Mailbag: How ’bout them linebacker recruits?

Tag: 4-3 under

10Jan 2012
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Mailbag: How ’bout them linebacker recruits?

Joe Bolden (#27) helps tackle Wes Brown in Thursday’s Under Armour All-America Game
(image via

 Magnus – 

This week there has been a lot of buzz about how well Joe Bolden is playing. Of the four incoming linebackers (all of which you list on your site as inside linebackers) I’m wondering how you see them fitting into the scheme and depth chart. More specifically: Demens is a solid multi-year starter who will anchor the middle next year and be replaced by someone the following year – who do you think is the best fit? Morgan is limited athletically but as a freshman proved to be a quality contributor and should only get better – do you see any of the freshmen threatening his starting spot next year or beyond that? Do you see any of these recruits changing positions to DE or OLB? Has Bolden’s performance this week changed your rating of him? 

Also, could you maybe talk about the differences in physical traits that you’d want between the Will and Mike positions? My understanding is that the 4-3 under is pretty similar to a 3-4 defense and that both the MIKE and WILL are essentially classic middle linebackers. Is that true? 

Adam Gurnee, IL

Thanks for the question, Adam.  I list all four incoming linebackers as “inside linebackers” because in the 4-3 Under, there are two inside linebackers and one outside linebacker.  Against a base offense, both the WILL and MIKE playing between the tackles and are mostly interchangeable.  They essentially have the same responsibility against the run, although obviously offensive formations and plays change things a little bit.  If Michigan ran a 4-3 Over or a Tampa Two defense, then I would consider the WILL an outside linebacker and the MIKE an inside ‘backer.  For further schematic explation, check out this post from last spring.

Both Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone have been recruited to play MIKE.  James Ross and Kaleb Ringer have been recruited to play WILL.

I believe the best fit to replace Demens in a couple years is Desmond Morgan.  Morgan is already 220-225 lbs. and a good height (in other words, not too tall) to take on lead blocks from fullbacks.  Brady Hoke clearly values experience (why else would Troy Woolfolk start for the entire season?), and I think that will give Morgan the upper hand in the fight for the middle linebacker job, even if a guy like Joe Bolden is hot on his heels.  I also think Morgan lacks the necessary athleticism to start at WILL for the next three years, because he’s too slow to cover running backs and slot receivers in space.  He’s a short-term plug at WILL, not a long-term answer, in my opinion.

I do not think Morgan’s starting spot at WILL is etched in stone for next season.  He had a solid year but not a great one, and as I said above, his skill set isn’t perfect for the position.  If incoming freshman James Ross can add just a little bit of weight, I think he has a decent shot at unseating Desmond Morgan or at least getting some snaps as a backup.  Ross diagnoses plays as quickly as I have ever seen a high schooler, and that’s a key component of playing WILL in this defense.  The weakside ‘backer is often unblocked or targeted on play action passes, so it’s very important that he’s an intelligent player.  I think that’s why Morgan found time there as a freshman, and I think that’s why Ross has a shot there, too.

I do not foresee any of these linebackers playing defensive end, but there is a possibility that Jenkins-Stone could turn into a SAM.  He’s a tall, lean guy and if he can get in the weight room and pack on some pounds, then he could be an attacker in the mold of Jake Ryan.  However, depth is needed at middle linebacker, so my guess is that he stays there, at least for a couple seasons.  Bolden is a talented kid but has less position flexibility, so if Jenkins-Stone presses for playing time, then I could see him playing SAM to get all the talent spread out among the three linebacker positions.

21Apr 2011
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Welcome Back, 4-3 Under: The Defensive Backs

Would Ed Reed be too much to ask for?
(Hint: Not if you’re Auburn.)

