We’ve got new sheriffs in town. A new staff means new coordinators, and we now have William Inge and Chuck Morrell, our co-DCs, at the helm of the Husky defense. With them, they bring their own take on modern defensive schemes and principles, so its finally time for me to write the follow up to my first UWDP series breaking down Coach K’s Nickel defense (part 1 & part 2). Let’s take a deep dive into the ever changing principles of modern defense, Inge’s 4-2-5 defense, and how it stacks up against other approaches to defense.
The Evolution of Anti-Spread Defenses
To get a better sense of how Inge & Morrell’s defense works, you need to understand the key challenges that defensive coordinators are facing from modern offenses when devising their defense. This goes beyond specific plays or coverage structures, and it includes personnel, alignments, checks/calls, verbiage, play calling philosophy, and more. All of these have to come together to have an effective system.
Modern spread offenses weaponize athleticism by using space to isolate athletic and numerical mismatches in the run and passing games. Spreading out talented skill position players on the perimeter draws numbers away from the box and facilitates athletic mismatches. Option concepts & the QB run game tilt the numerical advantage in favor of the offense when facing a conventional defense. RPOs add an additional element of conflict for second level players (gap vs. coverage assignments), and tempo turbo charges all of these advantages for the offense by keeping the defense off balance.
The basic principles of defense still apply (like how do we account for gaps in the run game and receivers in coverage), but defensive coordinators have spent the better part of the last 20 years looking for answers to these new offensive elements. The challenges that DCs face could be broken down to a few key questions:
- How do we play match up proof personnel with minimal sub packages?
- How do we “tempo-proof” our calls/checks & verbiage?
- How do we account for the QB rush threat?
- How do you create impact plays without over committing numbers to coverage or the rush?
Most of us CFB fans are already familiar with the aforementioned questions that DCs have been looking for answers to, and many are also familiar with some of the better solutions to those problems. Gary Patterson at TCU was one of the first to adapt the 4-2-5 Nickel as a base defense in the 00’s as a means of getting more speed on the field when he couldn’t bring in enough DL talent to play conventional defense. It turned out that the 4-2-5 was simply ahead of the spread offense curve by being able to keep up with the spread’s space-oriented personnel that became trendy in the later 00’s. Different coaches have adopted and adapted the 4-2-5 to suit their talent and their needs. Coach K incorporated 2-gap structures into his 4-2-5 to take advantage of Sark’s 3-4 personnel in what became the 2-4-5. Other coaches have created hybrid positions for the 5th DB, and others have innovated by mixing and matching the coverages behind the fronts.
While it’s fairly easy to identify when defenses play more DBs, or to scan a roster and notice fewer 250 lb linebackers, what hasn’t been as well discussed are the less obvious defensive evolution that’s taken place on the schematic and systemic level to account for the tempo, dual threat QBs, and the RPO game. To account for those changes on offense, defenses required a reimagination of defensive play design, simplified verbiage, and new priorities.
Inge, Tom Allen, and Fresno’s 4-2-5 Nickel Defense
I’m not going to lie. A big part of why this deep dive took so long was the lack of information on William Inge’s defensive schemes. Unlike Coach K, who had been at Boise for 8 years (4 as DC) and had coordinated top defenses on nationally recognized teams, Inge has risen through the ranks in relative obscurity, so I had to lean extra heavily on the Fresno film and research on Tom Allen’s Indiana defenses where Inge gained notoriety as a LB coach.
The 4-2-5 Personnel
The basic structure of Inge & Morrell’s 4-2-5 defense is very similar to the conventional 4-3. The Even front that features 4 players on the LOS (an even number) stays consistent, but instead of 4 DL with their hand in the dirt at all times, Inge has his EDGE players at the DE spots utilizing both 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE stances/techniques. Additionally, instead of playing a field-side/SAM linebacker, Inge swaps the LB for the “Husky”, which is a hybrid slot corner/Safety/LB position that is aligned as the “apex” or “overhang” defender over the #2 receiver to the field between the outside CB and the defensive front.
As you can see in the snippet above from Fresno’s game against UCLA last year, this looks very similar to the 2-4-5 that we’ve run at UW for years under Coach K and Coach Lake. There are the 4 primary players on the LOS, 2 LBs off the ball behind them, 3 DBs closer to the LOS covering the 3 WRs, and two safeties. Both EDGE players are playing in stand up techniques, and both are listed at 6’-3” and 246 lbs, which is a little light for conventional base 4-3 DEs, but they’d be approximately the same size as the early Coach K OLBs.
