I thought I’d do a quick hitter on my major schematic question for every Big 12 team. I’d have gone to Big 12 media days and asked the coaches these questions myself but we’re expecting baby no. 2 soon so I’m currently tied down in Michigan.
Anyways, here we go:
Oklahoma Sooners: How are they sorting out Caleb Kelly’s involvement as a Sam linebacker?
I’ve gone over this quite a bit already. If the Sooners are going to play Caleb Kelly out wide instead of using a nickel that raises big questions about how they’ll play coverage in such a way as to avoid getting shredded by a spread passing attack. It also raises the question of where Kelly fits if the Sooners do get into a nickel package?
Will he play as a stand-up OLB/DE opposite Obo Okoronkwo while a DL goes to the bench? As an inside-backer while Jon-Michael Terry goes to the bench? In either event he has a lot to learn to play one of those positions, perhaps Mike Stoops can go ask Charlie Strong how it went using Malik Jefferson in a similar fashion when the Longhorn was an underclassmen the last two seasons.
I’ve got big doubts about whether the Sooners are going to hold up very well in the middle of the field when teams attack their interior five (LBs and Ss) with motion, pace, and options designed to confuse and out-leverage them. I don’t think they can repeat as Big 12 champions if they improve considerably in the middle.
Oklahoma State: What’s Ramon Richards up to at safety?
I think there’s more going on here than just the OSU staff figuring Richards’ eyes and strengths are better suited to safety than cornerback. If that was all that was going on here I’d have guessed they’d be moving him out to strong safety while Tre Flowers bumped over to free safety in place of Jordan Sterns. Flowers is a good cover safety now but he’s at his best coming downhill and making open field tackles, which could make him really valuable at free safety working on the boundary as the clean-up hitter.
At 5’11” 185, Richards isn’t really built to do what Sterns did last year in the box. He’s a fine tackler but he’s not a physical enforcer like Sterns was or Flowers could be. So does that mean that the ‘Pokes are tweaking their approach on defense? Perhaps to something more like this?
The ‘Pokes have used aggressive quarters coverages akin to what SD St uses in the past, but generally to free up their free safety or their “star” linebacker on the edge. It’d be interesting if they did it more like the Aztecs in order to free up their star from the middle of the field, and that’s something they’ve mixed in in the past.
The problem with doing it that way in the past would have been that Jordan Sterns wasn’t much for the coverage that could be required by that set-up. Richards would be, though.
K-State Wildcats: Defending space without Elijah Lee?
I don’t think K-State is intending to really change anything in their defensive scheme, but the big question is what they’ll do at their outside-backer position without Elijah Lee. So far it looks like they’ll be plugging in Sam Sizelove into that spot, with Cre Moore outside of him in the nickel and then perhaps Sean Newlan helping over the top at safety.
Looking back I found that Newlan was a bit better in this regard than I remembered, particularly in 2015 when he got more playing time (and was healthier?). Converted WR Denzel Goolsby could fit in here as well and JUCO Elijah Walker could end up either here or at nickel, we’ve yet to see. The smart money though is probably on Moore-Sizelove-Newlan with Goolsby and Walker waiting their turns to take over down the line while learning the system.
TCU Horned Frogs: Are you really going to stay small at all three safety spots?
TCU went extra small last year, putting 5’10” 180 Nick Orr back at weak safety after he played both that position and cornerback the year before. They also put 5’10” 180 Niko Small (now listed at 194) at free safety over to the field.
Neither of those moves were shocking, especially since TCU prefers to bring their extra run support primarily from their strong safety. But now they’re planning to use Ridwan Issahaku in that role, a 6’1″ 196 pounder who doesn’t exactly bring much thunder to the box.
It’s worth pointing out here that TCU has also been pretty small on the DL recently and have 5’11” 210 pounder Travin Howard at one inside-backer spot. They’re just a small crew overall, perhaps too small, and you wonder if they can improve on a middling run defense without featuring some intimidators in the middle of the field at the safety positions. Or at least at one of those spots.
Texas Longhorns: Do y’all know how to play linebacker yet?
