I wrote this for Rock Chalk Talk about the similarity between KU and the Chiefs and their respective switches to a 3-4 defense.
When Scott Pioli and Todd Haley came to town, one of the first major decisions that was made was to switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme. This was a fairly controversial move, as the previous year, the Chiefs had drafted a player that was supposed to be the next superstar 4-3 DT (Glenn Dorsey).
Still, Pioli spent his time in New England scouting for 3-4 players, and since the Chiefs just hired the most coveted GM on the market, it made sense to make use of his ability to find players that fit the 3-4.
By now we've all read about how the Jayhawks plan to play out of the 3-4 at least part of the time, and as I thought about the switch, the more the Jayhawks transition to the 3-4 seems to reflect that of the Chiefs. Below I'll talk about some of the parallels between the two teams, and serve up enough Kool-Aid to last us this last month of the off-season.
The first parallel between the two teams was the lack of pass rush before the switch. When Pioli and Haley came in, the Chiefs were a year removed from the Jared Allen trade, and while Tamba Hali was an adequate pass rusher, he made no one forget THE MULLET. Outside of Tamba, there was no one that was even an inconsistent threat to apply pressure, so teams pretty much focused on slowing him, and once they did, they had all the time they wanted in the pocket.
Similarly, last year's Kansas pass rush was not impressive. Jake Laptad didn't quite have the season that everyone had hoped (probably because he was being focused on by opponents) and no one else really rose above expectations, which were pretty low.
Things started to change toward the end of the year, though. The coaches finally settled Toben at DE, and when he got playing time, he was far and away the best defensive lineman on the field. He was still raw, especially at defending the run, but raw can be fixed, a lack of talent...not so much.
This brings us to our second parallel, Toben Opurum and Tamba Hali. This was actually the most obvious parallel to me, and probably the one that gives me the most hope that the 3-4 will be a success for the Jayhawks.
Before the Chiefs switch to the 3-4, Tamba was looked at as a decent pass rusher, but not a franchise player. He put up 8.0 and 7.5 sacks when Allen was across from him, but that number dropped to 3.0 the season after Allen was traded to Minnesota. Most fans and analysts considered him to be a player without a position when the Chiefs announced their intention to switch defensive schemes, which led to a whole lot of trade speculation. He was obviously to small to be a 3-4 DE, and many doubted he had the athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs, something an OLB in the 3-4 would be asked to do fairly regularly.
The Chiefs ignored the calls to trade Tamba, and he put up a respectable 8.5 sacks in the first season on the Chiefs' new defense. The next season though, as Tamba got more acclimated to the scheme, and the talent around him began to upgrade (still nothing like Jared Allen), Tamba put up 14.5 sacks, second only to DeMarcus Ware, considered by many to be the NFL's best pass rusher, who put up 15.5.
I think Toben is very similar to Tamba, both in athleticism and body type. He is too small to be a 3-4 DE, but he is the perfect size for a 3-4 OLB. Like with Hali, there is speculation about how well he can/will handle pass coverage, but as a former RB himself, I think Opurum's speed may actually help him fair a little better in this department (Hali drops back in to coverage less often than most OLBs do, but is adequate in coverage).
Also, the fact Toben will be in a two-point stance in the 3-4 may be an underrated benefit as well. Since most of his football career he has played RB, starting from a standing position might be more natural than a three-point stance for him, giving him a little additional explosion off of the snap.
The third parallel, an inexperienced, but talented secondary. In the same draft that the Chiefs selected Glenn Dorsey, they also selected a couple of corners, Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr. The Brandons performed pretty well as rookies, but the lack of a pass rush would catch up with them in most games, as the Chiefs gave up a fair amount of big passing plays (just watch the 2008 Chiefs-Dolphins game if you doubt this, Chad Pennington looked like a superstar). So while the promise was there in the secondary, fans were unsure what exactly to make of their corners. Were they good players simply asked to cover for too long? Or were they just 'yo-yo players' (a Todd Haley-ism for inconsistent performers)?
The first season in the 3-4, the Chiefs passing defense wasn't a whole lot better. Most Chiefs fans (myself included) will tell you this had more to do with the starting safety combination of Mike Brown and John McGraw than the play of the Chiefs' corners. The next season, with two talented rookie safeties behind them (Eric Berry from Tennessee & Kendrick Lewis from Ole Miss), the Brandons looked like one of the better corner tandems in the league, with Flowers playing at a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber level, and Carr also improving substantially (still gives up the big play too often in my opinion though).
