Practice Bits: Defense Comment Count

Brian March 19th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

3-4, 4-3, etc etc

I've said this before and I'll probably say it again several times before the season starts: Michigan is not likely to be moving to a traditional 3-4 system. Nor will they spend a lot of time implementing a traditional 3-4 to mix in with a 4-3. The time commitment to do so is prohibitive at the college level, and the kind of personnel who can effectively do both are too rare.

So what's with all the discussion about moving to a 3-4? It comes from the top, as this Sam Webb interview with Marcus Ray indicates:

Sam Webb: Michigan is telling kids that they are going to be basically 50/50 as far as 3-4, 4-3.  As best you can without having a visual aid or a grease board, explain to people, how that will come to pass and why Michigan is saying that, why that makes sense.

Ray describes the 4-3 under as something that could be looked at as a 5-2…


Brennen Beyer, the stand-up SAM in this picture, bounced between SAM and DE for his career

…and says that a 3-4 can look a lot like the under. Both accurate, and as I've mentioned before you can look at the under as a defense halfway between the traditional Miami-style 4-3 even/over and a 3-4.

But I think the distinction here is a bit of a red herring. I asked Spencer Hall what Florida ran last year and he replied it was a 4-3 with a standup end (Dante Fowler); my observations of the Florida defense rarely encounter a nose tackle lined up directly over the center. He's almost always in a gap.

Could it shade to a 3-4? Sure, I guess. Why would they do that? There are two reasons:

  • To run a 3-4! Obviously.
  • To disguise their 4-3. Gap-sound unpredictability is a major goal of all defenses. Putting a nose tackle over the center gives him an advantage if he's going to slant one way or the other, but the idea is still the same: get in a gap.

Ray explains:

"If you line up in that A gap or that center believes that they know you have this gap then it is easier for them to block you because you‘re more of a standing target, they know what gap you’re responsible for, but in that 30 front, you can slant and angle in either way.  They don’t know which gap you are responsible for and they have to guess and try to figure it out once the ball is snapped, but it gives the D-lineman the flexibility to go either way.  And then let the truth be told, in that same 30 front, if you have a noseguard that is lined up right over the center and he slants to the strong side, then that is technically going back to under.  If that noseguard slants to the weak side, in the weak side A gap, then that technically puts you in an over front, because the entire front has to shift along with him, so now that gives you some 4-3 flexibility from a 30 front if you just slant and angle, it puts you right into a 4-3 defense.”

If you believe that Ryan Glasgow will hold the nose tackle job, a 30 front featuring him is an undeclared 4-3. Michigan doesn't have a Nix or a Gabe Watson to hold down the middle of that defense and two-gap the center unless Ondre Pipkins goes from afterthought to superstar in his final year or Bryan Mone is terrific as a sophomore.

Michigan may run a bunch of different fronts but at its heart the defense is probably a 4-3. And judging from Florida last year it's not going to seem that much different than Mattison's fronts.

Defensive Line


Lawrence Marshall is a name to watch. [Bryan Fuller]

Anyway this is all a lead-in to an assertion that for now I'm still assuming Michigan has a traditional 4-3 look this fall and I won't be changing up the nomenclature yet.

If and when we get enough data to do so it looks like the first change will be at WDE, which Florida folks sometimes call "drop end." Reports hold that Mario Ojemudia and Lawrence Marshall are frequently in a two point stance—something Marshall had never done and was taking some time adjusting to—this fall. Again, this gives the impression of a 3-4. In my mind it's taking the Mattison 4-3 under a half-step towards a 3-4 but whatever.

Marshall is doing well. His athleticism stands out and he's already about as big as Ojemudia. Ojemudia had to put on a bunch of weight and topped out around 250; unfortunately he hasn't displayed the explosiveness he had in high school at the bulkier number. A platoon is certain… unless Marshall wrests the job away and Ojemudia is again called upon to be a guy who plays spot downs to rest the starter. Michigan is trying out the occasional linebacker there as well, with Royce Jenkins-Stone the most prominent.

The other three spots have seen a ton of rotation, some of it involuntary. Injuries have held out big chunks of the line for a practice or three. When present, Willie Henry has been impressive. Chris Wormley is playing SDE again($), which makes sense given the depth chart (especially with Henry Poggi trying his hand at TE, and double especially if Michigan is moving back to more of an under). 4-3 under SDE is a better fit for him, as he can be that RVB type with a bit more pass rush.


