Mario Cristobal is putting together his coaching staff and a common thread there is the odd front defense. Coach Cristobal deployed an odd front with the Oregon Ducks, and became accustomed to an odd front during his time in Tuscaloosa with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Jimmy Johnson, the man credited with the rise of the 4-3 Over defense throughout college football and the NFL, was an odd front defensive coordinator at Pitt and Arkansas. Johnson’s early teams ran the 5-2 defense when the landscape of college football was a ground-and-pound and option world.
Once in Coral Gables, Johnson adapted the defense into a 4-3 look to ensure he was focusing on speed, what the talent pool in South Florida offered him. Miami stayed in an even front for decades.
After Johnson left for the Cowboys, new head coach Dennis Erickson’s DC was Sonny Lubick. Lubick used the 4-3 to perfection from 1989-1992, the greatest era of Miami Hurricanes defenses. Miami allowed 10.6 points per game in 1989, I don’t care what era it was, that’s quite the feat until you realize the ‘91 team allowed only 8.3 PPG.
After Erickson, Butch Davis took over the ‘Canes. Davis, a Johnson disciple, was obviously going to keep the 4-3 at Miami. Davis’ best defense in Coral gables was the 2000 defense, when the ‘Canes allowed 15.8 PPG.
Larry Coker brought in Randy Shannon who was a linebacker in the 4-3 for Johnson at Miami and in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, but also a 4-3 coach with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Shannon continued to run the 4-3 as the head coach regardless of who was the defensive coordinator. Of course Shannon’s most talented squad was the 2001 team which allowed only 9.8 PPG.
Miami went to an odd front 3-4 defense when Al Golden and Mark D’Onofrio came to town from the Temple Owls. The ‘Canes hadn’t regularly lined up in an odd front base since the 1984 season. Golden wanted to recruit true 3-4 defensive linemen, and inside linebackers, or at least die trying to bulk up the roster he had.
That version of the 3-4, the Al Groh version, wasn’t going to find much success down at Miami. Big, strong, and slow isn’t the answer in the modern era of college football. Miami returned to the 4-3 in 2016, Manny Diaz’s first year as defensive coordinator.
Diaz had success almost immediately basing from the even front, with Al Golden’s players. Where Diaz failed was his inability to acquire and develop talent. He has since moved on to Penn State as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
But don’t forget, Diaz used odd front alignments against certain teams like Appalachian State and Georgia Tech, and in certain situations like in 4th and long against FSU and UNC.
High level models
The College Football Playoff is made up of: Alabama, the Georgia Bulldogs, the Michigan Wolverines, and the Cincinnati Bearcats. All four base in an odd front in 2021. Do all four of their defenses look the same on every snap, hell no.
The SP+ top-5 defenses in ‘21 are: Georgia (1), Wisconsin (2), Clemson (3), Iowa (4), and Oklahoma State (5). Clemson bases in an even front, although Brent Venables runs everything under the sun and adjusts game-to-game to give different looks for OC’s. Iowa bases in a 4-2 defense, too. Oklahoma State bases in an even front, too. But Georgia and Wisconsin are typically in an odd front.
The common belief behind using odd fronts at the high school level is that you don’t have as many available ‘big guys’ to choose from. If you’re Alabama, you can recruit in whatever you want. If you’re Iowa State you use an odd front because you can find a bunch of hybrid linebacker slash safety and defensive end slash outside linebacker type guys, but not as many true 3-technique defensive tackles.
As used to the even front as Miami is, it’s much like The U trying to stick with the 90’s “pro style” offense, times change and so should fan perspectives. Base defenses are just an idea at this point, offenses come out in so many different personnel packages and pictures for the defense, checking into different looks is a must in 2022 and beyond.
What I mean by that is the defensive coordinator has to teach a fluid, free flowing defense that can auto-correct itself based on what the offense shows both as personnel and as formation before the snap. Making a call and sticking with it is passe. Much like a tight end is now an h-back, a tight end and a wide receiver; most defenders don’t fit into a set position.
The same move to “position-less basketball” the NBA has had to adopt, the same can be said for college football. Think of a three point shooting power forward and transfer that idea over to a linebacker that has to rush the passers, play the run, and drop into coverage. Jaelan Phillips would have been a great fit into the typical Cristobal defense.
Orange and Green
In Eugene, Cristobal’s starting front three defensive linemen weigh in at 284, 305, and 288 pounds. Will Cristobal have that to work with in Miami in year one? Sure, just look at the roster. Leonard Taylor is 305, Nesta Jade Silvera is 306, Jared Harrison-Hunte is 285, and Jordan Miller is 320 pounds. Imagine a rotation of Taylor, Elijah Roberts (270 pounds), and Hunte at tackle with Miller and Silvera at nose.
Inside linebacker is going to be the biggest issue. Manny Diaz failed to properly recruit the position and the LB room is nearly empty. The backers that Diaz did sign aren’t going to be 3-4 pluggers anyway. Noah Sewell is 250 pounds, while Justin Flowe was a more moderate 235 pounds. Cristobal’s new DC, whoever that is, is going to have to figure out if Sam Brooks and Corey Flagg can play ball with better coaching.
What about those hybrid players? Kayvon Thibodeaux is six-foot-five, 250 pounds of athlete. A guy like Thibodeaux can line up with his hand down, up in a two point rush stance, or even drop into coverage. Jahfari Harvey could be a hybrid in that role.
The outside linebacker position will rotate between run stuffers, pass rushers, and coverage guys. Harvey and Thomas Davis could shine in an odd front as both are really athletic ends. If Avery Huff can be coached up he could wind up as a situational player in the odd front, coming in for coverage duties.
Defensive backs are used exactly the same in an even or odd front, as Diaz’s even and the typical Cristobal odd use 4-5 defensive backs. The Miami safety room is loaded with James and Avantae Williams, Kamren Kinchens, and others. The cornerbacks need a lot of work, even if Tyrique Stevenson chooses to stay in school.
So what does it all mean? It’s means the past is the past. Even front or odd front doesn’t really matter. The truth is acquisition is first and foremost. Get the best players on the ‘Canes roster and wins will come. Cristobal’s strength is recruiting so that shouldn’t be an issue in Gables.
The second most important aspect of a program is development. Cristobal has $8 million to work with to get the best coordinators, assistant coaches and strength staff to Miami. The S&C program will be huge for mitigating injuries, but also for developing power and speed. Keeping your fast young talents you recruit in from getting slow and stiff should be the priority.
The accountability and organization of the program will also be paramount for success in development. The AC’s have to teach technique and tactical skills so the ‘Canes play faster, while the S&C program has them moving faster.
Scheme is a small part of the success of a Power 5 program. I would say it’s 10% and maybe less. How you practice, and how you run your scheme is more important than the scheme itself. Miami isn’t Duke or the Naval Academy. The ‘Canes can bring in anyone they want, within limits (this ain’t LSU).
Sign the talent, coach and train them up, get them to buy into your program in all aspects (culture, sleep, diet and nutrition, and disciplined habits) and then put them in a position to succeed. If a coach finally does all of these things at Miami, the Hurricanes are a sure-fire pick to dominate the weak Coastal, and to battle for the ACC Championship year in and year out.