BYU Defense: Is the 4-3 Worth Keeping?

Brett RichinsSenior Analyst IOctober 27, 2010

FORT WORTH, TX - OCTOBER 16:  Head coach Bronco Mendenhall of the BYU Cougars heads his team against the TCU Horned Frogs at Amon G. Carter Stadium on October 16, 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas.  TCU beat BYU 31-3.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

With the Cougar football team on a bye week, there comes an opportunity to reflect on the state of the program and ask some questions.

One of the intriguing questions floating around in my head now for the last couple of years is the viability of BYU switching its defense to a 4-3 alignment.

There have been rumors floating around the program for the past year or so that BYU may be looking at going to a 4-3.

It’s the most common defensive alignment in football and something the Cougars ran for years before Bronco Mendenhall brought the 3-3-5 defense to BYU in 2003.

Since 2006, BYU has implemented a 3-4 defense with three down linemen, two inside and two outside linebackers.

The switch was made on the premise that it was easier to recruit linebackers to BYU than it was defensive backs.

The 3-4 can be very effective if you can get the right personnel on the field. One of the keys to success with it is to have terrific players in the front three.

To begin with, you must have a nose tackle who demands double-teams and can control the “A” gaps on either side of the center.

If an opposing offense can handle the nose tackle one-on-one,  it then allows the offensive linemen to then get to the next level and get on a linebacker.

When that happens, it causes all kinds of problems for the defense. A team needs a guy who can dominate in the position like Nebraska had in Ndamukoung Suh.

Much of the success of a 3-4 hinges on having that dominant player in the middle.

The Cougars have had some success in bringing in some talented NTs. Russel Tialavea, Eathyn Manumaleuna, Romney Fuga and Ian Dulan all came in and played well, even as freshmen.

An issue arises though when there is a lack of depth at the position, as is the case this year.

The Cougars are currently trying to fill in for the injured Fuga with Jordan Richardson. Jordan has a done an admirable job, but there are too few capable bodies for the Cougars at NT. And who knows if Fuga will be able to return at his former level of play next year?

From a recruiting standpoint, it seems that it would be easier to recruit several defensive tackles than a handful of dominate nose tackles.

The other issue for BYU has been at defensive end.

In the 3-4, the front three all need to be space eaters who can keep the linebackers free and able to make plays. The prototypical defensive ends in a 3-4 are big and powerful and look more like what you would see at defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense, although with enough athleticism to get a push up the field on the outside when needed.

Over the past few seasons the Cougars have gotten by with defensive ends with body types that are much more suited to the 4-3. Smaller, more rangy players like Jan Jorgensen, Brett Denny, Vic So’oto, Matt Putman and Thomas Bryson are all guys who would be more effective players in a 4-3 alignment.

With BYU’s ability to recruit TE/DE body types, moving to the 4-3 would make some sense.

The other situation for BYU has been the struggle to find inside linebackers with enough athleticism to make plays. In the 3-4, there is a lot of pressure put on the interior linebackers.

Over the past three years the Cougars have struggled to find enough talented athletes to play the position. It always seems as if BYU is working with stop-gap solutions in the middle.

Next year BYU will get the services of Uona Kaveinga at inside linebacker, which should be a huge boon for the defense. With Austen Jorgensen, Zac Stout, Shane Hunter and Brandon Ogletree, there would be more bodies and talent on the inside than the Cougars have had since moving to the 3-4.

For that reason I believe the Cougars will stick with the 3-4 for at least the next couple of years. After all, the current defense is getting it done under Bronco’s tutelage despite the many injuries BYU has suffered on that side of the ball.

But it would be interesting to see Kaveinga in the middle with Pendleton and Van Noy on the outside. That would give BYU three superb athletes at linebacker, protected by a four-man front.