There's as of yet no movement away from the presumed lineup of senior starters: Ross, Morgan, Bolden. With Greg Mattison still around I'm not surprised. 247 does mention a competitor to the presumed starters($):

[Ben] Gedeon has popped out early as a potential contributor in this year's defense. He has potentially the best combination of size, athleticism and intelligence at the position and it might turn into a situation where it's difficult to keep him off the field. For the second straight season, linebacker may be Michigan's deepest position, so if he stays on the field consistently, it will be because he's turned into a good to great player.

Scout also mentioned Gedeon as a potential breakout performer.

True junior Gedeon is a prime member of Team Why U No Redshirt who needs to start making an impact now. Michigan has rotated extensively in the past—not so much last year—and I expect he'll get playing time almost in line with the starters.

That is about all the chatter, with Ross/Bolden/Morgan the presumed starters. They look good when the DL isn't having them catch blocks all day, which has been something of an issue since a lot of guys have been out.


There have been plenty of reports on Jabrill Peppers, who is looking like the Jabrill Peppers everyone dreamed about when he committed. Peppers bounces from safety to nickelback and looks like Jabrill Peppers should. He is taking ownership of his unit even as a sophomore:

"He's a high energy, high motor guy and he's going to talk trash," Countess said last week. "And he's going to get everybody going. He's been one of those guys you want on the field.

"Even if he has a bad play, he's going to let you know. And if he has a good play, he's definitely going to let you know."

Countess loves the energy and the intent. But when asked if there is ever a time when he'd like to have the ability to quiet his younger teammate, he's quick with an answer.

No way.

"I love it," he says with a smile. "He says the stuff that I don't say, but everybody's thinking."

As Michigan State demonstrated last year, one of the most important positions on the field as an aggressive defense going up against spread offenses is the slot-side safety. He often gets tested deep in cover four.

It'll be interesting to see how Michigan aligns. I'm guessing Peppers just gets the field side as they rely on the restricted space to help Jarrod Wilson out. An observer from the coaching clinic did note that Peppers is usually "aligning to pass strength," so that is encouraging in terms of keeping Wilson in a FS-ish role he's comfortable with and maximally utilizing Peppers's skills.

Jourdan Lewis is also drawing consistent praise. He was Michigan's #1 corner by midseason last year, passing both Countess and Taylor; it sounds like he has picked up where he left off plus a little bit of tackling strength. With Blake Countess set to be a four-year starter the top four guys in the secondary are pretty set. The main question is: can Countess bounce back from some rough times last year and play man to man? 247 has heard he is in "lockdown" mode, so there's that. I'm reserving judgment.

Freddy Canteen is getting a few reps at CB, so… that's odd. Harbaugh loves flipping guys around to see what they can do, and Canteen is a guy who could theoretically be a good corner. Doubt it sticks, but whatever.



March 19th, 2015 at 1:30 PM ^

Sooo, speaking of defense, I was thinking yesterday after Ray was talking about the LBs.  He said when there's four LBs on the field, it's Ross, Morgan, Bolden, and RJS across the four spots.  And that got me thinking that, HOLY SHIT WHO THE HELL IS PLAYING LB NEXT YEAR?  A quick consult to the Depth Chart By Class shows that UM has Gedeon, McCray, and converted 'safety' Gant as non-freshman back-ups.  And then the freshman back ups are Furbush and Wangler.  That's a terrible depth chart in my opinion.  Why is Winovich playing FB/H-back?  I get competition...but damn, Winovich looked like a quality LB prospect and that position group needs quality depth pronto.  Next year, if either Gedeon or McCray get dinged...well let's not think about that.


March 19th, 2015 at 7:32 PM ^

I wouldn't put it past Winovich to play both ways. He was a high school QB (who ran more than he passed) and obviously a pretty good linebacker. Personally, I like guys who played QB in high school because it shows leadership/intelligence. I think he's the type of guy who could handle playing on both sides of the ball.


March 19th, 2015 at 1:33 PM ^

It has been reported on at least one site that the Canteen at CB thing was basically the result of one drill where Canteen lined up as a coverage guy just for the sake of challenging the receiver at the time (I can't recall who the receiver was.)  Of course, now you're getting into which sites can we trust or not trust, but it is worth noting I think that not everyone necessarily thinks that Harbaugh is seriously considering a position change for Canteen at this time.


