Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A numbers game

A look at KU football’s new base defense

Kansas assistant coach Vic Shealy talks to reporters after being promoted to defensive coordinator on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, at the Anderson Family Football Complex.

Kansas assistant coach Vic Shealy talks to reporters after being promoted to defensive coordinator on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, at the Anderson Family Football Complex.


In the past few months, Kansas University’s football team — under new defensive coordinator Vic Shealy — has switched its defense from a 4-3 base formation to a 3-4 base formation.

Here’s a closer look at the change:

What are the strengths of a 3-4?

The biggest strength of a 3-4 football defense is its flexibility.

This is especially the case when it comes to bringing pressure.

In a 4-3 formation, it’s easy for the offensive linemen to single out who’s going to be rushing on a play, as most times, the four defensive linemen (who start the play with one hand on the ground) are safe bets to be going after the passer.

It’s not that easy to diagnose with a 3-4 formation.

Shealy said KU will have more complexity in its blitzes and pressures with four stand-up, fast-moving linebackers than it potentially could have with four defensive linemen.

Now, pressure can be brought from different players on each play. And many times, the offensive line won’t know where that pressure is coming from.

“We don’t really run the same defense more than a couple times,” KU junior linebacker Toben Opurum said. “As long as you’re changing it up and confusing the offense, they won’t know where to go or who to block, so you get a lot of free shots on the quarterback and sacks from unblocked players.”

Another strength is that the 3-4 allows KU to adapt to offenses without changing its personnel. With the same players on the field, KU can switch to a three- or four-down lineman setup by having one of the linebackers move up to the line of scrimmage.

The Jayhawks also can change to having four or five defensive backs, depending on each player’s responsibility on a given play.

Being that flexible is especially important in college football today, as many offenses rush to the line of scrimmage to try to keep the defense from substituting.

What are the weaknesses?

The biggest weakness of a 3-4 defense oftentimes is stopping the running game — especially runs up the middle.

Because there is one fewer defensive lineman on the field, teams that run a 3-4 are reliant on their nose tackle to hold his ground and not allow offensive linemen to overpower him.

Unfortunately for KU, defensive tackle doesn’t appear to be a position of strength — at least not at this point.

Senior Pat Dorsey returns with the most experience, but he’ll be out about half the season because of a broken foot.

That leaves junior John Williams and senior Richard Johnson as the most likely candidates to play at tackle.

Williams is listed at 6 foot 3, 305 pounds, while Johnson is 6-3, 283.

Both are much lighter than a typical NFL defensive tackle, who often weighs in at around 350 pounds.

Shealy, though, said he isn’t concerned with his D-tackles being undersized.

“I think part of the thing you’ve got to realize is that some of those NFL nose guards, everybody kind of anoints as, ‘That’s what a 3-4 nose looks like.’ Those guys are 26, 28 years of age, and not all of them looked like that when they were in college, either,” Shealy said. “However, I would say that size alone doesn’t make you a player. You’ve got to be able to move.”

Which player will be most affected most by the switch?

Opurum perhaps has the most potential to thrive under the new scheme.

As a defensive end in the 4-3 last season, Opurum lined up in the same place and often had to beat an interior offensive lineman to get to the quarterback. That didn’t always play to his strengths, especially as bit of an undersized defensive end at 240 pounds.

By putting Opurum at outside linebacker this year, Shealy hopes to utilize his athleticism while also taking advantage of his intelligence.

There will be times when Opurum is asked to cover a back out of the backfield or a tight end. Other times, he’ll be asked to drop into a zone for coverage.

Most of the time, though, Shealy will be moving Opurum around, putting him in different places to create a mismatch.

If, on film, one opposing offensive lineman appears to be a weak pass protector, Shealy will shift Opurum to that side and have him pass rush from there.

Opurum’s role at outside linebacker will be similar to that of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tamba Hali and Texas A&M;’s Von Miller — who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker last year before getting selected No. 2 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft.

“Von’s a 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy. Toben’s maybe a 4.6 guy,” Shealy said. “But we’re hoping in another year, Toben will be a 4.5 guy. He had a great summer. I don’t know if you’ve seen him yet, but he’s a good-looking cat.”

What other positions are affected most by a switch to the 3-4 defense?

The defensive linemen are often the guys who do the dirty work so the linebackers can get the glory.

