Coach B's Breakdown: The Husky Nickel Defense, Front 6

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Edit: Thanks to John Coalson we have gotten insight into the actual terminology and positional names for the Husky defense directly from Coach K. Positions previously referred to as Buck, MLB, Rover and WILL should now be referred to as the Jack, Dime Backer, Mike, and X. Excuse any mistakes in correcting these references.

I wanted to follow up on a few of the points that I've been making on other articles and some of the suggestions that people have suggested. One was to do a breakdown of the each position group with a look towards next season. I'm planning on doing such a series, but first I wanted to do a breakdown of the team from a macro-level. To understand how the players fit into roles, we have to understand the roles and how they all fit together. I've already done a relatively deep dive into the Petersen offense (although I'll probably write a supplement to that with a bit more detail), so I'll start with the defense.

Coach Kwiatkowski and Coach Lake are one of the most underrated defensive coaching duos in the country since their arrivals to Montlake. Coach K was one of the key staffers that Coach Pete brought over from Boise St. to help build the foundation of his new staff and implement his Base Nickel, Cover 1/3 zone scheme. He was the DC in Boise for the later portion of the Petersen Era in Boise, and his defenses were often an underrated factor in Boise's success. While Coach Pete's offenses often drew most of the media's praise due to their flash, trickery, and the sound fundamentals that carried a relatively large number of Boise alumni to the NFL, Coach K's defenses were often on the cutting edge in terms of schematic design and philosophy.

Coach Lake, the other co-DC, is a new addition to the Chris Petersen staff/coaching tree. While he may be bigger name on the coaching market at the moment, which has a lot to do with his impressive record in developing NFL-caliber defensive backs, Lake has less experience as a coordinator. I don't personally value one coach over the other, but I'll start with Coach K in order to introduce the scheme before we breakdown where the players that Coach Lake has developed fit in the scheme.

What is the Nickel Base Defense?

Similar to how the AAC is these days, (you can find a great article from Ian Boyd here on how that conference is the breeding ground for coaching innovation and development) the WAC and Mountain West conferences from the late 1990s to the early 2010s were hotbeds for developing the next generation of HCs. Teams like Utah, TCU, BYU, Nevada and Hawaii were important early homes of some of the great innovators in college football. Big name coaches like Urban Meyer (Utah, Spread Innovator), Gary Patterson (TCU, Early innovator of the Nickel Base Defense), and Chris Ault (Nevada, Father of the Pistol Formation) honed their craft in conference games against Boise teams that Petersen or Kwiatkowski were coaches of. Yes, Coach Pete is known to be an offensive minded HC, but he is also known to be highly involved in all portions of the program (I wouldn't be surprised if he's had an influence in the direction of the Coach K defense).

With so many different offenses that Boise teams had to prepare for, as well as many inspirations to draw from, Coach K and Coach Pete's teams implemented their own version of the Nickel Base Defense in order to make the most of their teams's strengths and provide enough versatility to adequately prepare for any offense they faced. This was cutting edge at the time since most teams in the Power 5 conferences stuck with base 3-4/4-3 defenses and only fielded Nickel defenses against certain offenses. The key difference between the standard Nickel packages and Coach K's Nickel Base Defense was how the foundation of the defense was built.

The original Nickel package defenses were known as "Sub-Packages" since they were largely situational personnel packages that were designed to combat passing situations where offenses might play with a third receiver by replacing a "Box Defender" who's skills generally tend towards run defense or pass rush, such as a DL or LB, with another CB as the fifth DB. This is a logical substitution since corners are generally better able at covering a WR than either player that he might replace. Another logical progression of this defense was to play with more pass rushing on the DL. One common example of this would be to replace the DTs with DEs. Why play slow run stoppers if you only play this personnel group in passing situations?

These developments have become relatively common knowledge, even to fans, over the past few years due to the proliferation of the Spread Offense and the subsequent shift towards the greater use of Nickel defenses. However, while most teams kept their base scheme as the 3-4/4-3, since those were the schemes that many coordinators were comfortable with installing as their foundation, a few innovators melded components of both 3-4 and 4-3 systems to build a foundation for the next generation of anti-Spread Nickel defenses. Gary Patterson, one of these innovators and likely the inspiration for Coach K's Boise defenses, was among the earliest adopters of the Nickel as a base defense. Putting all of these pieces together allowed teams with inferior talent in the trenches to match up with high-powered offenses every play while maintaining scheme and situational versatility.

