As I was waiting in the airport yesterday (on my way to the town where Rick Neuheisel got started as a head coach) I decided to pick up a copy of SI's "College Football Preview. " Ohio State Buckeyes are on the cover in the edition I picked up, as the other three versions feature Boise State, Texas and Alabama. All of these teams are the profiled in the feature story entitled, "Offense Takes A Hit," in which Austin Murphy discusses how defenses around the country have been stepping up in recent months to upstage the offensive revolution we have been experiencing through "various species of spread offenses that took root across the republic" in recent years.
The third graf in the article discussing TCU's Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 system (which doesn't sound all that different from Rocky Long's dynamic 1997-98 defense at UCLA) got me thinking. It read:
[M]ost 4-3 teams send a linebacker to the sideline on obvious passing downs, replacing him with a fifth defensive back - the nickel. TCU's base defense is a nickel package. The extra DB (the 5 in the 4-2-5) is a kind of safety-linebacker hybrid, a talented tweener who is equally at ease covering a receiver or bringing the lumber in run support. Five defensive backs "allow you to get more speed on the field," says Patterson, "but they've got to be physical, got to be good tacklers."
So that immediately got me thinking of none other than Dietrich Riley (6-0/201) and what Chuck Bullough can do with his freakish size (for a safety) and athletic talent in the coming years.
In recent days we already have had discussion of putting in Riley in first team and packaging him with Rahim Moore in the defensive backfield. It is not that Tony Dye (5-11/205) has been having a so so camp. Dye by all accounts is performing well and has been steady. It's just that Riley to date has been a total menace, leveling ferocious hits, and picking off our QBs (in Kevin Prince's absence). He has clearly served notice to the point it sounds like our WRs are taking special note of him.
With that kind of talent at their disposal the coaches might be thinking of how to get him on the field as much as possible. So when reading about TCU's defense, the thought came to my mind about adopting the 4-2-5 template for specific opponents this season such as Oregon and Arizona, who use spread as their base formations in their offense. I can see a lineup in which Riley would be the prototypical "tweener" who can cover fast receivers but also provide that effective run support. He would certainly bring more speed on the field compared to any of our LBs (who are not all that shabby BTW at least on paper). Actually Glenn Love is another athlete who could also potentially fill that role.
So what about that? Last year, one of the biggest adjustments Chuck Bullough made was to take advantage of Akeem Ayers' playmaking potential by using him in as a hybrid LB/DE in what amounted to a 3-4 formation. Bullough also toyed around with Brian Price's speed by moving him around from DT and lining him up at DE as well. Those formations threw opposing teams and paid dividends towards the end of the season (see game against ASU) when UCLA ended on a solid note.
Speaking of Ayers, there was another interesting graf in the article concerning Ohio State's 4-3 defense that seemed salient to UCLA defense:
The Buckeyes also have the Star and the Leo, which are handles for a pair of-here's that word again-hybrid positions. The Star is a safety-linebacker mix. The Leo is a heartier blend; part linebacker, part defensive lineman. "He's in our [lineman] meetings," says tackle Dexter Larimore, "but half the plays he's dropping into coverage."
That immediately made me think of Riley/Love in the "Star" role while guys like Akeem, Owamagbe Odighizuwa as "Leos." All of these guys have talent, size and speed that should allow Bullough to be flexible and aggressive. Interestingly Ohio State put in those packages within a 4-3 defense that enabled them to frustrated Oregon's spread offense at the Rose Bowl.
I hope with the talent upgrade that has taken place in last 2-3 years, Bullough is thinking out of the box a bit to use all the speed and athleticism now available to him on defense. Our defense was solid last year. However, at the beginning of the season it was somewhat predictable. I still remember the Stanford game pretty well when we played base defense for the most part, and allowed Stanford to grind and dominate (at least in first half) without facing any kind of pressure.
Well I hope Bullough this year shows little more aggression and innovative mindset early on. What was interesting from that SI article was how Boise State had essentially adopted a template of TCU's base defense in a 4-1-6 formation, which they then used successfully against the Horned Frogs during their Bowl matchups.
Of course, I am not suggesting that Bullough deploy some radical changes in philosophy and totally give up what has resulted in above average defense in recent years (under schemes established by Dewayne Walker). What I am suggesting - using Riley as a linchpin for this post - for Bullough to think about tweaks and adjustments, that will make UCLA defense unpredictable and more aggressive this coming year. We finally have some athletes in our program. Hope Bullough is not afraid of having some fun and in the process making our team better and more exciting in the coming season.