When a college football program goes through a coaching change, it’s common for there to be a mismatch between the inherited roster and the new scheme. For example, a pro-style offense might be loaded up with pocket passing QBs and blocking TEs. If a new coach were to comes in and installs a spread offense, there would likely be some growing pains.
Similar roster friction can occur on defense. If a team has played 4-3 defense, the roster will be made up of players recruited for that scheme. If a new coach were to install a 3-4 defense, there could be problems. On paper, this is the position the Virginia defense finds itself in. After years playing a 4-3 defense during the Mike London Era, Virginia is switching to a 3-4 under Bronco Mendenhall.
But a strange thing appears to be happening among the ranks of Virginia’s defensive roster. Through sheer coincidence, it appears that UVA’s current defensive personnel is better suited for Mendenhall’s 3-4 than it would have been for London’s 4-3. Given the clown show that was the Mike London Era, I’m not sure that any of this should be a surprise.
First off, the Cavaliers are much deeper at LB than they are on the DL, which fits a 3-4 defense. Not counting true freshmen, there are 13 LBs on the roster and just 10 DLs. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re including Chris Peace as an OLB, because that’s where he’s been practicing.) Virginia only has 4 linemen with any playing experience, but it has 6 such linebackers. And at least 3 of those linemen will be gone after this year, compared with only 1 LB. So the linemen-linebacker breakdown not only favors a 3-4 in 2016; it should continue to favor the 3-4 in 2017.
Some of the individual player stories further this point. Take a look at the guys lining up at OLB in training camp right now. Cory Jones and Chris Peace are fighting for the starting gig at the SAM position. Jones is 215 pounds and Peace is 235. Neither of those guys were likely big enough to be an every down DE, though Peace may have been a situational pass rusher. They both fit better as a 3-4 OLB, where they are no longer undersized.
Last year’s starting WLB, Zach Bradshaw, has moved to an ILB position in the 3-4. Bradshaw was 4th on the team in tackles in 2015, despite missing the final 2 games with an injury (and another game because of a targeting ejection). He had 3.5 TFLs, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. What he didn’t have were any INTs or passes defended. Truth is, he isn’t a great cover guy. Oh, he’s a decent zone guy. But he doesn’t have the quickness for man coverage and he’s limited to flat zones because of his lack of top-end speed. He’s a much better fit as an ILB next to Micah Kiser, where he has less ground to cover, he can continue to stop the run, cover flat zones and come on the occasional blitz. Bradshaw’s another example of a guy who’s better suited for a 3-4.
Perhaps there’s no bigger example (pun intended) than Donte Wilkins, who checks in at a stout 6’1” and 300 pounds. As a 4-3 DT, Wilkins totaled 42 tackles and 5.5 TFLs in 33 games over 3 years. He’s started 6 times. He was a solid run stopper, but Jon Tenuta’s defenses weren’t about run stopping. They were about generating pressure on the QB. Wilkins mostly came off the field in passing situations. The Hoos spent a lot of time in nickel packages, and that usually meant Wilkins wasn’t on the field.
Wilkins seems a perfect fit as a 3-4 DT. He’s big and he’s strong and he’s more than capable of handling a double-team from a center-guard combination. He’s also quick enough to beat that double-team off the snap and get into the backfield. That’s his job now: collapse the pocket from the inside and make the ball go east-west instead of north-south. If we see UVA in any 2-4-5 some nickel packages, Wilkins will likely stay on the field. In these packages, the two down-linemen are 2-gap and the 2 OLBs are 1 gap off the edge. Wilkins isn’t coming off the field for those packages. If the Hoos go into a more traditional 3-3-5 (or 4-2-5), with the DLs playing 1-gap, Wilkins may come off the field for a quicker 1-gap DT.
If you’ve been paying attention to practice reports, you’ve probably heard about Malcolm Cook. He moved from safety to OLB and has been getting rave reviews there. He’s put on 20 pounds of muscle, but still has the speed and quickness that made him a heavily recruited safety coming out of FUMA. He gives the Hoos a LB who can handle zone or man coverage and can also support the run. He allows the team to transition from 3-4 to 3-3-5 without changing personnel. In short, he’s a perfect fit for Bronco Mendenhall’s defense.
And finally, let’s talk about Andrew Brown. One of the top recruits in the history of Virginia football, Brown couldn’t get on the field in two years under Mike London. First, a toe injury hampered him during his freshman season. In 2015, though healthy, Brown spent most of the season warming the bench. In total, he has 10 tackles (3 TFLs), 1 sack and 2 pass breakups over 16 games in his career.
There are differing opinions about the reasons for Brown’s struggles. He says former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta pretty much didn’t like him. Some say he wasn’t working hard enough. But he was also miscast as a 4-3 DT. Brown weighs in at 280, which was a bit lighter than Jon Tenuta wanted from his DTs. Tenuta’s defense was built on generating QB pressure by blitzing the LBs. The DTs job was to stop interior runs and to open up holes for the LBs to get into the backfield. As a 3-4 DE, Brown’s job is to get into the backfield himself and wreck havoc. As a 2-gap DE, Brown is going to have to read plays a bit quicker. He’s probably going to face double-teams a lot, especially if he’s successful at getting into the backfield. But his quickness will give him an advantag and his strength and power will help him get into the backfield even against the double-team.
Brown certainly could’ve been successful in Tenuta’s defense. And he may have been great in somebody else’s 4-3 defense. But this defense is tailor-made for a DE with Brown’s skillset. Does anybody remember how good Al Groh’s 3-4 defense was in 2007 when Chris Long was in the backfield on every play? That defense was 23rd in the nation in total defense and 6th in the nation in sacks. I’m not saying this year’s defense is going to be that good. And I’m certainly not saying Brown is going to be as good as Long was that year. But the potential is there for a defensive line that causes significant headaches for opposing offenses, and for Brown to play a major role in its success.
I’m sure that Craig Littlepage and John Oliver didn’t pay much attention to specific schemes when they were looking for a new coach. These are the same guys, after all, that brought us the genius of Greg Brandon, Steve Fairchild, Jon Tenuta, and Larry Lewis. It appears that the choice of Mendenhall was based more on attitude, history of success, and willingness to coach under a strict set of academic and behavioral guidelines. But when it comes to defensive scheme, they just may have unwittingly struck gold. Mendenhall’s particular defensive scheme should help ease the transition as he tries to increase the level of future talent in the program.