In the last week, I’ve broken down the ideal qualities of defensive linemen and linebackers.  Now for the defensive backs:

Alignment:  Dependent on coverage
Gap responsibility:  Outside contain
What should he look like?  Cornerbacks come in different shapes and sizes, but one thing to keep in mind with the 4-3 Under defense is that these corners are going to be put on an island a lot.  This is no longer a bend-but-then-break defense that utilizes soft zones and eschews man coverage.  These cornerbacks need to be up in the receivers’ faces, often playing press man coverage.  Just like any defense, the strongside corner should be a little more adept at tackling and supporting the run.  The weakside corner should have excellent speed and ball skills.  Their job will typically be to force the receiver toward the sideline, maintaining inside leverage and forcing the quarterback to thread a ball between the defender and the sideline.
Best physical fits:  Troy Woolfolk (strongside; 6’0″, 195 lbs.), Courtney Avery (weakside; 5’11”, 167 lbs.)

Alignment:  Strong side of formation, but dependent on coverage
Gap responsibility:  Clean-up
What should he look like?  The strong safety is typically the bigger, more physical player of the two safeties.  He needs to be able to cover a wide range of athletes, from tight ends to wide receivers.  When it comes to run “fits,” he’s typically the clean-up man.  The free safety has responsibility for the weakside A gap, but the strong safety has no such commitment.  That means he should be the most reliable tackler of the defensive back group.  If anyone gets past the front seven, the strong safety should be fast enough to chase him down and strong enough to halt his progress.
Best physical fit:  Carvin Johnson (6’0″, 195 lbs.)

Alignment:  Weak side of formation, but dependent on coverage
Gap responsibility:  A gap or filling the alley
What should he look like?  Because of the unique way the 4-3 Under uses the free safety, this position is somewhat different from what many would expect.  He is heavily involved in supporting the run, and while he won’t have to take on many punishing blockers, he does need to stick his nose up where it doesn’t seem to belong.  He should have good ball skills and the ability to patrol the middle of the field, because he will often be the deep man in Cover 3 or Man Free coverages.  He doesn’t need to be the world’s best athlete, but he does have to be a very disciplined, fundamental player.
Best physical fit:  Marvin Robinson (6’1″, 200 lbs.)

20Apr 2011
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Welcome Back, 4-3 Under: The Linebackers

Shawn Crable would be ideal for the new regime

Last week I put up a post explaining how Michigan’s defense will look in the coming years under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.  Today we’ll take a look at the linebackers.

Alignment:  9-technique, which is on the outside shoulder of the tight end
Gap responsibility:  D gap, which is outside the tight end
What should he look like?  If you’re building a team, this guy should be your best overall athlete with the best combination of size, strength, and speed.  He resides on the strong side of the formation and holds the point of attack on most run plays.  He will be blocked on every running play and take on blocks from fullbacks, tight ends, and pulling guards.  He also needs to cover running backs out of the backfield, drop into flat or hook zones, or occasionally slide inside and blitz the interior line.  These varied responsibilities require unique overall athleticism.  Shawn Crable, who was about 6’5″ and 245 lbs. and could run like a deer, would be the prototype.The physical freak you create in NCAA Football who’s 6’6″, 260 lbs., and runs a 4.3 forty . . . he’s a SAM.
Best physical fit:  Jake Ryan (6’3″, 224 lbs.).  Keep in mind that Ryan is just a freshman and probably weighs more than 224 at this point, but all these players are coming from a defense that didn’t recruit players for the SAM position.

Alignment: 3-off, which is on the outside shoulder of the strongside guard and off the line of scrimmage
Gap responsibility:  B gap, which is between the strongside tackle and guard
What should he look like?  Your middle linebacker should be the tackling machine.  As opposed to the middle linebacker in the 3-3-5 (who lines up directly over the center), the MIKE in a 4-3 Under aligns himself on the strong side of the formation.  The formation of the defense funnels most running plays to the MIKE’s vicinity.  He often has to defeat blocks from fullbacks, which means he has to have a sturdy frame.  He also needs to have a nose for the ball and roam sideline to sideline.  Unlike the 4-3 Tampa Cover Two defense, though, the MIKE in the 4-3 Under is somewhat protected in the passing game.  He needs to be able to cover crossing routes and hook zones, but the deep middle of the field will be covered by one of the safeties. Obviously, everyone would like to have a great athlete at every position, but the MIKE can afford to be a little stiffer in pass coverage.  The ideal size for a middle linebacker would be about 6’2″ and 245 lbs.
Best physical fit:  Isaiah Bell (6’1″, 245 lbs.)