The problem with fielding 5 DBs in non-passing situations is that it opens the defense up to being beaten up in the run game.You can solve this problem two ways, personnel and tactics. Let's review the personnel first.

Positions and Roles: The Defensive Line

Key Traits:

  • Strong enough to anchor interior run defense
  • Adequate mobility to slant gaps, although pass rush ability is less important
  • Can maintain or collapse the pocket

Patterson's solution to this problem is different from Coach K's, so we won't go into his version, but the solution for Kwiatkowski was to shift to a 2-4-5 personnel package. This means that there is one fewer DL than a standard 3-4 personnel defense would have. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that the remaining defensive linemen are DEs. By choosing to field two stout DTs as the two DL in their Nickel Defense, Coach K's teams have the benefit of being able to control the interior gaps and shield their LBs in the run game. This is a concept borrowed from traditional 3-4 defenses that use a larger DL to command double teams and allow LBs to swarm to the ball without having to deal with the OL. This might result in a less effective pass rush, but it acts as a force multiplier since the DTs really only have to be good at plugging gaps and controlling the line of scrimmage while the defense can play smaller but more athletic players at LB without having to worry too much about their ability to handle blocks from the OL. Vita Vea and Greg Gaines were among the largest and strongest interior DL duos in the nation this past year while filling these roles on defense.

The real genius in this particular grouping is how it favors certain types of players and roles that fit in with Boise's, and now UW's recruiting situation.The hardest athletic profile to find and recruit is the big AND athletic player. These are the types of athletes that might develop into NFL Left Tackles or Defensive Ends. By comparison, it is much easier to find and develop either undersized top-end athletes or big-framed kids that can be bulked into sturdy interior linemen. Since strength is easier to be developed than athleticism, building a defense around strong, but not quick, linemen would benefit teams like Boise and UW who might not be able to consistently recruit top athletes.

The "Jack" Rush LB

Key Traits:

  • Strong pass rush ability, either through speed or strength
  • Adequate mobility in space to occasionally drop into zone coverage
  • Adequate size/strength to "set the edge" against the outside run game

Now that the run defense problem in the Nickel Defense has been solved, Coach K had to atone for the loss of pass rush since neither of the DL on the field were athletic edge rushers. Drawing on inspiration from 4-3 Under and 3-4 defenses, the Coach K defense utilizes what is known as a "JACK." This is essentially a OLB/DE hybrid position that is classified as a LB due to the versatile nature of the position, but the most important role of this position is to provide an edge rush. These players are typically the size of 3-4 pass rushing OLBs or 4-3 weakside DEs at ~6' 2"+ and 250lbs. Joe Mathis, Psalm Wooching, Hauoli Kikaha, and Ryan Bowman have all been featured in this role.

While this particular player has at times played towards both the field and boundary as well as on the strong and weak side of offenses, I have noticed a tendency for this player to be aligned towards the Nickel player's side of the field to provide better support against the run compared to an OLB. This is important since the defense likes to deploy the Nickel Back towards the wider side to cover the larger space, and the Nickel Back is often a weaker run support player than who often needs to be protected from the run game even more than the LBs. Since help from the Safety and LBs would take much longer to reach the wide side of the field, it is essential for the JACK to anchor the edge against a wide run.

The "X" WILL

Key Traits:

  • Zone coverage ability and athleticism to mask the seams and flats
  • Adequate size to occasionally engage with the OL
  • Decent pass rush ability to act as a change up to the JACK

Compared to the JACK, the WILL OLB is much more similar to a 4-3 LB. With more emphasis on coverage abilities, the WILL is often smaller but more agile. Connor O'Brien and Tevis Bartlett rotated at the WILL position in 2017, and at 6' 2"-6' 3" 225-235lbs, they had a solid blend of size and athleticism to adequately fulfill their versatile roles. They had to be large enough to withstand assignments that brought them into the thick of the trench combat with the OL, either as a pass rusher or setting the edge in a weak side run, as well as athletic enough to cover some of the largest zone responsibilities out of all the LBs.