Texas’ wasting of talents like Malik Jefferson has been the defining trait of their defense over the last few years. Now those guys were all young, but the coaching mistakes were also readily apparent.
The story on defense for Texas last year included some misguided forays into a 3-4 defense that featured a pair of true, old-fashioned OLBs at either spot even against formations and personnel groupings that call for nickel defenses. Then they realized they needed to go nickel more and just play Cover 2 and hang on hoping for a mistake or the chance to bring pressure in the red zone when defending less space.
Todd Orlando wants to get after teams and use his linebackers extensively to do so. That was Charlie’s vision as well so the pieces are there, but they need to learn how to actually do it.
Texas Tech Red Raiders: What’s the plan on first and 10?
DC David Gibbs noted this offseason that Tech needed to have some answers for the run that were based on sound fronts and fundamentals. They ran a lot of stuff up front last year trying to cause pressure and confusion for opponents and mostly just demonstrated a million different ways to play with poor leverage on the ball.
This defense doesn’t stand a chance this season unless they base primarily out of one front that suits the strengths of their players, such as they are. What that front would be, I don’t know. They’re pretty young on the DL and still fairly small so the popular 4-3 Over is probably their best bet.
Iowa State Cyclones: Is Joel Lanning for real?
Other than the Cyclones hoping that Kamilo Tongamoa finds a fishhook and transforms into Maui, hero to all, the big question for their defense is whether Joel Lanning can make good on his size and athletic potential at LB after just one offseason at the position.
I’m thinking more teams should convert big, dual-threat HS QBs to linebacker after watching Ty Summers kill it at TCU over the last couple of seasons. They tend to understand the geometry of the box as well the bigger picture concepts and they’re used to making quick reads and decisions in the run game. That all translates quite well to playing LB, probably even better than being a slowish safety with a big enough frame to add more weight.
Lanning won the middle linebacker position pretty quickly this spring, albeit not against the toughest competition, so he’s been getting a pretty good number of reps there. If he’s ready to be a disruptive, downhill player that really sets up the underrated Cyclone defensive backfield to potentially surprise this year.
Kansas Jayhawks: How are you going to make the most of Dorance Armstrong and Daniel Wise?
IMO, Kansas should be pairing these two guys to the same side of the DL. When you have superstars you can either scatter them across your formations and surround them with competence so they can shine, or you can load them up in one area and build off being overwhelming in that dimension of your team.
I think they should go for option two, playing Wise as a 3-technique with Armstrong outside of him as often as possible. That boosts your pass-rush in a major way, presents problems for teams if they can’t handle that combo in the run game, and makes any well-disguised overload blitz from the opposite end a nice tool to keep on the belt.
No one wants to spend their prep time before Kansas working out how to change a dozen components of their normal plan of attack in order to avoid getting swamped by the Wise-Armstrong pairing, which is why Kansas should make sure that they do.
Baylor Bears: How will you K.J. Smith and the DL?
At Temple, the defense was built largely around their DL. Rhule opted for speed everyone in the defensive backfield and covered it up with a brilliant DL that had guys that could do a lot of different things.
Baylor returns all of their DL from a year ago, including the very promising KJ Smith, but this is a team that played a ton of 3-2-6 with guys like Clay Johnston and Pat Levels playing DE/OLB while Smith was inside as a 4i or 3-tech because DL depth was a problem.
It’s a long ways from “major deficit that requires major compensations” to “foundation of the defense.” So what’s the year one answer from Matt Rhule and Phil Snow?
West Virginia Mountaineers: Y’all have another lockdown CB ready to go?
This isn’t really a schematic question, per se, but there will be schematic consequences if the answer is “no.” They keep plugging in guys here that play really good football, with Rasul Douglas the most recent. Can they keep reloading and training up guys or do they eventually have a dry spell that costs them?
This would be a nice year to be good again at cornerback with Will Grier threatening to take the offense up a tier in quality. They’re welcoming in a transfer from Syracuse, Corey Winfield, who should help a lot. They also have Elijah Battle back and he played a lot of solid snaps last year.
They also have to replace their entire DL, btw…should be an interesting fall camp for Tony Gibson and the Mountaineer staff.