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Kentucky Football: UK should not switch to 4-3 Defense

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Where’s the napalm?

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NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Sherman at Kentucky Sports Radio asks, "Should Kentucky switch to a 4-3 defense?" No offense to Sherman - this is a question that gets asked rather frequently by UK fans, and he doesn’t bear sole responsibility - but this proposal is completely misguided. At a minimum, it displays a lack of knowledge about the current state of college football. It’s worth taking down given it was published on the flagship of UK sports blogging.

The coaching staff isn’t making the switch, so all that follows is moot, but if you’d like to hear some of the logic behind the counter-argument then follow me into Internet fisking territory. I blame a slow preseason for forcing my hand.

“Multiple, To Me, Means No Identity”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s focus on the most glaring: this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what “multiple” means. A simple Google search reveals a wide array of evidence that it’s the exact opposite of a buzzword. Some of those links go back several years. Being multiple is the current trend, and has been for a while.

It’s not a matter of trying a lot of different things. It’s directly tied to the wide proliferation of hurry-up, no-huddle spread offenses forcing defenses to evolve. Today, defenses can’t be static if they wish to be successful. Being a strict constructivist gets you beat. Alabama will field an entire starting defense of five stars this fall, but the Crimson Tide will be multiple.

Teams play multiple defenses for several reasons. Offenses increasingly going no-huddle prevents substitutions due to the rule that a defense can only sub when the offense subs. Offenses attacking in space forces defenses to have defenders that are as comfortable tackling in space as they are in pass coverage. The defenses are multiple from scheme all the way down to the individual. Multiple defenses are also harder to prepare against. For example, how do you know where the blitz is coming when it could plausibly come from five different positions?

The misplaced thesis that the 4-3 will serve UK better than the 3-4 also reveals another fundamental understanding. The evolution hasn’t been so much in three or four man fronts, although it has contributed to deception, so much as it has been about the increasing importance of the nickel back, as well as having more linebackers on the field, to help the secondary face four or five eligible receiver sets. Safeties and linebackers must be adept in pass coverage, and even in some cases, man coverage unlike a bygone era when that was mostly only expected of cornerbacks.

Additionally, defenses want as many options as the offense has to slow them down. Having more versatile athletes on the field allows a defense to do more, and overall makes the unit less predictable.

This section is chalk-full of fundamental misunderstandings. Putting aside the blanket assumption UK’s secondary should be good “no matter what”, they are still young and are not yet saviors, none of the changes Sherman recommends will enable the front seven to be more effective.

In a 4-3 front, Elam won’t be “eating blockers” - nor will any of the defensive linemen. They’ll be assigned single gap responsibilities and told to rush. That was not what Elam was recruited to do at either UK or Alabama (more on that below).

Meanwhile, Ware will still rush off the edge just as he now does in the 3-4, but in a 4-3 he’d be an undersized defensive end and playing at a disadvantage. 4-3 defensive ends have different body types than 3-4 outside linebackers. Also, Eli Brown plays a weakside linebacker now with many of the same gap responsibilities he would have in a 4-3.

Just as Sherman mistakenly assumes Ware could automatically become a 4-3 defense end above, he does so again with Laster and Allen here. He seems to think the defense can change overnight and be even more successful. Sherman neglects to realize the defense was recruited for the 3-4 defense and a priority was placed on versatile athletes going back to 2014.

As I wrote in the spring of 2015, the defense has evolved under Stoops in real-time in response to incorporating the newly recruited players to meet the new football landscape. Recall Stoops came to UK having run a base 4-3 at Florida State, and he turned that defense around, but he still sees the writing on the wall and knows it’s now largely an anachronism for most teams not named Michigan State (but how’d they .

The staff has invested three off-seasons developing their 3-4 defense, and until offensive schemes evolve again they aren’t changing nor should they as their players don’t have the inherent skill sets required.

Just because the 3-4 defense hasn’t succeeded doesn’t mean the right solution is to scrap it in favor of an older tool. Frontiersman didn’t abandon their muskets in favor of bows and arrows just because they’d jam every once in a while.