Depending on the alignment of Slot WRs, TEs, and RBs, the WILL might have coverage responsibilities ranging from the boundary all the way up to the seam. Even though that is a far smaller zone than the Nickel Back might be responsible for, the short side of the field is often the home of the QBs favorite pass plays since nearly every route is within most QBs arm strength wheres few can thread the needle to the far side of the field. While this might be a difficult set of responsibilities, scheming coverage help to the boundary is much easier than to the wide side, so the WILL doesn't necessarily require an elite athlete.

ILBs: The "Dime Backer" and the "Mike"

Key Traits: Mike

  • Exceptional Instincts and Feel for Space
  • Zone Coverage Fundamentals
  • Ball-Skills are a Plus
  • Athleticism over Size
Key Traits: Dime Backer
  • Physicality to Engage OL
  • Stout Tackling Ability
  • Interior Pass Rush Skills
While many 3-4 based schemes have tinkered with this type of divided role in the past, and 4-3 schemes have tried to hybridize this role in the Tampa 2 defense, the Husky 2-4-5 leans on the 3-4 version that takes advantage of the division of labor.

Since the genesis of Coach K's defense was a situation where he had to make the most of the limited athletes around him, this approach makes sense. Like the defensive linemen in this particular scheme, Coach K recognized that it is easier to find either a stout run stuffing MLB, called a "Dime Backer" in this system, or heady Rover/SS type of player, called a "Mike", than to find two complete MLBs who could fulfill all the roles. Like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State often do, Coach Pete and Coach K have been able to attract smart athletes to Boise St. and UW that don't fit the prototypical mold.

Dime Backers in this scheme, like Azeem Victor, tend to be closer to the prototypical 6' 2"+ 230lbs+ size range, but not necessarily the most comfortable athletes in space. These types of athletes lean towards the traditional MLB roles of providing run stuffing ability and being able to square up in the trenches against blockers. While there have been specific adjustments in scheme and recruiting profile to account for the ever lethal PAC-12 spread offenses, like greater pass rushing responsibility and smaller size due to the diminished need to face FB lead runs these days, the overall emphasis for the Dime Backers are to maintain gap integrity against the run. Dime Backers also tend to get the larger share of the pass rushing duties between the two inside linebackers due to this better ability to take on blockers. This takes greater physicality and strength, but not necessarily extreme athleticism. These types of attributes can be developed in the weight room, similar to run stuffing DL, which affords greater flexibility when looking for players that can fill this position adequately.

The Dime Backers' responsibilities stand in contrast to the Mike's responsibilities in that they emphasize more of the pass coverage role. Similar to the MLB in a Tampa 2 defense, the Mike needs to have the athleticism to drop into coverage on a consistent basis, and he must be able to cover a significant amount of ground quickly. However, unlike the Tampa 2 MLB, the Mike is able to rely on the MLB and DL in the Husky 2-4-5 defense to handle the majority of the run stuffing responsibilities that the Mike would traditionally have in a standard 3-4 or 4-3. This means that Coach K can play a smaller and more athletic player in this role. Players like Keishawn Bierria or Ben Burr-Kirven have held down the Mike position over the last couple years to great success. In previous eras, they might have been cast into Strong Safety roles due to their smaller size at around 6' 0" 225lbs with above average athleticism for an LB but less than ideal for a DB. This is the perfect combination for a Rover though because they still need to have enough size and physicality to not be a total liability against the run, but enough athleticism to carry TEs down the seam and RBs into the flats.

This greater athleticism is also important when scheming against the many option and QB based run schemes that the Huskies face in the PAC-12. Having an athlete in the front 7 who can be effectively deployed as a QB spy lends extreme flexibility to the coaching staff. While some defenses may emphasize gap control and conservative rush lanes for the DL to contain a mobile QB, this also takes some of the potency out of the pass rush. However, with a QB spy allows for our front 4 to aggressively pursue the QB while still maintaining a safeguard against the scramble. This scheme flexibility is an added benefit to this division of labor.

With so many components to this scheme I decided on breaking it up into several articles. Please leave a comment if you have questions or different observations.

Up next: The Husky Nickel Defense, Secondary