Why the Miami Hurricanes should switch to a 4-2-5 defense

Born and raised a Miami Hurricane football fan, I'll be the first to admit my opinion is biased when it comes to them.  I'll always see the promise in whatever team we field and will never enter a season without a sense of hope.  But for the past couple years, that optimism has been tempered pretty early in the season each year; no matter how good I think they'll be, they seem to disappoint more often than not when it comes to big games.  

For other teams it is easy to say that the other team was just simply better than you but for us that's not the case.  Usually our individual talent level on matchups exceeds the opponent's but we still seem to be worse off collectively (and are usually proven this on the field).  This points to a simple conclusion:  either we are being out-coached or we are being out-schemed, or possibly both.  Maybe it's not that simple.

The best coaches fit their scheme to their talent; you work with the tools you are given, or another way to look at it is you only worry about what you can control.  But it seems that even though Al Golden has done some really remarkable things in his time at Miami (among them, guiding us through the NCAA mess, re-establishing community relationships, instilling a sense of accountability, etc.) he could improve when it comes to fitting his scheme to his talent.  Golden and our defensive coordinator, Mark D'Onofrio, have coached together since Virginia and Temple and even played together at Penn State, so the defense Miami runs is as much Golden's as it is coach D's.  But I believe in order for Golden to ultimately survive successfully at Miami he needs to adapt from what he has always run and switch to a scheme that maximizes the strengths of what is readily available to him (in terms of local talent) and simplifies things to allow playmakers to make plays.  And I wholeheartedly believe that this defense is a version of the 4-2-5 defense that Gary Patterson has made famous over at TCU.

"So what exactly is the 4-2-5 Defense?"

Put simply, there are 4 down linemen, only 2 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks and 3 safetys.  This differs from the typical 4-3 defense in that it replaces a lineback with a smaller, faster safety (Miami has run a 4-3/3-4 hybrid since Golden has arrived).  You would think that with this replacement that you would be easier to run on but actually this is one of the strengths of the defense; the interior is meant to force runners horizontally so that these faster replacements can run them down.  Also, they're normally able to line up with 8 men in the box to deter the offense from running and able to adapt to multiple WR substitutions without having to switch up your base defense too much. 

Coach Patterson has been fairly open throughout the years in the philosophy of his defense, but the two things he has stressed throughout is that his defense is built to maximize their speed and to be able to defend multiple different fronts from a simple base.  Instead of trying to wait for you to get this connection in how this is similar to Miami's past history, I'll let Ian Boyd from SBNation summarize it in his 4-2-5 primer:

The TCU 4-2-5 defense is descended from Jimmy Johnson's 4-3 over defense. It carries many of the same principles, including the positioning of the ends. Out wide, the ends are safe to attack upfield and are not confronted with the possibility of being pinned between a tight end-offensive tackle double team. If the ball gets wide of them, it's going to take the runner going horizontal for such a long time that the secondary will have time to arrive.

The area between the offensive tackles belongs to the defensive tackles, who also tend to align fairly wide. Unless there's a stunt called, after the snap the interior gaps will be the responsibility of the DTs and linebackers. They're looking to either make a tackle or spill the ball outside.

In this instance, the penetration is too quick. The runner can't bounce outside, so the run-support defensive backs converge in on the ball with leverage, in case the first wave misses the tackles.

Since these six players in the defensive front are always responsible for the six interior gaps, they can play it straightforward, as they do in the clip above. Or they can move around and switch up which of the six is responsible for each gap.

All this allows the Frogs to be instinctive and aggressive in how they respond to different formations, personnel groupings, or schemes from the offense. No matter what, the same defensive players will be performing more or less the same roles, attacking the offense from the same angles, dealing with similar offensive strategies.

So they're allowing their fast defenders to attack horizontally where they can use their speed to make up ground and allowing them to also play instinctively (and thus aggressively) by making it as simple as possible.  That sounds like something Miami could possibly benefit from.

"Yeah but does it actually work?"

It's fairly well known that Gary Patterson's defenses have been among the top in all of college football, so I know I'm not breaking any earth-shattering stats.  But compared to Miami's defensive stats, TCU puts us to shame.  Below is the summary for each of the last 7 seasons (including this one without yesterday's games) comparing Miami's defensive stats to TCU's.  I've conditionally formatted each year to visually identify the better team in green. (These are per game averages, all stats are from Sports-Reference.com's college football stats here)

As you can see, TCU was better than Miami in most of the defensive comparisons (SRS is an overall ranking, with a higher score being better).  In Miami's best year compared to TCU (2011), we were better than them in 7 of 19 categories, still less than half.  Below is the picture for the average of each category for each school:

Yeah, so any doubt is now likely removed.  Anybody in their right mind would rather take TCU's defense over Miami's over the last 7 seasons.

"Ok, but TCU's players must be very different from Miami's right?"

