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The Move to the 4-2-5 Defense

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If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  So, what if it is broke?  93rd in total defense, 87th in scoring defense and 113th in pass defense!!!  I'm not here to live in the past and we've talked about the multitude of reasons that can be pointed to for last years frustration on the defensive side of the ball.  The good news is that clearly Coach Mangino is not of the opinion that everything was A-Okay.  Almost immediately following the 2008 season we saw the beginnings of change with the hiring of Coach Miller and Coach Sims.  Nothing against the old crew but it's already been somewhat widely accepted that these hires are both upgrades to the staff. 

Now you've got the question marks which again have been covered, discussed and analyzed.  Do we have the linebacker depth to replace the departures?  Do we have the speed at the position necessary to compete against the spread and can we put a pass rush on the quarterback to create more pressure situations for opposing offenses.  What's the solution to all these?  Sounds like the staff is thinking the 4-2-5 combined with the expectation of an upgrade and further development in our talent level.

A Look at the Why's and How's of a 4-2-5 Defense After the Jump....

We first saw glimmers of this and how effective it could be with our 2008 season finale against Missouri.  In no way did we shut down the Tigers but we certainly did a better job than many thought.  Considering our passing defense woes and the juggernaut that was the Tigers passing offense many expected a clinic at the hands of Chase Daniel.

A quick snapshot of how our rotation during that game looked a little like this:

  • Front Four rotation:  any combination of 2 defensive ends or an end and Holt, along with 2 defensive tackles
  • Linebacker rotation: 2 man rotation of Rivera, Holt, Wright and Mortensen w/Wright seeing significant minutes late.
  • Defensive backfield: Primarily a 3 safety/2 corner set with Chris Harris being the third safety on the field.

So why was this successful and what makes the staff think we can continue to do so going forward?  In short what are the advantages here?

To understand the why's, you've got to understand the problems, namely linebacker.  First and foremost we're short on depth here as is evidenced by Quigley's move.  After '05 when we graduated our last corps the Big 12 was still a league where the bigger more physical linebacker could flourish.  Rivera, Mortensen and to a lesser extent Holt were all the clear successors.  Leaving '08 we didn't have that.  Wright looked to be someone that had an early jump as did Justin Springer.  However does a guy as big and physical as Springer still fit in the Big 12?  Kansas is in a situation where they struggle to have the depth at the true middle linebacker spot and they don't necessarily have the speed and athleticism at the outside linebacker spot.

The solution in the 4-2-5 is this.  Instead of having to find one anchor middle linebacker and two athletic coverage capable outside linebackers, now you only have to find two capable effective "inside" backers.  They don't have to dominate the middle and control the run by themselves and they aren't as likely to get caught on an island in pass coverage against the likes of  Chase Coffman, Jeremy Maclin or any other of these speedy or over sized slot guys in the Big 12.  What was once a weakness is now considered far less critical.

Second problem is a pass rush.  The front four of Kansas struggled in '08 to put together consistent pressure.  If you move to far toward a heavy pass emphasis and deemphasize your threat to rush you might only make the problem worse.  A 4-2-5 can address a little of both.  Let's assume for a moment that we are going to need more than a 4 man rush to get pressure.  Next let's look at our recruiting and notice that over the past few years it seems that it has become far easier as a up and coming program to find and recruit depth at the strong and free safety positions than at linebacker.  Darrell Stuckey, Phillip Strozier, Chris Harris, Lubbock Smith, Dexter Linton, Prinz Kande are 6 players that I think anyone would be happy to have in the pipeline for a 4-2-5. 

Now what we've got is the ability to have 8-9 guys "in the box" with three of them being safeties.  This creates the ability to clutter that pre snap read, hide any blitz packages and ads a lot more speed to positions that could threaten on a pass rush.  This is where the 4-2-5 differs from any other "nickel" packages.  Instead of 3 corners through elimination of either a linebacker or even worse a defensive lineman, you've added a safety at the expense of a position that was somewhat a liability anyway at outside linebacker.  A strong safety or weak safetey should be equally threatening in a pass rush or run support situation as they are in coverage.  That isn't always the case with three corners.  The spread wants to do just that, spread out the field.  Counteract that with players capable of doing multiple things from the middle third of the field and you make it more difficult for quick reads, and allow yourself more options from a defensive perspective.

Last problem that the spread creates is that of defensive matchups.  Again a standard 4-3 defense can get caught off balance and on their heels with the right motion or formation shift matching up any one of your prototypical linebackers with one of these explosive play making slot receivers.  With 5 defensive backs on the field you've effectively limited that risk.  Now you've got two corners and three safeties all capable of pass coverage and comfortable in pass coverage spread out across the field.  More speed, more athleticism and better coverage across the field without losing too much in the middle.

In short it's all about the ability to find three capable safeties.  Essentially you will field a free safety, a strong safety and a weak safety.  The base alignment alone allows for more variations, more versatility and the potential to pose more "threat" packages against the spread teams of the Big 12.  It allows defensive coordinators to take back some of the edge and maybe even put the offensive team on it's heels for a little in the perfect situation. 

Will it work?  Time will tell but I for one am excited to see how our new coaching staff, current players and a seeming new philosophy change things up a bit.  Football is a very cyclical sport and you can be sure that when one side of the ball appears to peak in performance, the other side is close behind in adjusting.