Similarly, the Jayhawks secondary is a bit of a mystery going into the scheme change. According to recruiting services like ESPNU, Rivals, and Scout, the Jayhawks have signed more talent in the secondary over the past few seasons than just about any other position group, but last year's games against Baylor and K-State made it painfully clear that the KU secondary was not a strength.
This season, the tandem of Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald is expected to perform at a high level after starting hot last season, before being broken up due to an injury to Terry. In addition, the corner play improved toward the end of last season, some of which can be attributed to Toben Opurum's emergence, but to my eye, KU got improved play at the position (Tyler Patmon in particular stood out to me).
Will the Jayhawks' corner play improve with a better pass rush and improved safety play behind them (both of which are question marks, but for argument's sake, let's assume)? This remains to be seen, but something to keep an eye on.
The fourth parallel between the Chiefs' and Jayhawks' defensive switch is the lack of a legit nose tackle. The first rule of the 3-4 is that you NEED a nose tackle who can stop the run. This was a HUGE gripe from the Chiefs fans leading up to the first Pioli/Haley season (and would remain as such until this year, when KC drafted Jerrell Powe of Ole Miss and signed Kelly Gregg away from Baltimore). In the version of the 3-4 the Chiefs wanted to run, the NT plays the "0-technique", which basically means his job is to line up directly across from the center and take up as many blockers as possible and stop runs up the middle. This is accomplished mainly being really, really big (most 0-techs are 320 lbs. or more), as well as being strong and willing to take hits from multiple sides of your body (this is why Albert Haynesworth didn't want to play nose tackle in Washington, by the way). No Chief possessed all of those attributes, and when the Chiefs didn't draft or sign a legitimate starting NT, the fanbase went into a bit of a panic.
The Jayhawks lack a clear candidate for NT, as well. John Williams is listed as 6'3"/305, but he has gained weight, lost weight, and switched positions so much during his time in Lawrence, few really expect him to be a dominant tackle that great 3-4 teams like Green Bay, New England, and Pittsburgh have.
Even if he does exceed expectations, behind him the Jayhawks lack both size and depth. Most of the players listed as tackle on KU's roster are in the 6'3"/280 range, which is VERY small for a NT. The guy who has been most productive at tackle on KU's roster, Pat Dorsey, is smaller still (6'0"/273). So does this mean the Jayhawks' scheme change is ill conceived? Not necessarily.
As previously mentioned, the Chiefs didn't pick up a real NT until this current off-season, and their switch to the 3-4 has been pretty successful. So how did they do it? Well, they relied on a rotation of 3 players or so, but most of the time (I'd say around 75%) Ron Edwards was the Chiefs' NT. Edwards put on some size and is currently listed at 315 lbs., but he was smaller than that at the beginning of the Chiefs' defensive switch, and even 315 lbs. is on the lighter side for an NFL nose tackle. So what does this mean for the Jayhawks? Well, the 'Hawks are expected to rely on a rotation like the Chiefs did, and while I haven't seen or heard anything that confirms this, based purely on size, I'd imagine Williams is the lead man.
In his time in Kansas City, Edwards was never a player that ever did something that made you say 'wow'. He was solid, but nowhere close to the caliber of player you're supposed to need to effectively run a 3-4. So does this mean that the truism about the importance of a nose tackle in the 3-4 is over-stated? Or was Edwards more effective than people give him credit for? Given the fact the Chiefs didn't really put up much of a fight to keep him this year, despite his solid play, I'd lean toward the former, but I imagine Edwards was somewhat undervalued by fans as well (and maybe the Chiefs are just THAT confident in the new guys, I dunno). I'm not expecting Williams or any other Jayhawk tackle to light the world on fire this season, but if they can consistently draw a double team and tackle the running back if when he tries to run up the gut, the Jayhawks should be happy with that and look for a new big guy in the next recruiting class.
The final parallel I noticed was the relative depth at DE. If you look based on last season's results, claiming the 'Hawks are deep at DE is pretty laughable. The 3-4 DE is a different animal from the 4-3 DE though, so the change in role, along with some new blood at the position, gives the Jayhawks some apparent depth.
In Pioli's first draft, his first two picks were Tyson Jackson (LSU) and Alex Magee (Purdue). These players were both expected to play end in the new 3-4, but neither were lauded as great pass rushers by scouts. This caused some early worry among Chiefs fans, who didn't quite understand how the role of a 3-4 DE differs from that of a 4-3 end.
Most defensive ends you think of are 4-3 ends. They are the sack artists, guys like Mario Williams, Julius Peppers, and, of course, ex-Chief Jared Allen. Their job is almost exclusively to pressure and sack the quarterback (they're supposed to help in run support too, but no one seems to mind if they ignore that responsibility, as long as the put up big sack numbers), and the ones who are do so get paid the big bucks and are some of the most well-known guys on their team.
