Last year we predicted Dymonte would seize the nickel job. It's still open. [Fuller]
While doing Draftageddon this year Brian told each of us to draft an extra nickelback, or hybrid space player, because these defenses face 3-wide sets (and beyond) about as often as 2-wide ones. Modern offenses were made to take advantage of the run-stopping linebackers teams put on the strong side of the formation, forcing them to cover a jitterbug in space in addition to the running game. Defenses have countered with linebacker-safety hybrids of various forms. We've seen it in practice, and for many schools there's now an official hybrid/nickel position: STAR at Illinois and Ohio State, F-linebacker at Wisconsin, nickel at Michigan, etc. The HSP is the defense's answer to the slot receiver. It's the position we've ticketed Peppers for this season, at least to start.
However as I keep trying to find evidence of this in the stats, they keep eluding me. See: the division of Michigan's tackles (counting assists as 0.5 tackles) between the levels since 1995:
(click does the big thing)
Outliers. Doing this with just one team means we don't get much of a sample; unfortunately cfbstats just got bought out by two dudes who want $7500/year from each blog to use the stats he used to put online for free (i.e. under creative commons). If you downloaded the old spreadsheets from Marty (who does deserve to get paid for the work he did curating them) he says it's fine to use them. If you visit the old site you'll get the most salesman guy in the world who acts all cagey before telling you the $7500 price tag. Such is life.
You'll note some years Michigan went to a 3-4 defense in 2004-'05 there's an uptick in linebacker tackles—that's Woodley being counted as one (for much of 1999 and 2000 they were a 3-4 but as often as not James Hall/Shantee Orr had their hands down, i.e. 4-3 under). And in 2009 and 2010 when Michigan went to a 3-3-5 (effectively three safeties) there's a safety hump. However the year with the largest % of tackles by DBs was 2011, the year Kovacs and T.Gordon were #s 2 and 3 on the tackle charts. Then it went down.
I think there's a couple things going on here. One, I think the transition to nickel happened longer ago than we gave it credit for. And two: Jake Ryan. Remember for the start of 2011 T.Gordon was playing nickel while Woolfolk was free safety. The typical configuration of Michigan's defense wasn't the 4-3 under we'd been told was coming; it was the same base nickel Michigan had before Rich Rod. The 2011 season's formations from the UFR:
|San Diego State||43%||45%||6%||6%||0%||0%|
It was highly opponent-dependent. You'll note the trajectory of the Okie as they debuted it, shelved it, then brought it back against Illinois. But you'll also see Mattison deploying 4-3 alignments more often against spread outfits. Against Kain Colter and Northwestern's spread-option offense they were 80% nickel; against Braxton Miller and Ohio State's they were 23%.
I think what they discovered was they could get away with Jake Ryan as the HSP. Come 2012 and 2013 that was the base.
When did it get Nickel-y?
From personal recollection Lloyd used a lot of 3-3-5 nickel against spread teams after 2000, when his 4-2-5 nickel got shredded by Randy Walker's Rodriguezian offense. The tackling stats don't say. Even when I went through to identify who played "SAM" (Spur in 3-3-5, not the WDE in a 3-4) and nickel the tackle totals told no story:
I'm giving up on this route. Eventually someone will find something useful to do with tackling stats but this isn't that day. If someone has an idea for how to find the rise of the nickelback in statistics, I'm all ears. In the meantime let's watch defense porn.