Tom Allen, the defensive-minded HC of Indiana that mentored Inge under prior to him becoming DeBoer’s DC at Fresno, had his EDGE defenders playing around 260 lbs. While the EDGE players were all around the same general size, Allen liked to have his better run stuffing EDGE play more hand-down base DE techniques on the field-side (as you can see in the play above) with the thinking that offenses like to run to open grass. Then, Allen would have his more athletic boundary-side EDGE play more stand up rush stances with a more pass rush-oriented role.
Coach K had a similar approach to his OLBs, so again, this should feel familiar. Guys like Benning Potoa’e or Jaylen Johnson typically manned one side of the defensive front and played as a hand-down DE with read-and-react run stuffing responsibilities, and a lighter/more athletic OLB like Tevis Bartlett, Connor O’Brien, and Ariel Ngata would man the other side of the defensive front.
Moving off the LOS, the off-ball LBs in the Allen-Inge 4-2-5 defenses play a lot more like conventional 4-3 MIKE and WILL LBs than our LBs have played in the 2-4-5. Allen and Inge utilized their LBs in a more box-oriented role that fits into their attacking defensive philosophy that we’ll touch on in a bit. Allen is a big fan of blitzing his LBs and giving them downhill gap assignments against the run to create maximum disruption in the backfield. Inge brought that with him to Fresno, where he instilled a similar disruptive mindset in his ILB room. Rarely did you see his Fresno LBs play with hesitation against the run because they knew exactly which gap they were responsible for.
This stands in contrast to the more coverage-oriented and read-and-react responsibilities that we became accustomed to when Ben Burr-Kirven was patrolling the middle of our defense. In the 2-4-5, we had the DL play more 2-gap techniques against the run, so it allowed the ILBs to flow with the offense and read the ball carrier to make the tackle. That approach works well when you have the bodies up front to protect the ILBs and the ILBs that can consistently read the backfield action, but it can be a very passive style of run defense without those key pieces.
The ILBs that we have should fit Inge’s style of ILB play much better than the old scheme because they are downhill LBs through and through. Eddie Ulofoshio was a breakout pass rusher from the ILB spot in 2020 because he plays fast downhill and knows how to knife through chaos in the trenches. However, with the recent news that Ulofoshio will be out for at least a few games this year, it’ll fall on the rest of the thin ILB room to pick up the slack. In his handful of starts last year, Carson Bruener showed a similar knack for creating disruptive plays in the backfield, and Heimuli has the talent (and now size) to play a bigger role in the defense. The hope would be that a streamlined set of run responsibilities should help Heimuli find traction in the LB rotation. Tuputala could be another ILB with upside in the new scheme. He was a downhill thumper in HS, and while I had my concerns with his fit in the old system, he might be a more natural fit under Inge.
None of this is to discount the fact that Inge will still ask a lot of his LBs when it comes to coverage. Heimuli has already made comments that Inge’s defensive install during Spring Practices have involved a lot of active coverage responsibilities. While at Fresno, Inge frequently had his ILBs running sideline to sideline chasing crossing routes or patrolling the flats, but this stands in stark contrast to the vertical coverage up the seams that BBK was asked with. Getting match up-proof coverage LBs will be something to keep an eye on, and I anticipate that we’ll see changes in how we stock this position. We’ll still go after prototypical LB athletes like Heimuli for at least one of the ILB spots, but I also anticipate seeing athletes like Desmond King and Cam Bright being brought in to fill the traditional WILL LB spot that is evolving into a “space” athlete position similar to the Husky.
Moving over to Coach Morrell’s portion of the defense, the Husky is the biggest change to the secondary. The Husky plays a similar role to what our old nickel DB played under the old scheme, but the athletic profile is beefed up quite a bit. Instead of playing smaller slot corners as the 5th DB (Budda, Bryant, Bookie), we are now looking at a tank like Dom Hampton filling that role.
If football is all about getting the best 11 players on the field, then the Husky position opens doors for us in a big way. Budda, Bryant, and Bookie were all excellent in coverage and solid in the run, but the Husky position is designed to allow us to play the run and the pass more consistently against a variety of personnel packages and formations. As we saw in his extended playing time towards the end of the season, Hampton can legitimately play everywhere from the secondary all the way down to the trenches, and that type of versatility is critical when playing defense against the up tempo and hybridized offensive personnel that we are seeing these days.
While a DB of Hampton’s size might be a bit of a mismatch in coverage against a shifty slot like Britain Covey, we won’t have the types of run game mismatches that we had playing guys like Bryant or Bookie who were asked at times to square up with a fullback or pulling guard. It is easier to scheme away coverage mismatches than to hide an undersized DB in a run fit when the offense wants to bully the defense on the ground, and Hampton.
