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Q&A: Discussing Miami's change from a multiple 3-4 to an aggressive 4-3 defense under Mark Richt

State of the U sits down with writer NOVAcane to discuss the potential impact of switching to an aggressive 4-3 defense on the Hurricanes.

Good riddance, three down lineman defensive fronts!
Good riddance, three down lineman defensive fronts!
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Richt's comments on wanting to bring a 4-3 defense to Miami has fans salivating at the prospect of change. That's right. The same defense the Canes ran successfully throughout the decades and to National Championships is coming back to Coral Gables. While the current roster doesn't compare to those of the '30 for 30s', there's good reason to expect better things next season with the change. Here we'll sit down with State of the U writer NOVAcane to discuss its potential impact on the Hurricanes.

SOTU: To begin, can you summarize the change in scheme and philosophy for fans not familiar with X's and O's. (We're sure you'll hit us with more in-depth analysis during the offseason. Stay tuned, Canes fans.)

Also, among the front seven, which players do you see excelling the most with the change? Are there any that may struggle with the transition?

NOVAcane: Hey, Ricky! Thanks for having me!

Let's break down your two questions.

First, from what I've heard at the initial press conference to announce the coaching hire of Mark Richt as well as his early morning radio discussion on Monday, it seems like Coach Richt will be employing a 4-3 scheme that will be rather simplistic and rely on the players' physical abilities rather than reading and reacting to specific keys, etc. Of course, this brings much joy to the beleaguered Canes fan base who grew tired of the old adage of the former coaching staff of "do your job" being the mantra of the scheme.

Before we delve into what the change means though, I want to bring up the point that Coach Richt very much delegates the responsibility of the defensive play calling and game planning to the defensive coordinator. He focuses primarily on the offense. So when thinking about the Miami defense, yes Coach Richt has the idea of what he wants the defense to look like from a scheme standpoint, but besides that he will be leaving the rest up to the soon to be announced defensive coordinator.

So, to begin, Miami will be switching from a three down linemen defensive front to a four down linemen set. This will mean changes to the personnel on the field as you alluded to in your question. There are a number of players who will thrive with the change so I'll stick to one player for now: Jermaine Grace. Assuming he stays for his senior year, he could put up monster numbers in his final season at Miami. The most recent reference I can give would be to think of Sean Spence but more physically gifted. He was a tackling machine this season even when he was tasked with guarding slot receivers and being away from the action at times. Now stick him back near the line of scrimmage full time? Whoahh buddy.

I'm really optimistic about this change. I don't really think anyone is going to struggle in the change. However, if you're going to back me into a corner, I'll go with Al-Quadin Muhammad just because he's going to be asked to put his hand in the ground full time. Is he big enough to take the punishment from the offensive tackles? Does he really have all those pass rusher moves that he has said he has? We'll have to see because moving forward, he's a defensive end.

SOTU: You've analyzed Miami's defenses well over the years. Have you been a proponent of switching to 4-3 over a base 3-4, and if so, why?

NOVAcane: When it comes to Miami specifically I think the 43 defense just works better than the 34 defense because, flatly, it's just easier to recruit for that style in the immediate area and be successful come Saturdays. If you were to ask Cam, our recruiting guru, he'd probably tell you the same. If you look around South Florida you'll see tons of linebackers like the aforementioned Jermaine Grace. They're lanky and rangy guys that have measurables of six foot and hover around 200 pounds. Even at their smallish stature, their athleticism allows them to roam the field and pack a punch when they hit a running back in space.

For the 34 defense, Coach Golden needed bigger, plodding linebackers and defensive linemen, and he just couldn't find the right pieces for the system to work at full capacity. You can blame it on the sanctions, you can look at the roster attrition over the last four years, but in the end it just didn't work. As Coach Richt has said a few times already, he's going to bring in players that are playmakers and let them go get the ball. The South Florida area is about speed and big hitters on defense and that's what he's going to predicate his team around.

SOTU: How does running a 4-3 alter the recruits we'll target? Will we see targeting of different defensive personnel than in year's past? (height, weight, athleticism, etc.)

NOVAcane: For the recruiting specifically, I think the changes will be seen more at the linebacker level than any other position we've discussed in the earlier sections. Expect to see smaller, faster linebackers that are meant to roam sideline to sideline to keep tabs on tight ends and running backs rather than to get after the quarterback. Remember, now that there are four linemen, the responsibility to get after the QB is on the big boys instead of linebackers having to blitz from odd and complicated angles.

Long story short, the average linebacker in a 43 defense coming out of high school can range from 190 pounds and up. Whereas in the 34 system you're really looking for players that are "readymade" at 220 pounds because they'll need to add weight during their first few years to balloon up to the 240s and 250s to be able to take the pounding of the position.

The defensive line will take an uptick in recruiting for two reasons: 1) Mark Richt is a beast recruiter and 2) now Miami can sell to recruits that all the defensive linemen will be tasked with getting to the quarterback, not just the "rush ends." Besides not being able to develop defensive tackles, Miami wasn't able to bring in any because Golden wanted defensive tackles to "take up blocks" rather than get to the quarterback. If you're a 17 year old high school 5-star defensive tackle is that how you want your talents used? No. You want to maul running backs and get a handful of sacks to get noticed for the next level.

SOTU: Does the change mean we've seen the last of rush ends, like Tyriq McCord and Al-Quadin Muhammad, covering wide receivers? And if so, how great is that?