In a 4-3 formation, defensive linemen are taught to get into the backfield to make plays. That includes tackles-for-loss and sacks.

That’s not always the job of the defensive linemen in a 3-4 scheme. Many times, their job is to occupy blockers and to hold their ground. By doing that, the linebackers are able to move in unblocked to make tackles.

So what will this look like statistically?

Take last year’s game against Georgia Tech as an example.

The Jayhawks ran a 3-4 formation most of the game to try to slow down the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense.

KU’s top four tacklers were all linebackers: Justin Springer (15), Steven Johnson (11), Drew Dudley (8) and Olaitan Oguntodu (7), who played linebacker that game. Those four players combined for exactly half of KU’s tackles that day.

That could potentially mean bigger tackle numbers this season for linebackers like Steven Johnson and Darius Willis.

What prompted the switch?

For one, the Jayhawks appear to have better depth at the linebacker position than they do on the defensive line.

With the formation, KU will be able to play one more linebacker and one fewer defensive lineman, thus playing to its depth-chart strengths.

Another factor? Shealy, who was promoted to defensive coordinator on May 31, has extensive experience with 3-3 and 3-4 defenses.

Service academies often run a 3-4 defensive scheme because they have to play with undersized defensive linemen, and Shealy was a defensive backs coach for Air Force from 1999-2004. He even was a part of an instructional DVD — “3-3 Stack Defense: Secondary Play” — that was released by the Air Force coaches in 2005.

When he moved on to become defensive coordinator at UNLV from 2005-07, he implemented the 3-4 defense with the Runnin’ Rebels as well.

Because not many other teams are running the 3-4 defense in college football — Texas A&M; and Texas Tech are the only other Big 12 schools that publicly list the formation as their base — Shealy also believes KU will be able to carve out a niche recruiting to the scheme.

Some players who might not be the best fits in a 4-3 defense could now have a chance to thrive at KU.

“It’s easier, numbers-wise, to recruit to a three-down system,” Shealy said. “Now, with that being said, you still have to recruit some big ol’ guys. You’ve got to develop some big guys. And we’re doing that. We feel like we’ve already have some really good recruits identified.”

Defensive lineman is one of the most heavily recruited positions in college football, so the switch also allows KU to bring in more guys at linebacker — a position that is much deeper at the high school ranks.

In essence, because the Jayhawks are one of only a few Div. I teams that run the 3-4, they could potentially have less competition for the defensive players that will fit their scheme best.


Ferd Magellan 6 years, 9 months ago

The picture above has the LB spots mixed up. Buck is the weakside OLB, Mike and Will are in the middle, and Sam is the strongside OLB. Bakare will be just outside the strong side OT, while Opurum will be outside the weak side OT. Wills and Johnson are behind and between Young and Agostinho in the middle.

jaydee909 6 years, 9 months ago

Good catch. Johnson needs to be in the middle as running sideline to sideline is not his strength.

Jesse Newell 6 years, 9 months ago

You're right. We'll get that corrected and back up as soon as we can.

Dirk Medema 6 years, 9 months ago

The OL/LB numbers disparity would be valid if the switch didn't also take the best DL and make him an LB - which just accentuates the disparity all the more. Not saying that it is a bad move, just an invalid argument.

I'm psyched to see these guys flying around - Toben & Tharp will be the slow guys at 4.6, since Willis and Bakare are 4.5 & 4.3. Yow!

Joseph Kuebel 6 years, 9 months ago

Dagger, I agree the speed is something we haven't seen in a LONG time, just hope that run defense can come thru for us. If we can stop the run we could surprise some people this year, despite the new sched.

Jeff Coffman 6 years, 9 months ago

Correction...Shealy meant to say "I don’t know if you’ve seen him yet, but he’s a good-looking HAWK"....come on why are all of our coaches referencing our rivals when analyzing our players.

Ben Kliewer 6 years, 9 months ago

Come on man, you didn't know that Shealy is a Jazz musician in his off time? :)

Andy Tweedy 6 years, 9 months ago

I found myself getting a little worried about the DL being so small as I read, but then it occured to me that they can't be any worse than they were last year, so at least we'll have a formation that plays to our personnel. At least that's the way I'm choosing to look at this. I just hope the d-linemen we do have can keep some of the o-linemen off our linebackers or that speed won't amount to much. Ray Lewis is the best linebacker I've seen play, but guys like Tony Siragusa and Haloti Ngata have had a lot to do with that!

truefan 6 years, 9 months ago

Not saying you are wrong ATL, but I think we're all rooting for you to be wrong on this one. I'm just not very familiar with the 3-4 so, naturally, I'm a little uncomfortable with us running it. I feel a little better after reading the part where they talk about us using the 3-4 to stop Georgia Tech last year.

