In the 4-3 vs. 3-4 debate, the trump card is how the pieces move

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Back when Brian Kelly was all about defense, back when he was a coaching unknown to just about everyone outside of his boss, Tom Beck, Kelly had a twisted plan.

The young defensive coordinator at NCAA Division II Grand Valley State in 1989 and ’90, took his blank canvas and drew up a puzzle for opposing offensive coordinators.

Confronted with the choice of what then was a more conventional 4-3 look up front vs. the 3-4, Kelly checked both boxes.

“What’s now kind of the ‘in’ thing to do — a hybrid — I was doing back in 1989,” the fifth-year Notre Dame head football coach, and much more offensively reputed these days, said proudly. “I was standing up my defensive end, and people were having a hard time identifying who the guy was. I always felt like the best thing to do is come up with the hardest thing for offenses to read.”

Kelly’s defensive cohort at the time was a young linebackers coach named Brian VanGorder, who had been coaching high school football in Florida when Beck/Kelly asked him to climb aboard Kelly’s defensive, crazy train.

The insanity worked so well that in two years both men had promotions. Kelly was named head coach at GVSU when Beck got a call from Lou Holtz at Notre Dame to serve as running backs coach for the Irish. Kelly’s first hire was to promote VanGorder to defensive coordinator to fill his old slot.

More than two decades and scads of strategic evolutions in the game later, the two are back together again at Notre Dame, confronted by the same X’s and O’s conundrum: Is it 4-3 — with four defensive linemen and three linebackers — or 3-4 — with three down lineman and four linebackers?

At least some form of their answer will play out Saturday, when the 17th-ranked Irish open the season at Notre Dame Stadium against Rice.

The NFL is about 50-50 4-3 vs. 3-4 teams. College schemes still lean toward the 4-3, with the 3-4 gaining ground. Doing both, what Kelly did 25 years ago, is now trending on both levels.

Even in an oversimplified view, the answer isn’t a simple either/or for Notre Dame, or anyone else for that matter.

There are layers and tentacles, recruiting implications and personnel strengths/flaws to consider. And not all 4-3s and 3-4s are created equal.

There are variances in how they align across from the offensive linemen, how much movement, slanting, twisting, stunting, they’ll do. There’s the choice to be sort of passive-aggressive once the pieces start moving or just plain aggressive.

“We clearly know what we want it to look like,” Kelly said of VanGorder’s first scheme as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.

But nobody else quite does.

Do Rice and Michigan, ND’s first two opponents on the 2014 schedule, look at film from the Atlanta Falcons, where VanGorder orchestrated and influenced the defense from 2007-11? From a one-and-done season at Auburn (2012)? From his four-year run in the early 2000s with Georgia, where he won a Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant?

The more meaningful response is whether VanGorder will be able to keep opposing coordinators guessing beyond the first few weeks of the season.

And that’s what makes his most recent stop with the New York Jets so pivotal and so intriguing.

VanGorder wasn’t the defensive coordinator for the Jets — he was the linebackers coach. But he learned under Jets head coach Rex Ryan, a strategics outlier whose defenses during his nine-year run as head coach or defensive coordinator in the NFL have never finished lower than 11th in total defense, landed in the top five six times and led the league twice.

“I grew up in a very systematic, exact defense,” VanGorder said in explaining what he extracted from the short-but-impactful union. “And Rex’s philosophy is a little different from that, a little bit more on the edge in respects to traditional thoughts on defense. And that definitely had an influence on me.”

How much of an influence seemed apparent in Notre Dame’s 15 practices last spring and the handful open to the media during fall training camp.

The two-gap read/react Bob Diaco-style defense that flourished in 2012 and backpedaled severely in 2013, was replaced by an attacking, up-the-field look with more blitzing, more pressing, more confusion for the offense.

“The defense is real,” offered ND backup quarterback Malik Zaire. “Like, they’re really good. It’s another version of what (it’s) going to look like at the next level, and I think it can only help us moving forward. He (VanGorder) knows his stuff, and that’s a good thing.”

The rest of the college football world awaits the unveiling of one of the biggest wild cards nationally — a rebuilding Notre Dame defense with a new look and energy.