3-4 DEs are more analogous to the 4-3 DT than the 4-3 DE. Their job is almost exclusively to stop the run. Most 3-4 ends play the 5-technique (they line up on the offensive tackle's outside shoulder and cover the gap between the guard and tackle, and also prevent the outside run). As a result, 3-4 ends don't really need to be good pass rushers, becuase they usually don't get the opportunity to go after the QB (the NFL leaders in sacks/season for 3-4 DEs is around 8.0; usually around half of the overall sack leader's number. I looked the past 3 seasons and the 3-4 DE sack leader is usually a pretty big outlier, which if eliminated, gives the best pass rushing 3-4 DEs [guys like Shaun Ellis and Richard Seymour] around 5.0-5.5 sacks). So, looking at a 3-4 DE's stats like sacks and QB Pressures isn't a very good way to judge their performance. A more effective way to judge their performance is to look at the opponents rushing totals.
In addition to the two new draftees, the Chiefs switched the much-hyped Glenn Dorsey (drafted as a 4-3 DT) to end, and also signed some relatively unknown players for depth. Some analysts claimed (and a few still do) that playing Dorsey at end in the 3-4 is wasting his skill as a penetrating lineman, but he has been very effective at helping stop the run (his impact was made very clear when Jamal Lewis's back-up, Jerome Harrison, nearly broke the single game rushing record versus the Chiefs in 2009, which the only game Dorsey missed that year). Some of the no-namers the Chiefs signed played better than expected as well; Wallace Gilberry, a rotational back-up, performed well and even put up 7.0 sacks last year.
The Jayhawks have plenty of players that look like they were molded to play DE in a 3-4. While most of them are either freshman, coming off of their redshirt year, or have only seen limited playing time so far, the Chiefs showed that young players can step in right away at this spot (which is actually one of the reasons the 3-4 is in vogue right now; lineman usually face less transition time in a 3-4 than they do in a 4-3. IF they have the talent and body, that is...). The ideal measurables for a 3-4 DE in the NFL are around 6'5"+ and 280-300 lbs (for reference: Richard Seymour-6'6"/310 lbs., Shaun Ellis-6'5"/290 lbs., and the short for the position Glenn Dorsey-6'1"/297 lbs.), which multiple guys on the KU roster come close to. Ben Goodman (FR), Pat Lewandowski (FR-RS), and Julius Green (FR) already have nearly NFL-type measurables, and most of the other ends brought in buy Gill and Co. need to add muscle, but have good height for the position (the shortest DE outside of Opurum [who, as mentioned earlier, is likely an OLB in the 3-4] is 6'3"). If these guys learn the system quickly, DE could be a position of relative strength for KU the next four years.
Here's a list of my main points if the length scared you off, as well as some other general thoughts/questions about the switch to the 3-4:
- KU's defensive personnel resembles that of the Chiefs when they began their transition to the 3-4
- Opurum has similar tools to Tamba Hali, can he become that type of player?
- For KC, upgrading the pass rush and safety talent allowed their corners to start to play up to their potential, McDougald and Terry might help KU secondary live up to recruiting rankings
- Importance of a dominating NT in a 3-4 might be overstated, but does KU have a guy that can at least be solid?
- 3-4 DE is a position young guys can step in and play right away, will KU's freshman perform?
- Haven't seen any mention of, or speculation about the percentage of plays KU plans to line up in the 3-4.
- Does the fact most Big XII teams run a spread-type offense lessen the need for a big NT? Will be interesting to see how teams like Mizzou, Baylor, and Tech run vs. KU as opposed to more run-dependant teams: like UT, KSU, and OU. We should get a decent idea about how we play run-heavy teams when we play GT.
- Does the new scheme help/hurt recruiting? I think it should help, since more NFL teams are drafting 3-4 players, but in my casual following of national recruiting, I haven't seen a recruiting spike for 3-4 teams like Cal, aTm, etc.
- Does anyone know how the co-defensive coordinator situation is going to work? Haven't seen much info since Torbush's retirement, but I think it would be interesting if one coach focused more on the 3-4, and one focused on the 4-3, nickel, and other sets KU currently uses.
As a final note, there is another variation of the 3-4 that relies on the lineman to penetrate more (the Wade Phillips-lead Dallas Cowboys are the only team I know offhand that used it), which would cause the tackles and ends in a 3-4 to behave more like their 4-3 counter parts. However, I assumed that KU is using the more common system, which I think fits our talent better anyway. If anyone knows which variation KU is going to run, let me know.