March 26, 2009
(1:17 a.m.): The week after the 2008 Oklahoma game, during which the Bearcats defense allowed 592 total yards and 52 points, UC football coach Brian Kelly decided he needed to experiment a little with his squad’s scheme.
That’s when he decided to take advantage of Connor Barwin’s athleticism, and instead of using him solely as a rush-the-quarterback defensive end who put his hand on the turf before the opposing center hiked the ball, Kelly wanted Barwin to showcase his versatility.
So, for much of the week of practice leading into the Miami game, he got Barwin to straighten up and move back a few paces to join the rest of the linebackers. Sometimes, he’d put his hand down and rush the quarterback. Sometimes, he covered an opposing receiver out of the linebacker corps.
Kelly made him a hybrid, and, in essence, began sowing the seeds that will evolve from the defensive base of four down linemen and three linebackers into next season when the Bearcats will run a base of three down linemen and four linebackers. Basically, they’re going from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
“We’re adjusting to college football,” Kelly said. “Ten years ago, it was the spread offense. Today, it’s being able to base your defense out of a three down and then adjust into what you see. It’s being proactive and adjusting to what college football is throwing at us.”
Kelly, of course, is partially responsible for the latest defensive trend. He’s run the spread, four-wideout offense and made himself a successful head coach known for his team’s offensive accomplishments. Now, he has to develop a defense to counteract what his offense wants to achieve.
“It is a response to more open formations, whether it’s characterized as a spread offense or a three-wide receiver set or option football,” Kelly said. “The three down gives you a lot more flexibility as offenses have become a lot more flexible. The three down allows you to do that. It’s just your starting point for you now. We could play two or three games and not see any three down. It depends what we’re seeing offensively.”
It also depends on how athletic those potential defensive ends can be. Barwin wasn’t a true defensive end, and because of his raw athleticism, he could work the 3-4 system effectively. Kelly says Alex Daniels and Curtis Young have that same ability.
Kelly wanted to implement the new scheme last season, but ultimately, he couldn’t install it fully because the 4-3 base defense already had been ingrained on the squad.
“We tried to get to it last year, but it was hard because we were a four-down team,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult. It’s a lot more calls and a lot more elaborate. When your three down is your base, it’s teaching and it flows a lot easier.”
One of the biggest reasons Kelly wanted to make the switch was because of the difficulty the Bearcats had in stopping the opponent from converting third downs into first downs.
Against the Sooners in UC’s 52-26 loss, the Bearcats allowed Oklahoma to convert 6 of 13 third-down attempts and 30 first downs overall. The next week against the RedHawks, even with Barwin in more of a hybrid role, UC gave up 11 of 19 third-down conversions.
Although the Bearcats’ season average was much better – opposing squads converted their third downs 31 percent of the time, which actually was the second-best percentage in the Big East and was a result of the new scheme – Kelly has designs on improving it for next year.
The problem with stopping the third down when the opponent is in an obvious passing situation is that the Bearcats defense countered with a base of four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. But if a tight end is running a passing route, a linebacker would have to cover him, leaving only one linebacker in the middle of the defense. That would leave the dump-off pass across the middle wide open. With a 3-3-5 base, though, one linebacker could cover the receiver, and the other two remaining Bearcats linebackers would patrol the middle.
“As we look – and as hesitant as we are to take one of our best players off the field – we have to be in better position to handle the spread passing game,” Kelly said last year before the Miami game. “That’s what’s hurting us.”
Since former UC defensive coordinator Joe Tresey – a strong proponent of the 4-3 system – never had worked with a three down linemen defense, Kelly had to take over some of the coaching after the Oklahoma game.
After the season, Kelly wanted to make the full-time switch, and Tresey maintained his stance on the four down linemen school of thought. The two agreed to disagree, and Tresey ended up taking a job at South Florida. Kelly’s replacement, Bob Diaco, who was also Kelly’s defensive coordinator at Central Michigan, had studied the 3-4 under coach Al Groh at Virginia.
“I wanted to evolve to the three down, and Bob had a great teacher and a great knowledge of it,” Kelly said.
While the Bearcats lose 10 senior starters from last year’s Orange Bowl squad, many of those weren’t experienced veterans coming into the season anyway. Lamonte Nelms had received playing time but wasn’t one of the mainstays on the defensive line, Barwin was a former tight end, linebacker Torry Cornett didn’t have much game experience, and defensive back Brandon Underwood had been off the field for most of his college career.
Yet, they all eventually evolved into important players for the Bearcats. Kelly thinks that will happen again.
“I’m excited about the guys we have coming back,” he said. “I think we can be as good if not better on defense than last year. I know that’s a lot to say, but I really believe the guys we have can compete at a high level. It’s about them getting the opportunity they never had. Lamonte Nelms didn’t have the opportunity until last year. Torry Cornett didn’t have an opportunity. Brandon Underwood didn’t have an opportunity. I can go on and on. We’ll have the same kind of situation on defense this year.
“Earlier in the year, we weren’t playing very well. We weren’t coming together. Even though we had 10 seniors, they weren’t very experienced. We’ll be slightly inexperienced in terms of game reps next year, but we’ll be better at the end of the year.”
That’s why Kelly wants to adjust right now. Much of the team still is young enough to be moldable into the new scheme.
“Actually, it will be easier for them,” Kelly said. “Some of our struggles last year were getting off the field in third-down situations, and we’ll be a lot better suited to handle the passing game. If we’re getting the ball run at us a lot, we can move the defense over a little bit and be in four down … We’re turning over a lot of personnel, and if you’re going to start with a new leader at that position, this is the time to do it.”
FYI, I get an e-mail from one of Earnest Jackson's professors after I posted The Unknown blog on Wednesday. Apparently, Jackson played some in the CFL - it's true; lookie here - and has returned to UC to complete his degree. He's also trying to find his way into an NFL camp this summer. Mystery solved.