Defenses have evolved mightily over the past half-century. Without getting into the nitty gritty, base defenses have had to adjust constantly since the progressive use of the forward pass which allowed offenses to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. This cat and mouse game has continued to evolve as more teams have adopted spread looks as their base offense. This is a trend that has especially exploded in college football and there are few signs of it stopping. The reason for this affinity to operate almost soley out of the shotgun formation is two fold.
Firstly is the limited availability of linemen large enough to field offenses capable of a grinding running game so often seen in the Big Ten. Ace and I-Formations are common here simply because these programs are able to sign the largest bulldozers of linemen. That’s not so easy for 60 – 70% of the other programs at the FBS level. 6’6″ 320 lbs linemen don’t grow on trees and not everyone has access to them. Secondly, coaching staffs had to figure out a way to do what they could with their smaller linemen. They went for speed over size and thus adopted the spread. Here, linemen were generally required to be smaller and more flexible with the speed to pass block and move well enough to clear a path on draws and screens.
By introducing more and more shotgun packages to their offense they were able to level the playing field. Instead of stacking players between the hashmarks coaches would spread out their players sideline to sideline in an attempt to overwhelm defenses in space. They essentially wanted to beat defenses with speed rather than pure brawn and for the most part it worked. Within their own conferences, teams with spread offenses thrived. Of late, programs like Northern Illinois and Toledo have risen to the top of the MAC mostly due to their use of the spread. On top of that teams are also competing against bigger competition. In 2007, Appalachian State famously took down Michigan with a high-powered spread attack and in 2009, Toledo rolled up 54 points and over 600 yards of offense in their win over the Colorado Buffaloes.
Bringing the picture closer to home, the Cincinnati football program has seen an explosion of success since Brian Kelly brought his vertical stretch schemes to the Bearcats. UC quickly gained the reputation of possessing high-powered offenses as the Bearcats regularly poured on 30, 35, 40 points per game with ease. This was a stark contrast from the Mark Dantonio I-Formations of the early Big East days. While it’s difficult to say if Dantonio would have seen similar success to Brian Kelly had he stayed at Cincinnati, one thing is certain: the Bearcats likely wouldn’t have seen such a rapid rise to power had Kelly not installed such a potent offensive attack.
As the balance of power was starting to shift to the offensive side of the ball, defenses have had to adjust accordingly by getting faster themselves. Traditional 4-3 looks featured more defensive linemen (read: slower) which isn’t ideal when lining up against 3, 4, or 5 wide receivers. That concept seems simple now but the way defenses have had to evolve continues to be perfected. I mean it took almost 50 years after the inception of organized collegiate football that they were legally allowed to throw the thing and even longer to perfect it. Things happen slowly sometimes. Anyways, one transition defenses have found to be successful is installing a fifth defensive back in the secondary to counter multiple wide receiver sets, known as the “nickelback”. Below is a comparison of defending the spread with both defensive formations.
The traditional 4-3 is limited in defending multiple receiver sets for obvious reasons. The relative best coverage against the spread would be a zone or some type of zone-blitz scheme to disrupt the timing of the play. But since spread offenses are designed to exploit defenders in space this isn’t necessarily advantageous. In man-to-man the weaknesses are even more apparent. Option 1 pits a linebacker against the slot receiver (Y) but nine times out of ten the receiver will beat the linebacker on pure speed. Obviously not ideal. M2M Option 2 brings one of the safeties down, in this case the free safety. This is certainly an upgrade over option 1 but creates issues with defending deep. The outside receivers (X, Z) could burn their respective coverage and put pressure on the safety that dropped back to cover center field. There are just too many ways for spreads to exploit defenses that stay in the 4-3.
The happy medium is bringing in a nickelback as a fifth man in the secondary. In zone the defense automatically becomes faster. While spreads will try to exploit the holes in the zone, with a nickelback defenses can reach the soft-spots that the offense will try to attack much quicker than with a third linebacker. In man, the defense has the ability to move two safeties deep to protect against the bombs (traditional M2M Cover 2) but keep a speedy defender on the slot receiver. The defense is definitely smaller against the run but the risk of getting burnt for 40 yards through the air is greater than the reward of stopping the runningback from gaining a few yards on the ground. Plus the nickelback can absolutely assist against the run.
Clearly against the spread nickel defenses are the way to go. But what makes it different now than ten or even five years ago is the prevalence in which it is used. For most teams it’s not a defense package persay but a formation that has seen a growing use in college football. That is unless said team is the TCU Horned Frogs who regularly deploy 4-2-5 defensive formations as their base-D. But for most other teams who are finding themselves playing against more and more spread offenses, the nickelback is evolving from much more than a “situational” defender.
In 2011, Cincinnati faced 2 spread offenses (West Virginia, Pittsburgh) and 5 more (Tennessee, NC State, Louisville, South Florida, Rutgers) with a heavy installment of spread elements. As a result, the Bearcats’ nickelbacks Chris Williams and Reuben Johnson saw a ton of playing time last season. Williams himself finished 2011 with 46 tackles, good for 8th best on the team. That’s a lot for a “situational” defender. But UC’s nickelbacks also bring a slew of versatility to this defense. Williams also notched a pair of sacks last season and had the 7th most tackles for loss with 4.5. Like I mentioned, their not too shabby against the run either.
The ability of UC’s nickelbacks, particularly Williams, to perform numerous roles for the Bearcats along with the affinity of teams to use the spread means that we are experiencing a golden age for this position in college football. Both Williams and Johnson should be beaming right now, their reps are about to go through the roof. Cincinnati’s base-D will always be the 4-3 with spatterings of the 3-4 depending on the situation. Really you could call the Bearcats run a Multiple Defense because they switch between the 4-3 and 3-4 so often.
However look for Cincinnati to operate more often in 2012 out of formations similar to those found at TCU. Maybe not exactly the 4-2-5 but definitely in some kind of nickel package with five defensive backs. But, like the totality of college football, this trend of increasing usage of nickelbacks will continue for the Bearcats. While the Big East has essentially replaced pass-happy West Virginia with ground-and-pound Temple, the conference is also adding teams such as Houston, SMU, and Boise State who throw the ball around quite a bit in their own rights. Clearly Nickelbacks will see higher prevalence in UC’s defense in the coming years.