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What Nebraska’s Defense Could Look like under Matt Rhule and Tony White

How Nebraska could employ the 3-3-5 in the Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Syracuse at Louisville Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who Matt Rhule was going to hire as his defensive coordinator was a hotly discussed topic within Nebraska. With names like Jim Leonhard and Glen Schumann out there as rumors there was plenty of hope. But when Pete Thamel announced last Thursday that Nebraska was hiring Syracuse defensive coordinator Tony White, that caught many by surprise.

The other big note in there was that White runs a 3-3-5 defense. Different from the 3-4 and the 4-3 defenses that Nebraska had since the 1990’s. My first reaction to the 3-3-5 coming to Nebraska was with skepticism. I’ve always seen the 3-3-5 as a gimmick defense for small teams. Instead of complaining, I dove into the tape to see what White did at Syracuse along with what we’ve seen out of Rhule’s teams at Temple and Baylor. This is what I found out.

What is the 3-3-5

If you’re not familiar the 3-3-5 defense has 3 defensive lineman, 3 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks and 3 safeties. Teams have used the 3-3-5 often due to a lack of size while utilizing their speed to compensate. Rocky Long used this defense during his time at New Mexico and San Diego State to much success. Rich Rodriguez’s teams also utilized the 3-3-5 at West Virginia and Michigan.

Matt Rhule’s Defensive History

It really shouldn’t have be no surprise that Nebraska will be moving to the 3-3-5. That’s the same defense that Rhule ran at Baylor and for the most part what they ran at Temple. At Temple the Owls did run more 4-2-5 looks as they had outside linebacker Haason Reddick lined up more as a down lineman. Reddick was drafted 13th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

But at Baylor, Rhule’s teams ran a true 3-3-5. What was different is that Rhule’s Baylor teams had much more size up front. In 2019 he had a true nose tackle in Bravvion Roy who was listed at 6’1 333lbs, while James Lynch (6’4 295lbs) and James Lockhart (6’2 263lbs) played defensive end. Rhule used these big lineman and speed at linebacker to create penetration to slow down opposing teams rushing attacks while confusing them with different types of blitzes.

Tony White’s 3-3-5 at Syracuse

Taking over Syracuse’s defense, Tony White was able to improve the defense from 112th in total defense to 18th. White didn’t have the size up front that Baylor did, but his defensive line had all three starters in the 280-290lb range.

What I really liked out of Tony White is he moved his linebackers around quite a bit. At times they would be lined up on the edges to give a 5-1 type, like the picture above shows. Other times the outside linebackers would lined up inside between the defensive ends and the nose tackle.

White’s defense reminded me a lot of what Mike Vrabel is doing with the Tennessee Titans where they blitz frequently and have players slanting and looping in different directions. At Syracuse White would have his end slant inside and then have a linebacker loop around him to fill that gap that the end vacated.

In the secondary White would have his middle safety which is called a rover and essentially a strong safety often come down and help in the run game. Syracuse played mainly zone coverage either playing Cover 3 or some Cover 2 with several underneath defenders. White would also rotate out his rover and add another coverage safety to give them more versatility in the back end.

What Nebraska’s Defense Will Look Like

I believe we’ll see a combination of what Tony White scheme looked like at Syracuse but with players that Baylor used. Expect Nebraska’s 3 man defensive front to look very similar to that of a traditional 3-4 defense. Nebraska will likely try to get a big nose tackle with defensive ends in the 6’4 285lb range.

At linebacker they could go with a downhill run stuffer at middle linebacker whose more of a run defender and blitzer. At outside linebacker they’ll look to have more speed but have versatile players who can blitz as well.

Can this Defense Stop the Run? That’s the biggest question most Husker fans have. I know it can. The combination of bigger lineman and players blitzing and filling gaps, they is no reason they can’t hold their own against the like’s of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

Nebraska’s current roster should fit well within this defense which could mean a quicker built for Matt Rhule than his previous stops. Nash Hutmacher is built to play nose tackle. Ty Robinson is perfect for a defensive end spot. Garrett Nelson is a bit of a tweener but could play end or outside linebacker in the system. Nick Henrich’s ability to play on the edge or at linebacker makes him perfect for the outside linebacker role. Isaac Gifford could play the rover position.

When Tony White was hired I was nervous about the 3-3-5 in the Big Ten. But the more I dove into the tape, I’m excited for White’s defense and I cannot wait to see what he builds here!

I’ve attached a video that I made that includes clips and plays from Temple, Baylor and Syracuse. In that video, I’m able to break down the defense even further while providing better visuals. It’s a great companion piece for this article.