Hopefully it works out for us and creates some confusion for our opponents. Rock Chalk!

notigers4me 6 years, 9 months ago

Hey does anyone know how a guy that lives out of the area can pick up this week game?

Chris Condren 6 years, 9 months ago

Well we will get to see the start of year 2 of the Gill football dynasty that he is building in Lawrence. I cannot see this D-Line being able to stop the run. I hope I am wrong but look at last year and you see they got chewed up. This years recruiting class at D-Line was a total swing and miss by Gill and Co.with respect to getting anyone in to play at the Tackle or nose guard position. If we ever needed help at these positions it is year.

jaymar74 6 years, 9 months ago

You don't improve every position in one year. This staff did improve our running back position, linebacker position and offensive line position through recruits and transfers. That is a pretty good year one improvement. We are faster everywhere. Return of several players who missed all of last year will also help. It takes time, we have a pretty good start in my opinion. We are more skilled and faster today than we would have been if Mangino was not fired.

KGphoto 6 years, 9 months ago

The sunny side: From this moment on, through the 2012 class, Gill and Co. will be able to focus on a few really good Defensive Tackles instead of spending so much time corralling a stable of 4 star RBs and supersonic LBs. And the fact that we will have a year of 3-4 under our belt, a show of commitment to the base formation, will probably attract some guys who want to be refrigerators in the middle.

KGphoto 6 years, 9 months ago

It should be noted here, that Kansas' defensive line is no smaller than any other Big 12 opponent KU will play this year. In many cases we are even bigger. Vic Shealy is correct. With the exception of Phil Taylor last year, no DT was bigger than 308. Most NTs in the Big 12 are around 300. Many of the DTs are in the 270s and 280s. The DEs are the same size as Opurum and Keba.

We simply are not undersized at the position. No excuses.



Oklahoma St.

Texas Tech




Texas A&M

KGphoto 6 years, 9 months ago

It's not undersized for a 43 either.

truefan 6 years, 9 months ago

Thanks for actually taking the time to do the research...I was scared to look. This is encouraging.

Randy Bombardier 6 years, 9 months ago

Does anyone realize we were ranked third in run defense in 2003? I was checking D standings and that one popped out at me.

waywardJay 6 years, 9 months ago

that's re-writing history.....

We never won a bunch of games we shouldn't have under Mangino.... otherwise we would have had more than one season above 7-5......

We did, however, Have some stretches of incredible defense under Young....We were top 10 defensively in Reid's last two years ( if moemory serves ) against the run..... Sure mangino gets partial credit on this, but he should lose that credit back for never having offenses those seasosn to be better than 7-5 or 6-6.....

I appreciate what Mangino did, but to say we won a bunch of games we shouldn't have is a glaring misnomer when we also lost games where we were up by 31 at halftime against Baylor and lost witout scoring another point in the game.

texashawk10 6 years, 9 months ago

KU's run defense fell apart when Young left for Okie St. Go look at Mangino's record in close games, particularly 2004 and 2006. In those two years alone, KU lost 9 games by a single score. Overall, Mangino lost 21 games by 10 points or less and was 3-16 against ranked opponents. I'd hardly say Mangino won a bunch of games against superior teams.

waywardJay 6 years, 9 months ago

Thank you for the statistical backup TexasHawk

Randy Bombardier 6 years, 9 months ago

When Young left and we elevated Bowen I was not happy with the result. Always felt that fresh off a BCS win was not the time to keep costs down. We should have gone out and hired the best dman we could get. If only.

waywardJay 6 years, 9 months ago

If I can go this weekend I will.... NO promises.... but I would love to make it.

mikehawk 6 years, 9 months ago

Very informative article. I have met John Williams and he is a very nice guy off of the field. Lets hope he gets mean and nasty on it.

KSseahawk 6 years, 9 months ago

I'm hopeful the O can stay on the field long enough to allow the D to catch their breath.

Shades of yet another $2MM evaluation process.

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