That said, he is known for his quick feet.  I suppose anything is possible when the HC is a mad scientist in regards to players switching positions.


March 19th, 2015 at 1:49 PM ^

Anything IS possible.  Harbaugh is known for experimenting, and said on public record he's allowing the players to try different positions.  Canteen running a play at CB can mean anything from absolutely nothing to a full-blown switch.

That said, while I get you're using the term affectionately, I wouldn't call him a "mad scientist".  I think Harbaugh would let a kicker play 3-tech IF the guy beat out everyone else.  Granted that'd never happen, but reality would dictate that, is my point.  That's how you get a 2-star FB taking over the MLB position.  You don't close off possibilities just because that's how other people do it.  It's not "thinking outside the box", nor is it "mad"; it's just not seeing the box at all.  Try anything; let reality decide.

/ there is no spoon
// the cake is a lie
/// your mom

Yostbound and Down

March 19th, 2015 at 1:33 PM ^

Is it fair to say this is more of a shift for Mattison to maybe more of a hybrid, like he ran in Baltimore, vs a pure 4-3 under? How similar is it to what the Niners ran under Fangio?

Space Coyote

March 19th, 2015 at 1:46 PM ^

I think that's a decent way of looking at it. As Brian said, it's still a 4-3 essentially. You saw at times, particularly with Clark, that Mattison would have him in a 2-point stance at times when Michigan ran the Under. It's really doing that, but doing it every down more or less.

The LBs will rotate a bit more than a true one-gap 3-4, but that's basically what they are doing. They'll slant and angle the NT to set the front over/under and the defense will respond accordingly. Move the LBs a bit, and you have some slightly different gap responsibilities, but, it's like what Brian said about the Center knowing the NT has a certain A gap, now the defense does that along the entire LOS.

The difficulty in it, and part of the difficulty I suspect the DL is having (which I had also heard about elsewhere) is that with the gaps changing, their responsibilities change from play to play. It's more for the offense to take on, but also a broader list of responsibilities for everyone on the DL. But they still need to keep the LBs clean. And I've heard the LBs are a bit slow reading and reacting, well, with that makes sense when they aren't consistently reading a single key, responsible for a single gap or two, or getting consistent looks defensively. So it'll take some time to adjust to being very multiple, which is what it sounds like.


March 19th, 2015 at 1:52 PM ^

You can't exactly have the NT yell "I'm going HERE" right in front of the C, or they've just made things more complicated without any of the upside of surprise.  I don't know if the line has a way of communicating their gap assignments to the linebackers or if the latter are expected to read the line, but if they can master it, it'll wreak havoc on opposing O-lines.

Space Coyote

March 19th, 2015 at 2:02 PM ^

The defense should be on the same page as far as their stunts. I don't think they'll be two-gapping, so all that should be called. Whether they slant (strongside) the NT, or angle (weakside) him, or the whole line, or pinch the line, those should all be pre-snap calls in some form or another, either from the playcall or from the LB communicating down based on offensive alignment.

The difference is that it simply isn't consistent from down-to-down. You aren't lining your Over front to field every down to give the LBs a consistent look and time to see the play pre-snap. Now you might slant into an over or angle into an under, and it's all done pre-snap, and so all the things happening in real time in front of you need to be digested that much faster.


March 19th, 2015 at 1:37 PM ^

3-4...4-3....its all the same thing. once you go to sub packages it makes no difference at all. 


the biggest difference is over or under. most teams do both. the only teams that stay pretty much the same every down are over teams who run 4-3 over and 4-2-5 over. 


March 19th, 2015 at 1:37 PM ^

This is what I call "3-4 small" as a concept, not to act like some kind of expert I'm not but to keep things simple in my own head.  "3-4 small" is quite the misnomer (again, not an expert) because it's not like linemen ranging from 250-300 pounds are small, but my first reading of "3-4" was the conventional 2-gap scheme where the NT is a space-eating giant weighing well over 300 pounds (commonly 320 or more) whose main purpose is to hold ground against double-teams.  But when I saw the 3-4 in action I noticed some teams didn't have that.  The formation was 3-4 but it was a one-gap scheme where the D-line slanted and the SAM was lined up somewhere between inside the RT and outside the TE.