It’s a combination that, if wildly successful, could push the Irish out of the Russell Athletic Bowl postseason stratosphere they’re projected for and into the upper reaches of the new postseason system.

There are hiccups on the VanGorder résumé that suggest the opposite is possible, though not probable — a lost year at Auburn in 2012, a flawed one-year stint as head coach at Georgia Southern (2006), both pre-Ryan.

“I’m not overly familiar with him as a football coach,” said former Notre Dame quarterback and current CBS NFL and college football analyst Steve Beuerlein. “I do know that he’s got a very unique moustache that he refuses to shave, and I’ve heard about that.

“But I can guarantee that if he spent one year in a Rex Ryan system, Rex Ryan is a coach that I know pretty well and I believe is one of the most unique and talented and distinguished defensive coaches ever to coach in the NFL.

“The things that he has done and implemented successfully in his defensive schemes, they’re the stuff of legend, from a technical football standpoint. And I think that can only enhance what Notre Dame will have next year, that element of never allowing a quarterback to get comfortable on the football field. That’s what Rex Ryan strives to do.”


Former Notre Dame iconic coach Lou Holtz, who’s retiring from his long-time analyst role/Mark May foil at ESPN after the season, doesn’t have a preference anymore as far as fronts go when confronting the proliferation of spread offenses, but he does have a strong opinion about what needs to be included in the scheme.

“However you choose to line up, up front, you must be able to do three things on defense that most people cannot do,” said Holtz, who evolved through 3-4 and 4-3 — and even 5-2 — looks during his 11-year run at ND. “One, you must get pressure with a four-man rush. You can’t allow that quarterback to run around and scramble all over.

“No. 2, you have to be able to play a reasonable amount of man coverage. You’ve got to be able to match up. You can talk about being zone, breaking on the ball. At the same time, with all the hitches, you better be able to play good man coverage, and a lot of people don’t play good man coverage.

“The third thing you have to do, you must be able to tackle in space, and not many people are able to do that as well. But if you can, then you have a chance to be really good.”

In the post-Holtz Era (1997-present), the Irish were predominantly, if not exclusively 4-3 under Bob Davie (1997-2001) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-2004). Charlie Weis (2005-09) started in the 4-3 for two years, switched to a 3-4 under defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, then went back to 4-3 when Weis hired Jon Tenuta.

Kelly’s base has always been 3-4, but the Irish became increasingly multiple in Diaco’s four-year run as Kelly’s defensive coordinator.

ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman said in a perfect world, where recruiting the most elite athletes at any position wasn’t a factor, he’d be a 3-4 guy. And the former Ohio State and NFL star played in both — and the once-legendary 46 defense.

“Both ways have their advantages, but I like the 3-4’s advantages better,” he said. “The two most significant ones to me are you have the ability to drop eight in coverage easier. The other thing is you have more of a variety of zone pressures, and it puts a little onus on the offense, because it’s a little bit more difficult for them to get a pre-snap read of where pressure is coming from.”

When you add in the realities of recruiting, Spielman likes the 3-4 just as much if not more, largely because he said it’s easier to recruit 6-foot-3, 230-pound outside linebackers with top-end speed to be an edge player than it is to find 6-6, 270-pound defensive ends who run sub-4.7 40-yard dashes for the 4-3 defense.

“The essential part of a 3-4,” though, is you’ve got to have a stout nose guard — a guy who is unselfish, a guy who eats up blocks, a guy that you can’t knock off the ball and have to demand double-teams at that nose position,” Spielman said. “A guy like Louis Nix.

“Your 3-4 nose guard can never be single-blocked by the center. If he is, then you’re in trouble as a defense.”

Nix, who played at 6-3, and in the 350s for virtually his entire ND career, was a third-round draft choice of the Houston Texans last May. Notre Dame doesn’t have another one of him on the roster, Kelly acknowledges.

“There was an abundance of good nose guards last year and in this recruiting cycle,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said, “Buddha-like 6-2, 320-pound guys. Last year Notre Dame lost every single one of them early. This year there are 12 or 13 with that kind of ability, but the problem is there aren’t a lot of them in the Midwest. In fact, there’s not a lot of talent period in the Midwest.