As for the corners and safeties, its all about versatility. From what I can tell, Morrell doesn’t build his defenses around a set coverage shell in the same way Coach K did. There won’t be one free safety in the middle of the field and one box safety at all times, and we won’t be playing split safeties 100% either. We also won’t be playing our CBs in only press man coverage or only in off ball zone. Instead Morrell likes to keep the offense guessing. At Fresno, the corners and safeties mixed it up a bunch to create offensive confusion. Sometimes they would roll into a single-high shell post-snap, sometimes the corners would align in a press-bail, and sometimes they’d line up showing man coverage only to shift into zone. Nothing in this defense is static, and it does everything necessary to take control of the game.
That’s not to say that we won’t stick to something if it works. It just means that Morrell will throw the kitchen sink at the offense and see what works. It’s that approach that allowed Fresno’s defenses to keep up with the more talented Pac-12 opponents they faced in 2021. Against UCLA, despite facing a dual-threat QB and an All-Conference caliber TE and WR, Morrell didn’t hesitate to let his DBs take a stab at locking them up in man coverage. The box score from that game might make some a bit wary of this approach, but UCLA was a perfect example of what Morrell brings to the table. You have to take risks to punch above your weight, and being able to take down a more talented opponent running a modern spread offense led by a dual threat QB is a defensive masterpiece.
Scheme Design, Structure, & Play Calling Philosophy
As I discussed at the top, designing a defensive system is more than just picking the best players and plugging them into a few different alignments. Its also more difficult for casual fans to wrap their heads around defensive scheme because of its reactive nature than offense. There are coverages and blitz packages to call, but as a whole, coaching defense is more about getting the defense aligned properly and giving them sets of contingencies based on what the offense does pre and post snap than calling set plays like an offensive play caller would.
Things like, if the offense comes out in 12, 21, or 11 personnel, then we’ll stick with our base 4-2-5 personnel, but if their speedy TE is playing in their 11 personnel, we’ll sub into our dime package. Or, if the offense if the offense comes out in a balanced formation, then the WILL bumps out over the boundary WR2, but if they motion into a 3x1, then the safety rotates over to match. Or, if the #1 WR goes vertical, the CB carries, but if he breaks inside, then the WILL has him, but if its a run play, then I have the C-gap.
Some of this is part of the week-to-week defensive game planning, but how a DC builds his base defensive structures and system to answer the four core problems that modern spread offenses create for defenses goes a long way in determining how well the defense can adjust to all the window dressing and curve balls that specific offenses throw at them.
1. How do we play match up proof personnel with minimal sub packages?
We already touched on this a little bit when running through how Inge & Morrell utilize the different positions and roles within the defense, but for them, the key is versatility. The version of the 4-2-5 that Inge and Morrell have brought to UW looks to be closer in-line with the traditional evolutionary lineage of Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 than Coach K’s 2-4-5, Iowa State’s 3-3-5, Georgia’s Mint Front or any of the other branches of the base nickel defense, so playing match up-proof personnel will fall on how we piece together the LBs and the Husky.
The Husky, as the defense’s evolutionary response to the slot receiver and flex TEs taking advantage of traditional SAM linebackers, could go either way. By putting a box safety type of athlete at the SAM spot (now Husky), the defense can now match up in the slot while still retaining enough size to account for the run if the offense goes to condensed formations. There are plenty of box safety types of athletes coming out of HS, but finding an elite athlete that can play with the physicality required to mix it up in the box while still holding up in man coverage against a slot receiver is tough to find. Or, its at least tougher to find than an undersized cover corner who you hope to scheme out of run fits. Having Dom Hampton should help the defense transition into this role should help, but I’m curious how we recruit for this position moving forward.
Safeties are the other half of Inge & Morrell’s answer to the question of playing match up proof personnel. We’ll probably see more 2-high shells under Morrell, which are the gold standard for controlling the pass. Being assured that there’s safety help over the top allows the defense to mix and match more freely underneath, but it requires run/pass versatility at safety. The key is stopping the run out of a 2-high shell (as we found out this year...). Morrell’s response at Fresno was playing safeties at shallower depths than Gregory did, and he tasked the defensive front with spilling the ball and letting the safeties make the clean up tackles. This was the basis of Pat Narduzzi’s Quarters-based defenses at Michigan State and Pitt (I broke down the pros & cons of this approach here).
2. How do we “tempo-proof” our calls/checks & verbiage?
Without insider information on the exact verbiage and play calling structure of the defense (I’ve got something in the works for that), I only have film and anecdotal clues to guess at how Inge & Morrell will address this. So far, I’ve noticed that they set up the defense based on field/boundary rather than to the formational strength. This lets the defense set up quickly as soon as the ball is placed rather than waiting on the offense to break the huddle or let pre-snap motion create chaos immediately before the snap. The downside is that offenses can get numbers advantages or hunt for preferred match ups once the defense gets aligned. On a number of occasions during the UCLA-Fresno game, UCLA put their trips into the boundary and let DTR pick between having a 3v3 to the boundary or a 1v1 to the field with wide open space for Kyle Philips to work with on the field side.
