The Nebraska Stack
I examine how the Huskers fit the run against the Gophers during Week 1 of College Football, with bonus clips from their Northern Illinois victory.
Matt Rhule has a history with the 3-3-5. After an abysmal first year in Waco, the then-Baylor Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow decided they needed to make a change on defense. At Temple, the two had created a 3-4 attacking defense that was typically in the top third nationally in efficiency (DFEI).
After Snow’s first year at Baylor (‘17), he began to look around the Big 12 for answers. At the time, Texas under Todd Orlando was experimenting with a six DB grouping that finished 6th in DFEI in ’17 (BCFToys). The upstart Iowa State Cyclones were also putting a stamp on college football with their 3-High system.
Snow and Rhule understood that to be successful at Baylor, the blueprint they used defensively at Temple would have to change. Though 2018 was more successful in the win column for Baylor, Snow & Co. didn’t change that much schematically on defense. The results were just as bad in year two. Baylor would settle at 105th nationally in DFEI, worse than ’17’s 90th-place finish.
It took two full seasons and one of the worst defenses in the FBS, but Snow switched to a 3-3-5. The outcomes speak for themselves. Baylor would finish 8th in DFEI in ’19 and runner-up in the Big 12 to Oklahoma (23-30 in OT). Six defenders would earn All-Big 12 honors, with current Vikings defensive lineman James Lynch winning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY).
The ’19 campaign would launch Rhule and Snow back into the NFL, where they would have limited success. After two and a quarter years at the helm of the Carolina Panthers, Rhule was let go. It didn’t take him long to find a landing spot, as Nebraska hired him only a month after being fired in Charlotte.
Though Rhule did not bring Snow to Lincoln, he did bring the 3-3-5. Tony White, the Cornhuskers’ new DC, had coordinated the defenses at Syracuse for the past three seasons. To say White knows the Odd Stack is an understatement.
Tony White is a Rocky Long disciple, and if you know anything about the 3-3-5 at the college level, then you understand the significance of Coach Long. The former New Mexico and San Diego State Head Coach began tinkering with the Odd Stack in the early ’90s at Oregon State. Coaching at places like N. Mexico and SDSU didn’t lend itself to a gap-controlling style of play because they couldn’t recruit NFL-caliber interior D-linemen. The evolution is similar to other smaller college programs that punch above their weight on defense, using movement as a tool to get their speedy players free (e.g., Appalachian State’s ‘East Coast 3-4’).
‘Tweener athletes mean you must move the front and use pressure to create run-throughs. Long developed an attacking style that allowed his smaller athletes to play fast while confusing the offense. The Aztec 3-3-5 can get into any defensive front while playing zone or man behind it. What Long started in Albuquerque and subsequently brought to San Diego can still be found in both places.
SDSU DC Kurt Mattox still runs the system for the Aztecs, while long-time Long disciple Danny Gonzales runs it in New Mexico. Tony White, since 2008, has been in the system and will bring it to the Nebraska sidelines this year. White got his start on Long’s last defensive staff at New Mexico. After being let go following the ’08 season, Long brought White to SDSU.
Dino Babers, Head Coach of Syracuse, wanted to switch to the 3-3-5 following the ’19 campaign. With Gonzalez and Long running it back at New Mexico, Babers gave White his first opportunity to be coordinator running the system he had been in for over a decade. Though White did not have tremendous success at Syracuse, the defenses consistently got better during his tenure.
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In Lincoln, White will be tasked with bringing the Blackshirts back into respectability. Last year, the Huskers finished 95th in DFEI. For a historic defensive program like Nebraska, that won’t cut it.