NOVAcane: Pretty sure this is a resounding "yes" on the front of the "hybrid position" type players. To give an everyday fan the understanding.. In Coach Golden's defense there were three down linemen who were tasked with occupying the offensive line. Essentially, they were supposed to disrupt running gaps for the offensive linemen and get their hands up in the passing lane to bat balls down. The "rush end" was essentially a defensive end who was standing up on the end of the line of scrimmage. The hybrid player didn't have his hand down in the dirt like the other linemen. These players, as you mentioned, were Tyriq McCord, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and at times Chad Thomas. What rankled many fans was that in many cases these players who were all listed at 240 pounds and heavier were asked to roam the field in coverage and to the chagrin of those watching at home, lineup in coverage on receivers.

Picture of McCord in the slot via Vinshu Parasuraman-Man Cave Daily/CBS Local

In the new scheme the players listed will be converted to defensive ends. The transition for them should be relatively easy in the sense that now their responsibilities will be primarily to get after the quarterback and keep contain on rushing downs. They won't be tasked with guarding receivers.

The only possible growing pain for the team with these players converting to the new position may be them having to gain a little bit of weight to take on the rigors of fighting in the trenches. However, I think they can all make the transition because for all the shortcomings of the previous staff, the one thing they did do well was recruit edge rushers. Did they utilize the four- and five-star talents? No, not really. But they're in the building and could potentially be unleashed next season under a new scheme.

SOTU: For this last question we're going to throw you a curveball. We want your opinion on who the Canes should hire as defensive coordinator, but with a twist. First, who's your dream scenario at defensive coordinator? Is it Butch Davis, a far-out possibility, but sure to please fans? Is it Greg Schiano, a failed NFL head coach, but an impressive defensive mind? Or does another coach have your eye?

Second, are there any former Miami assistants you see getting the job? Perhaps Randy Shannon comes back to Miami? Maybe Michael Barrow returns from the NFL to take the reins? Kevin Patrick?

And lastly, are there any realistic candidates you see on the board or is there simply too many to tell? Mark Richt said he's averaging over 250 calls and texts a day, you know.

NOVAcane: Oh.. I feel like I'm at the Presidential Debate.. So many ways I can take this question with so many possible routes.. Let's break it down so I don't get lost!

If you would have asked me 5 weeks ago who my dream hire would have been for the Defensive Coordinator position I think I would have gone Chuck Pagano. The Colts were in the mud of the AFC South and had no real hope of having a positive ending to the season. Adding fuel to the burning dung heap was the murmurs that Chuck Pagano may be on the outs after firing Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton. One of those cases where you fire the assistant before the main guy goes. However, with the Colts reeling off a few victories and the AFC South being best described as... "hapless." It wouldn't surprise me if Pagano were to be retained at the end of the year or at the very least brought on as a Head Coach for another NFL Franchise.

When I go with "dream hire" I go big..

For the second part of this question we move on to possible candidates and boy there are a ton of them. As you noted, Randy Shannon may be in the mix for his old job, he played for Miami in the 43 style of defense and later coached the style for Miami for many years. It wouldn't surprise me if they brought him back but you have to admit, to me anyways, it'd kind of be awkward. Not necessarily that he was the previous head coach at UM but rather how the media both locally and nationally had different degrees of loathing when it came to interviewing him. He doesn't really project a positive persona which, to certain degree, may reflect poorly on the new and optimistic light Mark Richt is trying to project.

Mike Barrow is a solid choice because, as like Randy, he is from the area, went to Miami, had success at the pro level as a player and has been honing his skills the last few years as a coach. I would welcome him back more than Randy as I've never heard a negative thing said about Mike. The one point of concern I have is about his play calling because I don't know if he's ever done it. Miami shouldn't put themselves in a position going forward to be paying play callers to learn on the job. With the money it sounds like they're willing to spend they need to find a coach who has experience.

Another candidate Miami fans should probably get to know is Willie Martinez. He played at Miami (defensive back), started out his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Miami and has gone on to coach at Georgia, Oklahoma, Auburn and he's currently at Tennessee as their secondary coach. I'm not too familiar with him besides hearing that he's still really close to Coach Richt (they used to be roommates at Miami), just wanted to let everyone know he's probably on the short list of candidates for the position.

Editor's note: Martinez was fired by Richt in 2009 after being the Bulldogs defensive coordinator for four seasons. However, if Mark Richt is willing to give him the keys, chances are he's learned from his mistakes.

One more candidate that I think would be a home run hire would be the current defensive coordinator at Colorado, Jim Leavitt. Leavitt's hallmark accomplishment was building the University of South Florida from the ground up from literally nothing. They started their program in 1996 with no team and no set facilities on campus. For the first season he was tasked with recruiting players to a team that all they could do was practice with no games due to the fact that they simply didn't have enough players on the roster. In 1997 and 1998 they played as 1AA independent s and then after that period the Bulls jumped to 1A to play against the big boys and immediately they were competitive. By 2007, about 9 years after the program started playing in 1A they had moved from the independent ranks to Conference USA and then lastly to the Big East (now the AAC). In 2007 Leavitt guided the Bulls to a top 5 ranking after starting the season 6-0 and beating then top 25 ranked Auburn and West Virginia. The top 5 ranking was the fastest rise from expansion to top competitor in NCAA History. However, Coach Leavitt is known for his fiery personality and in 2009 Leavitt choked a student during halftime and was fired after the allegations were confirmed by many witnesses. He later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the school and won the case. Assuming he's contrite about the incident and has taken it upon himself to never do something like that again, he could be the perfect man for the job.


That's it for now. Be sure to follow along with State of the U for more coverage of the Canes.