As for tempo-proofing calls, my guess is that the defense will split defensive calls between the front and back ends. This was an innovation that Gary Patterson had great success with at TCU, and while not universally loved by DCs due to the limits it places on designing certain blitz packages and the delegated responsibility it gives to multiple on-field play callers, this lets the defense get lined up faster adjust to the offense faster than centralized play calling from the DC might. I’ll have to circle back to this one later on down the line.
3. How do we account for the QB rush threat?
This is arguably the toughest question to answer for most defenses. An athletic QB completely changes the numbers in the run game, and it takes many of the defense’s best coverages off the table in passing situations. I expect Inge & Morrell to significantly improve this area of the defense pretty quickly based solely on their approach to run fits.
As I mentioned above, this defense is designed to control the center of the field and spill runs to the perimeter where our Husky & safeties can get involved. This is accomplished with big bodies in the middle (Tuli continuing to develop as a block eating NT & Ale switching positions will have a big impact) and the more aggressive/disruptive play by the EDGEs and LBs, where the only open grass is to the edge where fast-triggering safeties are sprinting downhill into the alley.
With disciplined personnel, this is the best approach against the QB run game as well. Most QBs these days can pick up 4 yards up the middle to convert 3rd down, but very few have the speed to evade the pass rush and then win the corner against a spying LB or alley-filling DB. The tricky part is flushing the QBs out of the pocket in the direction that you want them to go. That’s where Inge’s time learning Tom Allen’s pressure packages should come in handy.
Allen is a master of the “double mug” and crossfire blitz packages that exploit weaknesses in pass protection systems to generate interior pressure with the ILBs. Manufacturing interior pressure prevents QBs from stepping up into the pocket (and potentially taking off for yardage), and it solves the QB rush problem without leaving a spy waiting in no man’s land without a coverage assignment or generating any pressure.
4. How do you create impact plays without over committing numbers?
The potential for Inge to bring Allen’s ILB pressure packages to Montlake is a good segue into the discussion on how we plan on creating impact plays without becoming predictable and overly aggressive.
In today’s era of quick trigger QBs running high-octane offenses, the most dangerous position a defense can be put in by the DC is one where they are predictable with an obvious weak point. In the past, DCs could roll the dice down-to-down fluctuating between the extremes of man-blitzes and drop 8 coverages with the hope of catching the offense off guard and creating some sort of impact play. However, with the advent of RPOs, modern passing game concepts, and more advanced QB play, defenses are more likely to get caught with their pants down if they overcommit numbers to coverage, run defense, or pass rush.
Anecdotally, over the past few years, the minimum number of coverage players that a defense that a defense could get away with is 6. However, that leaves the defense with only 5 rushers against a minimum of 5 blockers, and more often than not, they face a 6 or 7 man protection where there are 1 or 2 defenders only covering grass and not making a substantive impact on the play. Without an elite DL, playing a straight 4 or 5 man rush against 6 man protections is simply asking the offense to carve them up in the passing game. This is a particularly significant issue with our revised secondary.
From a schematic standpoint, the downside of the new Husky is that it likely gives up some of the coverage advantages that we saw when we were playing a slot corner specialist as our 5th DB under Coach K and Lake. This means that we need the defensive front to manufacture a pass rush consistently enough to keep the pressure off of any potential mismatches. Lots of UW fans were excited by the prospect of the 4-2-5 simplifying the role of the EDGE/OLBs and hopefully getting better production from that group, but its easier for a creative DC with a diverse pressure package to manufacture pressure from a 2-4-5 than a 4-2-5. With a 2-4-5, there was at least the illusion that 4 of the 6 defenders in the box could drop into coverage, that pressure could come from anywhere, and stunts were more easily executed with 4 stand up defenders. My hope and expectation is that we continue to see aspects of the 2-4-5 permeate into our new defense and give Inge maximum flexibility to create pressure through scheme as we continue to turnaround the recruiting program.
There are many new aspects of Inge & Morrell’s defense to get excited about, and there are many things that should look familiar to fans when the Huskies get back out on the field this fall. However, there are still the same challenges that our defense must face with the new staff if they hope to turn around a defense that has fallen off in recent years. With many of the same faces returning to the starting line up and few dramatic changes to the scheme, it’ll be interesting to see how significant of a turnaround Inge & Morrell can make in one off season.
Let me know what you think, and leave questions below. I’m planning on getting some of these questions answered in the next few weeks with a follow up piece already in the works.
Also, follow me on Twitter @Coach_808