“I think the main reason Notre Dame lost those prospects is because they labeled themselves as a 3-4 team under Diaco, where there’s less opportunity to play inside, even though they did play quite a bit of 4-3 at times over the past four years.”

In 2013, it was almost 50 percent 4-3 at ND. This fall, it figures to be more than 50, based in part on the expectation of the incoming freshman defensive linemen and the recruiting pitch they received from VanGorder late in the cycle, and the preponderance of 4-3 shown on the practice field last spring and in August.

“Last year we were in four-down in our nickel and dime packages,” Kelly said. “This year we want to make it difficult for you to know when exactly we’ll be in one or the other. We could go back and forth from one down to the next, or we can go a whole game without lining up in the three-down once.

“The next week we come out in a 3-4. That’s kind of how I want to keep you off-balance from week to week.”

But if there’s no Nix on the roster, is the 3-4 a realistic threat?

Jarron Jones is a converted end, who languished at that position as a backup for a season and a half, then was an emergency replacement for Nix and backup Kona Schwenke late in 2013. He awakened and surged as an inside player.

The evolution continued last spring for the 6-foot-5, 310-pound junior, whose projected backup —senior Tony Springmann — was converted to a medical hardship scholarship in August when an injury-laden career ran out of comebacks. That left two moderately recruited freshmen, the Irish swooped in on just before signing day, to audition to be a major part of Plan B at the position.

“I think Jarron Jones will be able to command double-teams,” Kelly said. “Does he yet? No. He is the guy that we have all invested in to get him there. And we see signs of it, tangible signs that he’s making that progress. And we’re very encouraged, all of us, that we can get him there — he’s just not there yet. We just hope it’s by this September.”


The differences between Diaco and VanGorder appear so fundamentally profound, it makes you wonder what would have happened if Diaco hadn’t landed the head-coaching gig at Connecticut last December.

Kelly insists Diaco would have evolved, and done so willingly, to embrace and instill at least some of the concepts that are such a large part of VanGorder’s identity, specifically third-down sub packages, in which niche players become a big part of the scheme and strategy, and a more attacking style overall.

“We needed to get a fundamental base defensively where we were gap-conscious, fundamentally sound across the board defensively,” Kelly said of the 2010-13 seasons. “We reached a point where we can add on, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

What Diaco was able to deliver in four seasons in South Bend was four straight top 50 total defense rankings nationally. That’s something that hadn’t been accomplished at ND since the first four years of the Holtz Era (1986-89), under Foge Fazio and Barry Alvarez. And in 2012, with a secondary chock full of inexperience and converted offensive players, ND put up historical defensive numbers under Diaco.

But in a game of constant ping-ponging of strategic progressions, Diaco may have waited a year too long to make a schematic push in the attacking direction. With Nix and second-round draft choice Stephon Tuitt, both admittedly physically compromised at times, ND in 2013 showed alarming slippage in key defensive areas that hinted they were schematically obsolete.

That’s especially true when it came to leveraging pressure, and it showed up all over the place statistically. ND was 87th out of 123 FBS teams in third-down defense in 2013, 105th in turnovers gained, 118th in fumble recoveries, 96th in sacks and 107th in tackles for loss. All that was coupled with a staggering one-year drop in rush defense (11th to 70th).

VanGorder will have overall less-proven personnel in 2014 to work with and certainly less experience.

The most seasoned of 2014’s defensive front seven will be a player who just finished his freshman season — linebacker Jaylon Smith — with his 13 career starts. And he’s moving to a new position, weakside (inside) linebacker, from the drop (outside) linebacker spot.

The only other defensive linemen or linebackers on the roster with more than one career start are sophomore end/tackle Sheldon Day, with eight, and junior linebacker Jarrett Grace (3), whose recovery from a leg broken in four places last October will keep him out of at least Saturday’s opener but is gaining momentum for a return.

Kelly’s confidence that a turnaround will happen in 2014 is buoyed by VanGorder’s schematic principles and a secondary that he feels is loaded, especially at cornerback. Star corner KeiVarae Russell’s in-limbo status while the ongoing academic fraud probe progresses could dilute that enthusiasm if he isn’t eventually reinstated.

“If you’re going to play a Rex Ryan-style of defense, where you’re going to get up and press and disrupt things,” Spielman said, “you almost have to build from the outside in, and you have to have strong corners to be able to do that.

