First and foremost, let me say this article is based solely upon information I have gathered watching a few videos of the defenses led by Vic Koenning at Wyoming and Troy, and knowledge about terminology I have gained over the years. I have not met with Koenning nor have I had the time to attend any practices this fall. My assumption is he will stick with the terminology and schemes he has used in the past. This is not a guarantee; it is a disclaimer.
Aside from some of the lower levels of football, there are three common “base” defenses. They are known as the 3-4 (3 linemen and 4 LBs), the 4-3 (4 linemen and 3 LBs), and the 50, which is also called a 5-2 (5 linemen and 2 LBs). Each of these is considered a seven-man front.
There are other forms and variations used on a situational basis. The most common of these are the nickel (5 DBs) and dime (6 DBs). The evolution of offensive schemes has also led to a number of hybrid defenses over the last few years, most notably the 3-3-5. Even though it is technically a six-man front, its roots lie within all of the defenses mentioned above.
It is a safe bet to say the 4-3 is the predominant defense on the collegiate level. A prime example of that is the ACC, where only one team that I know of, Virginia, runs a 3-4. What does Koenning run? Well, it really depends on whom you ask.
He has been very successful in the past mixing components of both. He uses a nose guard, which is almost exclusively a 3-4 term, but he also uses two ends, which is nearly always associated with a 4-3. To make it even more complicated, his alignments have a hint of a 50 defense. Trying to explain all of this could get really in-depth, so I will stick to the basics.
The linebackers are known as the Sam, Mike, and Will. The Sam is the strongside LB, meaning he will be lined up to the side of the tight end or the wide side of the field depending on the formation. Although not the case with Clemson this year, Sams are usually big guys who can run.
They have to be physical because they mix it up with linemen in nearly all-running situations, but they need the speed for coverage because they are responsible for either the running back or tight end when in man coverage. Many times in a situation where the offense has a twin set (2 WRs split to one side) they are required to split the difference between the tackle and the inside receiver. The Sam will also line up over the tight end on the line of scrimmage at times.
As for the run, forcing the RB to either cut back inside or bounce it outside by blowing up the blocking is a must. It is a punishing task because they deal with tackles, guards, and tight ends much of the time. Coaches ultimately want them to beat the blocks with quickness or by simply shedding the offensive player. Otherwise, they must take it head on without giving any ground.
The Will is the guy who is set up to make a lot of tackles. He is expected to provide a lot of backside support against the run. The Will is usually matched up against a fullback (or other lead blocker) on an isolation play. The coverage responsibilities are not as great as the Sam and they are often blitzing in those situations.
The Mike is your prototypical hard-nosed guy that lives for contact. Their two basic responsibilities are to stuff the run and wreak havoc on the QB in blitzing situations. A Mike has to be completely fearless. Because they are in the middle and do not get to operate in space as much as the others, they must be very instinctive players. They have to trust their keys because any hesitation on their part usually leads to a big play for the offense.
One must understand these are very basic overviews of the responsibilities of each position. The Mike and Will are not always blitzing and the Sam is not always in man coverage in passing situations. Many calls require them to drop into zone coverage on passes. Think of it as the Mike dropping straight back while the Sam and Will drop at 45-degree angles to cover the underneath portion of the field.
How a linebacker takes his drop is very important. The key is to disrupt the routes of receivers running through their zone when taking their drops. For instance, the Sam should always contact a tight end releasing straight down the field. This throws the tight end off of his pattern, which essentially delays the QB’s delivery and gives the safeties time to provide support over the top.
This is the position that defensive players dream about. The perfect guy for this position is part strong safety, part linebacker, and part defensive end. Speed, strength, and raw football ability are the intangibles.
Some fans may remember former Tiger bandit Andy Headen. The 6’4”, 245 lb. ex-QB manned the position for Clemson during the 1981 season. A name much more recognizable is Lawrence Taylor. Although not a true bandit, he played the game much like one.
Gaines Adams is exactly what the blueprint of a bandit end looks like. He is tall, muscular, and runs extremely well for a man of his size. He is actually more physically well built for the position than Demarcus Ware (6’3”, 247), who was a first round draft pick in the last NFL draft after playing for Koenning at Troy.
The bandit is the wildcard of the defense. One play he may be blitzing only to drop into coverage for the next. That is not very unusual for someone such as a linebacker, but it is very rare for someone typically lined up as a defensive end.
Expect the bandit to rush a good bit this year because of the mismatch created against tackles. They are big enough to rush like an end, but they are also fast enough to come like a linebacker. Likewise, do not be surprised to see him covering a back releasing into the flats. The latter may not occur as much early in the season because that is a requirement most of the guys at that position have not had to deal with in the past.
For all intents and purposes the cat safety is nothing more than a strong safety. A strong safety is typically a mix between a linebacker and a free safety. They play an integral role in the passing game, but they are also expected to provide much needed run support.
Jamaal Fudge has manned this position the last two years and done an excellent job of it. It was a rare occurrence to not see him in the mix when the pile was unfolding at the end of each play.
The cat, if the position is indeed played like a strong safety, may be lined up deep on one play and near the line of scrimmage much like a linebacker the next. In some aspects, this is the most physically demanding position on defense. They have to be willing to get tangled up with the occasional lineman and/or fullback, while being able to play a deep half along with a free safety in cover 2 situations.
Most people think of a nose guard as the guy that lines up over the ball. This is a correct assumption in most instances, but will not always be the case under Koenning. There will be times when the nose guard lines up much like a guard in a 4-3.
A true nose guard is traditionally someone with a low center of gravity, impressive strength, and above average quickness. William Perry may be the most famous nose guard in Clemson history. His superhuman athleticism, for a man of his size, allowed him to excel at the position.
Cory Groover, although struggling during the preseason, is the person on the roster who is probably most physically suited for the job. The former high school linebacker/running back is round and short in relative terms. His background as a skill player has afforded him the quickness Koenning would like.
A nose guard is a true run stopper that must deal with a high number of double teams. His job against the run is to clog up the middle by taking on more than one lineman. Against the run they have to get a good push in hopes of collapsing the pocket and forcing the QB to scramble.
There will be times this year when the defense will look no different than what fans have seen the last few years under John Lovett. There will be other times when it will appear as if the Tigers are practicing a Chinese fire drill.
Koenning likes to create pressure using a five-man rush. It is a sound plan in theory because it leaves you with six guys to protect against the pass. The key is to find a way to disrupt the passing game using only five men when lots of teams use six and seven.
This is where he draws upon aspects of the 50 defense. Those rushing will use stunts and angles in order to gain the upper hand. He will also attempt to confuse opposing QBs by using zone blitzes. The bandit may line up as if he will rush only to drop into coverage with the other end. Two or even all three LBs may blitz in those situations. It is not so much that this style of rush creates a numbers match-up, as it creates confusion for the QB when making his reads.
This is a defense that relies heavily upon athleticism, speed, and quickness. However, the mixture of schemes will allow Koenning to rely on more than just physical ability. This hybrid 4-3/3-4 will attempt to create confusion for everyone on the offensive side of the ball.
Koenning has a good track record and a good core of athletes. The possibility of having a very good defense this year is better than it has been in some time. How things stand after eleven games will depend on how well the players grasp the system, injuries, and how well Koenning can scheme against a very tough schedule.