College Football Recruiting
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
by Bob Epling, The Campus Game
“You can’t always get what you want …
but if you try sometimes, you just might find …
You get what you need …”
(The Rolling Stones 1969)
Just like Mick and the boys from Britain sang, you best believe coaches are trying real hard to get what they need right now.
Yes, it’s recruiting season.
With a week remaining until NSD (National Signing Day) coaches are still trying hard to land the talent, while fans wander the web to find out the latest leanings and rumors.
But, do fans truly understand what their teams actually need?
Welcome back to The Campus Game, where you’ll always find just what you need to keep up with the great American game – college football.
This week, instead of looking at recruiting from the perspective of a fan’s “wants” … let’s analyze from a coach’s needs.
Defense: Know Your School’s Alignment
4-3 or 3-4?
You probably read frequently about whether a team will use a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme or alignment. My two favorite teams (Georgia and Notre Dame) both just made the switch from the former to the latter. With Alabama coach Nick Saban ascendant on the college scene (Saban is college football’s foremost proponent of the “3-4”), expect even more squads to play copycat.
So what do those numbers mean?
Simply put, they refer to the number of defensive players near the ball before each snap, and to how those players are aligned.
Originally called the “50 defense” or “Oklahoma 50,” the 3-4 scheme calls for three defensive linemen to play “down” (meaning with their hands literally on the ground). The one in the middle (nearest the center) is the nose tackle, the other two (lined up on the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles) are called ends.
The other four players in the 3-4 are now commonly called linebackers: two outside linebackers (OLB) and two inside linebackers. The inside backers are often labeled “Sam” (for strong side – usually lining up closer to the tight end side) and “Will” (for weak side – usually away from the tight end); they line up on the outside shoulders of the offensive guards but a few yards away from the line of scrimmage. The OLBs line up close to the line of scrimmage, on the outside shoulders of the last men on the offensive line. These outside linebackers can either penetrate, hold their ground, or drop into pass coverage. All four linebackers line up in a “two-point” stance – meaning they are standing.
The 4-3 originated as a variation of the 3-4 or old Oklahoma 50.
In this alignment, there are four “down” linemen. Two defensive tackles line up on the outside shoulders of the opposing offensive guards. Two defensive ends line up on the outside shoulders of the last men on the offensive line.
Backing them up are three linebackers. The Sam and Will designations explained above still hold; between those two comes the “Mike” (or middle linebacker).
The defensive backfield typically consists of two cornerbacks (playing nearer the sidelines of the field) and two safeties (playing nearer the middle of the field).
Before we leave alignments, realize all teams shift personnel to take into account opposing attacks (for example removing one or two of the front seven and replacing them with extra defensive backs). With the proliferation of the spread offense, some teams (most notably Florida) make their base defense include five defensive backs (the Gators regularly use a 4-2-5 alignment).
How Does Alignment Affect Recruiting?
Let’s focus solely on the defensive fronts. Given that all defenses would love big, strong, fast players at every position, as a fan you should be aware of your squad’s specific personnel needs.
Those personnel needs are different for the 3-4 and the 4-3.
In the 3-4, three positions require a lot of girth: the nose tackle and the two defensive ends. Ideally, your team lands a huge, mobile “two-gap” nose tackle like Bama’s Terrence Cody. The two-gap tag means that your nose tackle can occupy two gaps … the space between offensive linemen. Cody could occupy the gaps on either side of the center, forcing offenses to allot two men to block him.
If you cannot find a two-gap guy, then your team might have to rely on a smaller (relatively speaking) one-gap nose tackle. Using this style, the nose would shoot gaps and try to penetrate into the opposing backfield on nearly every snap. New Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham does a great job explaining how undersized Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys makes all-pro as a one-gap nose tackle.
The defensive ends also need to be jumbo sized in the 3-4. Most of the pass rush in this alignment will come from blitzing outside linebackers, so you want your team to have ends in the 3-4 that can clog up the opposing run game. By the way – for the old-timers and traditionalists out there (including me) – to us, the modern “end” in a 3-4 is what we’d call a tackle in “50” terminology.
On to the 4-3. Your team better be able to recruit even more size up front.
Your squad will have two huge tackles lined up inside, and two more large (and agile) defensive ends that must be able to rush the passer and fend off run blockers. My beloved Fighting Irish have had much trouble recruiting defensive linemen for many years … moving to a 3-4 puts less a premium on recruiting these highly coveted athletes because you only need three instead of four.
While I actually prefer the 4-3 alignment (and almost all coaches who can get the athletes to run it would use it), the 3-4 is probably more unpredictable.
One of the two outside linebackers is going to be rushing the passer on virtually every play – so in both schemes you have a minimum of four pass rushers. The difference is that in the 3-4, offenses cannot be sure which OLB will be charging the quarterback.
So … What Does Your Team Need?
When your team inks its new recruiting class next Wednesday, you should really be able to analyze the defensive front haul based on your team’s needs (rather than your wants). Those needs are based on the alignments we just addressed.
Here are some points of analysis to measure whether your school had a successful recruiting season:
In the 3-4 …
Did you seek one-gap or two-gap nose tackles? If you land a big guy or two (300+ lbs. or so) you might have the coveted two-gapper. If your nose guys are all in the 280-300 lb. range, expect your defensive coordinator to be shooting the gaps.
Did you land at least two more big defensive linemen to fill the run-stopping requirements of those defensive end positions?
Look closely at players labeled linebackers. Did you get at least two or three rather tall (6’4 to 6’6), rangy athletes quick enough to rush the passer, strong enough to take on run-blockers, and agile enough to drop into pass coverage? If so, those are your outside linebackers.
In the 4-3 …
Where’s the beef?
Your squad better stock up on plenty of big bodies. Depending on your returning roster, every recruiting class usually needs at least two big monsters (300+ lbs. – height is not paramount) to man the tackle positions, and probably four big athletes (at least 6’2 and between 260-280 lb. range) to handle the tough defensive end slots.
Did you sign good size and numbers at linebacker and in the secondary?
Doing so fills two needs. Obviously, you need three LBs and four defensive backs on the field in your base defense. So, numbers are important.
The other benefit is that these guys often grow into another position. Miami in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s made a living by turning secondary recruits into smallish, fast linebackers (think Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma), and linebacker recruits into smallish, fast defensive linemen (think Cortez Kennedy and Warren Sapp).
You Just Might Find
College football fans celebrate National Signing Day next week as one contest when there are no losers. Every team will sign a whole bunch of good players.
Some of you will be disappointed because your team didn’t get everything you wanted.
But, if you try real hard (and analyze), you just might find … you get what you need. Oh yeah.
See you at kickoff!