Of the 32 teams in the NFL, the split between defenses that run 3-4 and 4-3 base sets is nearly even at 15-17, respectively. (Hat tip to Daniel Jeremiah of Move the Sticks for that little piece of knowledge.)
Conversely, Homerism’s straw poll of college programs finds that the vast majority prefer some iteration of a 4-3 D. With Alabama’s success in the last two seasons, however, I think that’s about to change.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has a well-deserved reputation as a master of the three-man front, which he leveraged to transform ‘Bama into college football’s fiercest defense last season. Just as the spread offense has become commonplace in recent years, don’t be surprised if more schools start trying to emulate Saban’s winning ways. New defensive coordinator and ex-Dallas Cowboys d-line coach Todd Grantham has brought the 3-4 to Georgia this spring, for instance.
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables are longtime 4-3 practitioners, so expecting them to jump whole-hog into a new base defense seems pretty far out there. Yet, given the Sooners’ 2010 personnel, transitioning to a three-man front does sound intriguing.
A front four that was arguably the best in the country in 2009 took some big hits in the offseason. To no one’s surprise, stud DT Gerald McCoy declared for the NFL draft. However, OU’s other starting tackle, Adrian Taylor, sustained a grisly leg injury in the bowl game against Stanford, leaving his 2010 status up in the air. Obviously, you can’t plan for that.
If Taylor can’t go, it essentially leaves the Sooners with one true d-tackle who has shown any promise, rising sophomore Jamarkus McFarland. The coaching staff thinks highly of redshirt freshman Justin Chaisson‘s ability. Yet, whether or not he can make the transition from end to tackle in time to contribute in 2010 remains to be seen. Other than that, the only experienced tackles on the roster are Casey Walker and Stacy McGee, neither of whom have given fans much to get excited about.
Whereas defensive tackle may be the Sooners’ thinnest spot in the upcoming season, OU boasts a wealth of talent at linebacker. Standout weakside linebacker Travis Lewis, who led the team in tackles the past two years, passed on the NFL draft for another year under Venables’ watchful eye. Redshirt freshman Tom Wort was in the running to start at middle linebacker before falling victim to a season-ending knee injury during two-a-days. Ronnell “The Hammer” Lewis is the team’s most ferocious hitter and proved he can be a difference maker in the Sun Bowl win.
There’s also veteran Austin Box, who started a handful of games in 2008; well-regarded redshirt freshman Jaydan Bird; Joseph Ibiloye, who plays like a linebacker-safety hybrid; Daniel Franklin, entering his third year in the program; and touted true freshman Corey Nelson.
On its face, therefore, shifting to a 3-4 set plays to the Sooners’ defensive strengths. But it’s more complicated than that.
Installing a new base set means new principles, new techniques, new playcalling. What changes would need to be made in the secondary? Those aren’t the kind of things that you can learn overnight.
Plus, at some point, you are what you are. For Venables and Stoops, their defensive schemes have become their calling card. Sure, there’s plenty of room to tinker around those edges. Wholesale changes, on the other hand, require the coaching equivalent of a midlife crisis.
(The no-huddle offense doesn’t count. That’s Kevin Wilson’s show.)
That doesn’t mean Venables can’t sprinkle in some 3-4 looks on occasion. Just don’t expect to see it too often.