If you've ever read any other blog post that asks rhetorical questions to itself, you already know this answer.  This is the point that gives me the most hope in a Miami version of TCU's 4-2-5 defense:  our defenders are more alike than not.  In fact, the type of players that TCU covets are exactly the type that is famous for being prevalent in the South Florida area;  they are typically smaller and faster athletes that rely more on instinct than training.  These are the type of athletes that every team covets and Miami has a much greater chance of convincing the best ones to stick around than other teams.  

Basically I'm a saying, and what has been proven on a different level, is that I view roster building as a crapshoot overall, so to increase your chances of fielding a good defense, you should emphasize skills in which you have the best chance of getting quality athletes.  The great Miami defenses of old and those from a decade ago were built to emphasize their speed and instincts, and less on the size and play-reading of today's 4-3/3-4 hybrid.  Or as Ian Boyd says best again:

In true Miami 4-3 defense fashion, the Frogs are looking to put as much speed on the field as possible. They adhere to a "shrink the field" philosophy of finding personnel. They recruit with the main purpose of locating speedy athletes with potential, rather than finished products with years of experience at a particular position.

At defensive tackle, they prize players with the lateral quickness. They want a big guy who can stunt and work his way across an offensive lineman's face in order to control that space from end to end.

The other positions often feature players spun down from other roles. 

Let's look at comparisons of the average size of each position since 2008 from TCU and Miami players that also were recruited from Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties (height's are in inches and weight in pounds and TCU is in purple, Miami is in orange that looks yellowish here):

So if you dig into these comparisons, you start to see common themes.  Both TCU and Miami's defenders are normally underweight compared to the Draft Mockable positional averages of draft prospects (yes I know that the median draft prospect is likely bigger than the average size, but the average size takes into account prospects that were under- and oversized and honestly it's the easiest overall average I could find).  Both TCU and Miami defenders are particularly undersized on the defensive line and linebackers.  So it doesn't seem smart in either case to try and build your defense around size and strength when the recruits you have in your own backyard are smaller and quicker.

For the best example, just think of Miami's local LB's since 1999:  Nate Webster, Dan Morgan, Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason, Tavares Gooden, Daryl Sharpton, Sean Spence and now Denzel Perryman.  Most were generally smaller than average but made up for it with speed and instincts.

"Well Miami's defense could never be as good as TCU's"

While we likely couldn't get as good of a teacher as Gary Patterson to bring his defense to Miami, we could likely get a former defensive coordinator of his who has worked closely and learned from him to bring over the scheme.  So even though the quality of teaching won't be as good, we could likely make up the difference by getting better athletes and recruits than TCU from right in our backyard.  

Below is the overall difference in BCS final standings and the recruiting rankings from the last 5 seasons from Regressing:

TCU has outplayed Miami even though Miami has recruited much better overall.  Actually TCU had the 8th best record of outplaying their recruiting rankings on the field, Miami was 105th since they actually underperformed versus their recruiting rankings.  Out of 120 teams.  

"So what exactly are you trying to say?"

Clearly something has to change.  Miami is underperforming on defense compared to how it should be based on its talent level.  This has been blamed on players not executing on their responsibilities for the past 4 years but some of the blame has to fall on the coaching.  And in this case, I'm blaming it on the scheme for not putting the players in the best position possible for them to play up to their abilities.  

What I'm saying is that Al Golden should adapt from a defense he has taught for many years for one that best utilizes the traits that are typical of the players it recruits.  Unfortunately this adaptation will force him to part with his friend and coworker for over a decade in Mark D'Onofrio.  It's not that he isn't capable of changing schemes but we would need to bring expertise in.  In doing so, we can possibly become an even better defense than the great TCU defenses of late.  And return to our roots of playing aggressive and with speed.

Lastly, I'll leave you with another Boyd quote, this one from his shrink the field link above (and here for those too lazy to scroll up), tell me who else who could field this type of defense besides TCU:

1). Shrink the field

Some teams build their teams by simply trying to get the fastest team possible on the field and relying on team speed to attack opponents, rally to the ball, and essentially shrink the field so no offensive player finds a match-up advantage or leverage to operate in for more than a small window of time before the defense converges on him.

Gary Patterson's TCU Horned Frogs are a perfect example of this approach as they rely on 4-2-5 base personnel that has at least five defensive backs, including three safeties, on the field at all times. They'll also play speed at cornerback that can run deep with vertical routes.

Even in their fronts the Horned Frogs target linebackers who can change direction and run in underneath coverage, defensive ends who are aligned wide and are often athletes bulked up and deployed to terrorize the edge, and even defensive tackles who have the lateral quickness to stunt and play blocks outside-in.

In all of their tactics, TCU is looking to handle opponents by playing speed everywhere and racing to where they think the ball will be, and then where ever the ball actually goes.

The 4-3 Over defense popularized by the Jimmy Johnson Miami Hurricanes really launched this tactic into the modern era, the Gary Patterson 4-2-5 TCU defense is largely a modern take on it.