“Teams are so good at picking up blitzes these days, if you’re not a strong-man-to-man team with those strong cornerbacks, they’ll just eat you alive, because they’ll just throw basic timing routes.”

Kelly even hinted that the Irish could have a package of the 46 defense that Ryan’s father, Buddy, popularized with the 1985 Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl champs, which puts even more stress on the corners.

“I’ll just say this,” Kelly said with a smug smile, “Rex Ryan would not let Brian VanGorder come to Notre Dame unless there were some remnants of the 46. It was a personal agreement that we had to make.”

No one at the highest levels of football — pro or college — runs the 46 as a base defense anymore, because offenses caught up and exposed its three-defensive back principles. But in measured doses, it still can be overwhelming to opposing offenses with its six-man defensive line and eight-man front.

“Whatever you do, as long as you’re sound, you’re good,” Spielman said. “And I always believe in being sound. I think guys sometimes, all the places I go, people try to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to. Just be sound. And have your rear end covered in the back end. I’m a big believer that if you do that and get up and be aggressive, you’ll be pretty good.”

Belief in VanGorder among the Irish players can’t be overstated in the part it plays in putting the new schemes, the new philosophies into motion. And VanGorder didn’t make it easy on himself. He took a prototypical outside linebacker in Smith, who showed great promise there, and moved him to the middle of the formation.

But there was no pushback.

“I think Jaylon Smith’s ceiling at either position is equally high,” said Lemming, whose vote helped Smith win the high school version of the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.

“He certainly played well enough in space to be an All-American at some point in his career, and sooner rather than later. But I think it’s a smart move. You put your best athlete in the middle of the action. The kid can go sideline to sideline. He’s got great speed. It’s really quite brilliant.”

“When I committed here, I committed to doing anything that would help the team win,” Smith said, “And I’ll stick to that. I’m a team-first player.”

The overall buy-in of VanGorder by Smith and his teammates wasn’t instant, but it wasn’t protracted either.

“It took a few days, a few practices, but you just have to be very comfortable,” Smith said. “Just don’t act like you know it all. You have to be willing to accept the criticism and apply it to the game. Don’t worry about how he says it, but concentrate on what he’s actually saying. Once you develop that into your game, the sky’s the limit.”

But is it?

Because VanGorder coached with Ryan are you necessarily getting Ryan’s instincts to pair with his schemes? And is it possible to boil down complex concepts into the NCAA-allotted 20 hours a week?

“That’s why our installs are so much different than it was in New York,” VanGorder said. “But at the same time you’re dabbling in a lot of different areas. The most important thing is conceptually do they get it, because you can give a lot of different looks, but you try to build the overall concept with the guys. Once they understand that, it opens the door to do different things.”

And then the 3-4, 4-3 question becomes more rhetorical than one that demands an answer. The most important responses are how the pieces move however they’re lined up, how they fit together, whether they can transcend the sum of their parts.

“No matter what you do, the objective is to get a player comfortable where he can play the game fast,” VanGorder said. “Ultimately, you’ve got to be able to play fast. When you’re fighting through the learning process, like a number of guys are right now, that’s the battle.

“You’ve got to see reps. You’ve got to study hard. You’ve got to watch film. You’ve got to do all the things that will speed that up.”

And once it’s up to speed, it’s not all about sacks. Passes thrown away on purpose on third down to avoid the rush contribute to the same end. So does shaken confidence in the opposing quarterbacks.

“If there’s any doubt in the quarterback’s mind,” Beuerlein said, “it also translates to the offensive line — as far as who’s responsible for who, who to pick up. It transfers to the receivers, as far as knowing when they’re hot and when they’re not.

“It affects everybody, because the quarterback has to make decisions and then that decision influences the decisions that everybody else has to make.

“So you will see, if Brian VanGorder can implement this system effectively, in the short period of time, you’ll see a lot of guys coming free at the quarterback, because that is what the system is based on. It’s based on creating confusion and doubt and it throws off the timing of the quarterback, because he’s worried about whether he’s getting pressure or not.

“I’m excited to see how it translates onto the field this fall.”

Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, left, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly have concocted a scheme heavy on pressures and sub packages. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)