Alignment:  1-off, which is on the inside shoulder of the weakside guard and off the line of scrimmage
Gap responsibility:  Flow to the ball
What should he look like?  Michigan had a great deal of success with smaller weakside linebackers when Hoke and Mattison were in Ann Arbor earlier in their careers, and I see no reason why that philosophy would change in the near future.  Guys like Larry Foote and Ian Gold were both very effective while being a shade over 6′ tall and 205-225 lbs.  The WILL rarely needs to take on a fullback because of the defense’s alignment; with a NT over the center and a DT over the weakside guard, it’s difficult to create enough space in that A gap to send a big fullback leading up through the hole.  That means the WILL often gets a chance to flow to the ball and make things happen.  He will blitz often and pick up running backs or slot receivers on rare occasions, so he needs to be somewhat more agile than the MIKE.  So despite technically being an inside linebacker (aligned between the tackles), he can get away with being smaller.
Best physical fit: Antonio Poole (6’1″, 210 lbs.)

14Apr 2011
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Welcome Back, 4-3 Under: The Defensive Line

The 4-3 Under

A couple weeks ago, I put up a post that took a stab at the depth chart for 2011.  In the comments section, I was asked to describe what should be expected from each position.  I’ll try to do that here.

Alignment: 5-technique, which is on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle
Gap responsibility: C gap (between offensive tackle and tight end)
What should he look like? It’s only a matter of semantics, but head coach Brady Hoke and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison appear to be referring to this position as the 5-technique defensive tackle.  Don’t get caught up in the terminology – the term “5-tech” is more important than whatever comes after it.  This player needs to be able to stand up to double-teams by the tight end and tackle, which will come with some regularity.  He also needs to be able to rush the passer when the tight end releases or when the offense goes to the spread.
Best physical fit: Ryan Van Bergen (6’6″, 283 lbs.)

Alignment: 1-technique, which is on the strongside shoulder of the center
Gap responsibility: A gap (between center and strongside guard)
What should he look like?  The most important thing for a 1-tech (a.k.a. nose tackle) is that he should be able to stand his ground against double-teams.  Any penetration or pass rush from a nose tackle is gravy, but if he can resist getting blown backwards, the rest of your defense has a chance.  It would be typical to expect a short, fire hydrant-type player to fill this role.  Tall players (such as 6’5″ William Campbell) often struggle with losing leverage.  Mike Martin, the projected starter at nose tackle, is a bit of an anomaly, because he has the strength and technique to be successful at the position, despite being less than 300 lbs.
Best physical fit: Richard Ash (6’3″, 320 lbs.)

Alignment: 3-technique, which is on the outside shoulder of the weakside guard
Gap responsibility: B gap (between weakside guard and tackle)
What should he look like?  Rather than size, the key at this position is the ability to get penetration.  Whether it’s by brute strength or pure quickness, it doesn’t really matter.  Most running plays go to an offense’s strength, which means the 3-tech is expected to play the B gap while simultaneously squeezing the A gap and trying to prevent cutbacks.  In passing situations, the 3-tech ought to be able to beat a single block (typically the guard) and push the pocket.  Because of the job description, players of various shapes and sizes can play the 3-tech.  Albert Haynesworth was a great 3-tech at 6’6″ and 335 lbs., but so was Warren Sapp at 6’2″ and 300 lbs.
Best physical fits: Mike Martin (6’2″, 299 lbs.) and William Campbell (6’5″, 333 lbs.)

Alignment: 5-technique, which is on the weakside offensive tackle’s outside shoulder
Gap responsibility: C gap (outside offensive tackle and containing outside)
What should he look like?  This is essentially the weakside end position that gets so much attention in recruiting each year.  He’s typically the quicker and lighter of the two defensive ends.  While he should be more of a threat as a pass rusher, he needs to be able to hold his own against single blocking by the offensive tackle.  In certain blitz packages, he might also need to cover the flat zone or a running back out of the backfield.  You can expect this player to be between 6’3″ and 6’5″ and somewhere around 260 lbs.
Best physical fit: Craig Roh (6’5″, 251 lbs.)