To me, the most intriguing story of Oklahoma’s spring football camp is how the Stoops brothers plan to shake up their defensive scheme. I’m far from a chalk talker, but I still love analyzing how football coaches deploy their resources to maximize their advantages, exploit opponents’ weaknesses and whatnot.
Ever since Mike Stoops revealed on national signing day that OU intends to revert to a four-man front as its base alignment, I’ve put a lot of thought into what this might look like. I admit to finding the idea a little strange, given that OU recruited for a 3-4 D for four seasons.
That doesn’t mean I’m pessimistic about the change. It’s not like OU’s defense was lights out after implementing the odd-man front. It produced a mixed bag of results, culminating in a disappointing 2016 that saw OU allow 29 points per game, the most since Bob Stoops came to Norman. Likewise, OU ranked 55th nationally in the Defensive S&P+, easily the Sooners’ worst finish since Bill Connelly started compiling his efficiency stats in 2005.
So, with that in mind, I'm working on a couple pieces to analyze some of the issues tied up in the transition. I'll also try to make sense of where the defense might be going.
I want to start, though, by looking back at where the defense has been.
OU’s 3-4 Defense
For the last four years, the Sooners have used a traditional 3-4 Okie alignment as their base. The front three typically played a two-gap technique: They engaged the blocker directly in front of them, read the direction of the play and then shed the blocker to pursue.
The scheme put a premium on size and length along the DL. The objective was to keep the inside linebackers free so that they could clean up against the run or drop into coverage.
Meanwhile, OU relied on outside linebackers to make plays in space on the edges. The JACK outside linebacker on the weak side was generally expected to be a pass rusher. The SAM, on the other hand, functioned as everything from edge rusher to nickelback. (I like Ian Boyd’s term “space backer” to describe this position.)
On the back end, the Sooners played a significant amount of single-high coverage, including Cover-3.
It wasn’t unusual to see OU take a linebacker off the field in favor of an additional defensive back against spread sets and on passing downs. Aside from that, Mike didn't do much tinkering with the standard look.
*OU’s ability to stop the run appeared to depend heavily on the strength of its defensive line.
The Sooners allowed a scant 3.02 yards per rushing attempt (3.27 excluding sacks) in 2014. That DL featured two NFL draft picks in Jordan Phillips and Charles Tapper and three-year starter Chuka Ndulue. A year later, OU gave up 3.81 yards per rush (3.96 excluding sacks) with a unit that still had Tapper and added Charles Walker to the mix.
In contrast, as depth waned and attrition mounted in 2016, opponents’ average yards per rush climbed to 4.55 (4.63 excluding sacks). That’s a range between fourth in the country in ‘14 and 73rd overall last season.
It doesn’t come as a shock that the D would come off better with stronger DLs. It seems reasonable, though, that better linemen had a significant multiplier effect on the D's overall performance.
*The Sooners’ struggles to stop teams from throwing on them were generally overblown.
From 2013 to 2016, OU ranked 21st, 32nd, 4th and 39th in Defensive Passing S&P+. Not great, but also not a complete disaster on the whole. It seems notable that in ‘14 and ‘16, OU had a gaping hole at one cornerback spot.
As such, I’d argue that trading a down lineman from the four-man front for some extra speed in pass coverage did have its benefits. Was the trade-off a net positive? Harder to say.
*OU’s edge players blew up in the 3-4 scheme.
Eric Striker terrorized opposing offenses for three years and earned All-American honors in ‘15. The two JACK linebackers who played alongside him heard their names called in the NFL draft.
Meanwhile, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo played his ass off last season – he could find himself shooting up draft boards with a similar campaign this fall. Sophomore Caleb Kelly played up to his five-star recruiting ranking late in the year on the opposite side of the field from Obo.
Whatever the scheme's faults, Mike's 3-4 still leveraged the hell out of OU's OLBs.
*The pass rush lost its effectiveness.
From a 10,000-foot view, the 3-4 alignment theoretically granted Mike flexibility. He had a wide variety of blitz options at his disposal utilizing OU’s linebackers, and he could more easily disguise both his pressure packages and coverages.
That’s the theory, at least. In implementation, the Sooners seemed to shy away from aggressive calls. Instead, Mike showed a fondness at times for dropping seven or eight players, a move that frequently left the DL to engage in an ineffective “mush rush.” Without a legitimate pass rush, linebackers and defensive backs too often had to cover receivers for extended periods.
Last season, OU’s pass rush was so limp that the D generated a paltry 25 sacks in 13 games. The previous three squads averaged nearly 35 per year.
I definitely understand the urge to junk what OU has been doing defensively. We’ve seen the Sooners get roasted far too many times in those 50-plus games.
Personally, I have a hard time separating out scheme issues from the reality that OU is only now emerging from major mismanagement in recruiting on the defensive side of the ball. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the 3-4 move was made in 2013 as the coaches were beating the streets in search of defensive linemen. Tweaks to the scheme since then have felt to me like constantly trying to plug holes in the roster's dam.
I’d also caution that fans can put too much stock into schemes as antidotes for a defense’s problems. In fact, coaches have done so much to meld philosophies together lately that terms like 3-4 and 4-3 have become largely irrelevant.
My guess is that the forthcoming changes won’t be as radical as many might have hoped. I also don’t believe they necessarily have to be. In another post, I’ll discuss what I think those changes might look like.