Never having played organized ball, I get confused when talking specifics about the 3-4, especially as it relates to recruiting. Jack linebacker? Nose tackle? Why are we recruiting players at LB that could play defensive tackle elsewhere? WUT. THE. HAIL. To help educate myself and the masses, I've cobbled a quick introduction to the 3-4 as well as explain the roles of linebackers and defensive linemen in the scheme and why we recruit the way we do. For detailed information on Cal's 3-4, check out danzig's write-up on Cal's 3-4 defense (probably my favorite write-up of all time).
Simply put, the 3-4 formation swaps out a defensive lineman for another middle linebacker. This results in a slightly faster, yet less massive, defensive front seven. The most obvious advantage of the 3-4 is to implement creative blitz packages that keep the passer guessing as to where the fourth (or more) rusher is coming from. Because the passer sees only the three defensive linemen, identifying which linebacker is going to rush can be a challenge. From a recruiting angle, the 3-4 also helps attract players who want to play a particular position but don't project to in a more traditional 4-3 defense. For example, many (if not all) recruiting sites projected Chris Martin to play defensive end at the collegiate level - in our system, he will most likely play outside linebacker. Again, it's not a system that will appeal to every recruit, but it's a consideration that should not be ignored.
Let's talk about the positions within the 3-4 (safeties and cornerbacks are left out from my analysis because they are not too different between the 3-4 and the 4-3). I've also listed the measurables for selected players to compare and contrast weight/height to our "Golden Prospects" as well as NFL players.
Nose Tackle – The nose tackle mans the middle of the defensive line and occupies two offensive lineman (presumably the center and one guard) on every play. The nose tackle is typically larger than a standard DT in a 4-3, typically by 20-40 lbs, due to the physical demands of the position. Nose tackles won’t rack up much in individual stats, but will allow the defensive playmakers (in a 3-4, the linebackers) to make a play on the ball. Commanding a double-team is crucial - imagine if Hill got brushed aside on any given run play up the middle. Running backs would be able to drive their cars through a lane that wide! Facing constant double-teams is a tough job, but disrupting the middle is key in both pass and run defense. Dominant nose tackles are hard to find, but I can imagine that NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on collegiate nose tackles that know how to hold down the middle. Prototypical nose tackle: Ted Washington, 6-5, 365 lbs. Current nose tackle: Derrick Hill, 6-2, 302 lbs. Not sure about our targets for this year's class, but due to the dearth of 300+ lbs. defensive tackles, this will be a position we will always recruit for if we find the right talent.
Defensive Ends – Similar in role as DE’s in a 4-3, but will be slightly bigger in size and with the added responsibility of protecting against the run. They must take on the occasional double-team (see Alualu in 2009), and still try to create a pass rush (although this is tougher in a 3-4 alignment due to being outnumbered by the O-Line.) Similar to the nose tackle, DE’s aren’t going to accumulate as many stats, but help create playmaking opportunities for the rest of the defense. Many recruits that would have played defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense will play end for Cal. Prototypical 3-4 DE: Aaron Smith, 6-5, 300 lbs. Current DE: Cameron Jordan, 6-4, 287 lbs (Hill is just 15 lbs heavier than Jordan!), . Potential Golden Recruits: JR Ferguson, 6-4, 270 lbs, Gabe King, 6-4, 251 lbs.
Linebackers – The 3-4 is designed to allow the linebackers to make the play on the ball. They can blitz, attack the run, or drop back in pass coverage. As we are the only team in the Pac-10 to run the 3-4 as our base defense, most QB’s won’t have much experience dealing with it (aside from what their scout team and NCAA Football 2010 gives them), which provides a small defensive advantage for Cal. Because linebackers have greater responsibilities against the run and fighting blocks, they are bigger than LB’ers in a 4-3. This is most evident in the "Jack" position, which will probably feature players who might be pass rushing DE's in a 4-3. FYI - A “Jack” lineback plays weakside linebacker (aka "rush backer" or the Follett position), “Sam” plays strong outside linebacker, “Will” plays weakside middle linebacker, and “Mike” plays strongside middle linebacker. Prototypical MLB: Patrick Willis, 6-1, 240 lbs. Current MLB: Mike Mohamed, 6-3, 237 lbs. Potential Golden Recruit: Nick Forbes, 6-0, 223 lbs, Cecil Whiteside, 6-3, 220 lbs. Prototypical OLB for the 3-4: Demarcus Ware, 6-4, 262 lbs. Potential golden recruit: Chris Martin, 6-4, 240 lbs, Owa Odighizuwa, 6-3, 234 lbs, David Wilkerson, 6'3", 235 lbs (I'm guessing "Sam" for David).
Cal has been recruiting for the 3-4 position for only a few years now, so it'll be interesting to see if we see the following trends emerge over time:
- Linebackers, defensive ends, and nose tackles will get heavier.
- Our recruiting staff will place a PREMIUM on a linebackers ability to shed blocks.
- More defensive recruits will cite "position" within our system as a reason for committing to Cal.
Hope this helped. Let me know if there are any mistakes or typos.