not all of those schools are committing to running it all the time, they are adding to the number of schools that will field the look in 2006. As those schools are not likely to show up on WVU's football schedule anytime soon, the Mountaineer coaching staff feels comfortable in discussing the assignments and techniques with them.

"We've visited Air Force and they have visited us," said Casteel as he listed some of the schools which West Virginia shares information with. (WVU picked the Falcons' brains for return game tips in recent years as well.) "We've also talked with Brigham Young and New Mexico. New Mexico is one of the few that run in full time, and Memphis too. But for the most part, the rest of them want to use it as a third down defense or as a different look against the spread. It is the new way to defend the spread right now."

Running an entirely different defensive scheme on a part time basis obviously ups the chances for player confusion, as the rules, assignments and techniques for the 3-3 are very different from, say, an even front with four down linemen. Still, Casteel thinks that by employing just a couple of basic principles, coaches can utilize the 3-3 in certain situations without overtaxing their players' ability to learn and execute the defense. The drawback, of course, is that those teams can't delve nearly as deeply into the many options of playing the defense as West Virginia has.

"I think you can fit some things into it if you are defending the draw and the throwing game, and that's all you are doing with it," said Casteel. "It's having to defend two backs and the run and all that stuff that you don't have to worry about in third and long situations that makes it more complicated. It is so different from an even front."

West Virginia, which is committed to the defense, obviously is able to do more with it than a team that only runs it 15-20% of the time. That works to WVU's advantage, and is something that Casteel hopes to build on each year.

"The important thing for us is to continue to develop what we are doing in the defense," said Casteel, who admits that more tweaks to the scheme are on tap for this season. "Every year we try to get better at it and have the kids understand it more fully, and hopefully we'll be able to play a better version of it this year. We think playing it full time, there's enough work in it to keep us busy throughout the year."

Of course, Casteel, like Rodriguez with his offense, doesn't reveal all of his tricks to visiting coaches. He keeps many of those, including the changes being worked on for this year, under wraps. That, combined with two other factors, ensures that other schools don't get the full picture of what WVU will do defensively.

The first is the fact that visiting coaches don't come in and copy 100% of what the host school is doing. Schools learning about a new system will have to adapt what they learn to their own systems and personnel, so much of what they take away is general in nature. While they might see how WVU lines up its defense against three wide receivers, no tight ends and two backs, they way in which West Virginia executes its coverages might be totally different from what the visiting school does.

The second, as noted previously, is that most of those schools aren't committed to running the defense full time, which limits the amount of time they have to study, work on and implement the things they have seen. That, according to Casteel, is one of the Mountaineers' biggest advantages.

"One of the things that helps us is that other teams aren't familiar with it. We are one of the few teams in the country that runs it on a full time basis, and when people have to play us, it's something they aren't accustomed to seeing," he said.

So, although WVU does share information about the 3-3 with other coaches, the Mountaineers still figure to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to utilizing the defense on the field. West Virginia's commitment to the scheme as its base defense, plus the adjustments the coaching staff continually makes to the scheme, figure to keep the Mountaineers ahead of the curve when it comes to the use of the rare defensive configuration.

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