There's a blurring of the definition of "linemen" when you're looking at DEs and OLBs standing up at the LoS expecting to take on blockers.  They may or may not have a hand on the ground but if you're standing only a couple feet from a huge brute trying to flatten you and your first step is forward (unless you're in a zone blitz), as far as I'm concerned you're a lineman.  As such a lot of what people call 3-4 or 4-3 are as interchangeable or can even be a 5-2.  Point is, who has their hand down isn't as important as the gap assignments.

So I really just think Michigan is sticking with a 4-3, 1-gap scheme but this "3-4" talk is really just tinkering with the ends, OLBs and alignments to mess with the offense's blocking assignments.  Which is what a defense should be doing anyway.  There are upsides to relentlessly drilling a single scheme, but it's also tougher to win matchups when the other guy knows exactly where you'll be and which direction you'll go.


March 19th, 2015 at 2:08 PM ^

I think the DL and LB will be similar to recent years where we have plenty of depth and competence but are lacking a big play guy at any position. That is okay, just not elite.

As for the secondary, I definitely like the starters and love Lewis. But who comes off the bench? Who plays Nickel? Do they move Peppers down and bring in a safety? Does Terry Richardson still exist? Will the promise of Dmonte Thomas ever be realized in meaningful snaps? Can Stribling build on early promise and his height?

Space Coyote

March 19th, 2015 at 2:18 PM ^

And Thomas was coming in at safety until he got hurt, and it was Hill that came in after him. This should surprise anyone, as Durkin has used a 3-3-5 as his nickel package before.

Stribling still exsists if he needs to step in. Richardson or one of the other guys could potentially step in in a crunch. Actually, with Peppers move to safety and guys like Clark, Hill, and Thomas getting another year of experience, I'm suddenly a lot more comfortable with the safety outlook than I was. CB is thin, but Peppers could also move back in a pinch potentially.


March 19th, 2015 at 4:54 PM ^

Absolutely agree.  He doesn't strike me as fast enough to match up in man against a team's #1 or #2, but when they go to that Nickel-ish formation against spread teams/4+ wides he's got enough size to (I think) be disruptive.  I'll admit to not having the greatest knowledge of formations, though, so this might be completely pulled out of my ass.


March 19th, 2015 at 7:31 PM ^

So far I have not been impressed by Stribling. Yes, he is tall. That's about where the story ends. He is neither strong nor quick/fast. Personally, unless he shows more than he has, I do not expect or want Durkin to bend over backwards to get Stribling on the field.


March 19th, 2015 at 4:49 PM ^

"lacking a big play guy at any position"

Kind of funny - I see it the exact opposite.  I see LB as the place we dont have any splash players.

In the DB I think Lewis is going to be very good - like 2nd team Big 10 good.  And Peppers if he lives up to the hype gives you 2 splash players in the secondary.

Our DEs are an issue but I think Henry is a splash player and if Wormley can ever figre it out he could be a splash player.   Charlton is in the same boat.   Mone could also take a nice step from being a complete newb to college football to a SO.

Contrast with the LBs where I see a lot of workmanlike players but not a lot of quick twitch explosiveness.  Which also is an issue at DE right now.

As to your other question don't forget Lyons.  I expect Lyons and Countess to platoon at the other CB and probably Countess go NB when we go 5 DBs.  That should be Dymonte Thomas position by now but right now my expectations for Thomas are nil and I hope he surprises to the upside.

If Thomas had developed your nickel secondary of Lewis/Wilson/Peppers/Thomas (NB)/Countess or Lyons would actually be a very nice group.


March 19th, 2015 at 4:51 PM ^

Thankfully outside of OSU MSU and PSU the Big 10 is chock full of crap QBs.  There are a few average ones but one of those might be headed to UM in fact via Kirk F.  After those 3 you have a big drop to the Purdue and Indianas who probably have the 4th/5th best QBs next year.  Guys like Tommie Armstrong and whatever safety Wisconsin decides to play at QB are not exactly Big 12/Pac 12 throwing machines.

steve sharik

March 19th, 2015 at 5:44 PM ^

In my last year coaching, I installed hybrid 40/30 front D in which, with the same personnel, we could play any front. The key is to have one hybrid who can play both WDE and WOLB (probably Ojemudia/Marshall) and another who can play OLB/safety (Peppers, Hill, Thomas, etc.). You do this so offenses can't know what front you're in based on personnel, similar to offenses using flex TEs/H backs. Sun Tzu Art of War principles.