Keith Patterson and the Arizona State Sun Devils defense left much to be desired in their 2016 campaign.
With a secondary unit returning few starters, a linebacking core devastated by injuries and a disappointing pass rush, the Sun Devils struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball allowing 31.8 points per game last season.
Although this mark was an improvement from the torrid 2015 Arizona State defensive performance, the Maroon and Gold have decided to look in a new direction for their defensive coordinator in the form of Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
The 61-year-old Texan has had mixed results during his six-year tenure in Waco.
The Big 12 is a conference ridiculed for its lack of defense, and this shines through in the Bears’ marks under Bennett. In 2014 and 2015, Baylor finished in the top three against the rush, yet were still allowing 117 and 163 yards per game, respectively.
The Bears struggled mightily against the pass in 2014, but have looked sharp (by Big-12 standards) since, finishing fourth and second in 2015 and 2016.
In the last few years, relatively speaking, ASU and Baylor have recruited at about the same level. So it seems to be that the disparity between the two programs defensively isn’t a lack of talent, but rather a difference in strategy. Let’s take a look at how Phil Bennett ran his defense in Waco:
As college football offenses are ever-evolving into complicated systems and formations that can confuse and tear apart whatever the defense throws at them, there is also a lot of innovation going on on the defensive side of the ball. The best units in the country have consistently shown an ability to be malleable, constantly changing and getting the most out of athletes by giving each an expanded role within the playbook.
This is evident in Bennett’s 4-2-5 scheme at Baylor, in which he utilizes one, (or two players, depending on the offensive formation) at a position called the “spacebacker”, a hybrid of the safety and cornerback position.
This is done to incorporate more defensive speed on the field and find a way to eliminate short throws to the slants and run plays to the outside.
On this second-and-three, Iowa State lines up with only three receivers wide, and the Bears countered with two space-backers assigned to attack the gaps if ISU runs the ball, or drop back into the flat and cover the slot receiver on the far side of the field if it’s a pass.
Now, if offenses decide to send line up in an empty formation (five wide receivers), the importance of the aforementioned malleability comes into play.
There are three ISU receivers aligned in the slot, so the space-backer is now given an option to drop into zone coverage in the flat or rush and let his linebackers fill that role.
The Bears have generally played box safeties at that position — players who are less adept at down-field coverage and focus more on stopping the run and defending passes in the flats. (For NFL box safety examples, think Kam Chancellor or T.J. Ward types.)
Bennett plays a more traditional hand when moving the actual safeties around, having the strong, or “cover” safety line up opposite the slot receiver, and placing the deep, or “free” safety on whatever side Bennett thinks the quarterback prefers.
With special thanks to our sister site Football Study Hall for this graphic, we can also take a look at how the Bears brought pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the last few years, with the first way being a zone/man hybrid that leaves the option for any of the line/spacebackers to bring a late rush.
In this play, the space-backer is disguised as another linebacker and while the other two drop into coverage, one in man and the other zone, the Bears’ Aivion Edwards can burst straight through the offensive line and put Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph on the ground in a matter of seconds.
The Sun Devils’ new-look defensive scheme ultimately may not look too different from what it has in previous seasons. However, the wrinkles Bennett will incorporate could prove to be the necessary changes needed to improve from last year’s defensive performance.