Huskies, Cougars leading Pac-12 switch to 3-4 defenses
Wide-open offenses and the ease of recruiting smaller players cited as reasons football teams are moving away from 4-3 bases.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Along with a significant churn of Pac-12 football coaches in the offseason — both head and assistants — another change is taking place, one that will be more subtle to the average fan.
A trend to the 3-4 defense is sweeping a league that has, in recent years, overwhelmingly favored the 4-3.
Cal and Stanford have run the 3-4 — which features a nose tackle and two ends — in recent years, while the rest of the league has leaned on the 4-3.
But both Washington and Washington State, each with a new defensive coordinator, have gone to the 3-4 as a base defense — though they can switch to four down linemen — and Arizona is going to a 3-3-5. Arizona State, under new hire Todd Graham, showed heavy doses of the 3-4 late in spring drills.
Others, including Oregon, UCLA and Colorado, have the 3-4 in their arsenal, if not as a primary look.
"We're starting to see more spread offense in the Pac-12," says Mike Breske, WSU defensive coordinator, whose background fit new coach Mike Leach's bent toward installing a 3-4. "Compared to a year ago, the league has changed."
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian spoke similarly awhile back. The league not only presents stiff challenges with multiple-receiver sets in spread passing games, but adds the challenge of Oregon's run-oriented spread-option machine. Everybody recognizes the need for speed on the back end.
Says Sarkisian's new defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, "I don't think there's a right or wrong way. There's good and bad in all of it. It's just whatever you're comfortable with, what you think fits you best."
In Washington State's case, there's a belief that it's easier to recruit quality linebackers than it is big, rangy linemen. Wilcox understands that thinking, saying, "There's fewer people that are real dynamic, explosive guys that weigh 270. There's more of those guys that are 230."
But it's still a talent-driven game. The players make the scheme, rather than vice versa. That's the view even of one of the Pac-12's 3-4 godfathers, Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
He came to Jeff Tedford's staff before the 2010 season, with a résumé thick with NFL experience.
"In my time as a position coach (in Dallas and Cleveland), I was more involved in the 4-3 alignment," Pendergast said. "When I went to Arizona (the Cardinals) as the defensive coordinator, the 3-4 structure was going to allow me to use (personnel) better. There weren't as many 3-4s in the NFL, and I wanted to think outside the box."
Pendergast's two Cal units in 2010-11 each led the Pac-12 in total defense.
"Any team that's a 3-4, that's just their base defense," he cautions. "It's a little bit of a misnomer. You can create multiple looks from a front standpoint and a coverage standpoint."
The Huskies will be showing those multiple looks, including the use of Josh Shirley as a stand-up defensive end. But Shirley (6 feet 3, 235 pounds) has the versatility to fill the description of an outside linebacker.
Wilcox says the Huskies' personnel better fits a 3-4 base, yet he also sees a continuation of the defense here in future years as players turn over.
"We don't have a lot of size up front," he said. "We have more 5-techniques (ends who play on the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle), guys like (Andrew) Hudson and Talia (Crichton).
"In a perfect world, we need to get bigger and longer."
WSU's Breske also gravitated to the 3-4 more out of pragmatism than preference. He worked under Joe Glenn at Wyoming (2003 to 2008), where the Cowboys have an uphill battle in recruiting.
"Our (recruiting) list at linebacker was always greater than our list of defensive linemen," Breske said.
The "odd" front (3-4) presents a preparation changeup for offenses, although that advantage may dim with the trend away from the 4-3. But there's another possible edge to recruiting for the 3-4: More linebacker-type bodies can be utilized on special teams than big-framed defensive linemen.
Breske says he thinks the 3-4 "tends to play in space better than the 4-3." Pendergast counters, "Depends on how athletic your linebackers are."
This fall, a lot of Pac-12 offenses are going to try to find out.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com