The 2000s was the decade of the rise of the spread offense. Now, we're at a moment where different ideas -- spread, pro-style, power, run-first or pass-first -- all coexist. For offenses, this has required all of them to become more multiple. If they were a spread team, they no longer can focus on just one aspect of the game, be it only being pass first or a run-the-quarterback-all-the-time system. The best offenses, including the one Larry Fedora is bringing with him to Chapel Hill, have both an identity along with a flexibility, an origin and an ability to adapt. It's the spread, but it can also be whatever is needed in a given game.
And as offenses go, so go the defenses. A team can't credibly claim to be a 4-3 or 3-4 team and simply stand pat. Offenses are too good and too variable -- both from week to week and within the games themselves. In modern college football, offenses are spread and they are pro-style and they are old-school and they are new-school -- sometimes all at once. Defenses simply must have answers.
Indeed, the only credible answer for defenses is often to be as multiple as the offenses they face while still being as aggressive, all without overloading their players with innumerable assignments. This is the approach Fedora is bringing with him on defense as well as offense, and defensive coordinator Dan Disch, along with associate head coach Vic Koenning, have extensive experience running simple, yet multiple defenses. Both Koenning and Disch have experience with a 4-2-5 scheme -- a four down defensive linemen, two linebacker, five defensive back set-up -- though both have also professed that the defense will be even more multiple than that. So how do you build a modern defense that can deal with all that change on offense, and which nevertheless keeps things simple for the defense? The answer, only somewhat simplified, is to focus the multiplicity on three players: the "Bandit," the strong safety, and the "Ram" (also known as the "Spur").
All good football, but especially defense, involves the combination of sound schemes that players can nevertheless execute at full speed. That's the trick of football strategy: it's not what the coach knows, it's what the twenty-year-old on the field can execute at top speed and without hesitation. In Disch and Koenning's UNC defense, they will use a multitude of fronts, but the basics will be quite simple -- for the defense, that is. Shown below is the framework
It's a sound defense, and the roles are fairly well defined. The free safety ("F/S") will primarily play deep, the cornerbacks ("C") are coverage guys, and the interior defenders -- three linemen and two linebackers -- will clog the inside run lanes. There's one problem: there are only eight defenders shown. Seen this way, from either the perspective of the offense or defense, things seem simple. But when you add in the other three players -- the Ram, the Bandit and the strong safety -- things become much more confusing for the offense without becoming really any more confusing for the defense.
With these new defenders added in, this is what the offense sees: confusion. (There are obviously other ways Disch and Koenning can align the other eight defenders to make things even more multiple, but these three are going to be the ones that move on every play.) Let's start with one of the original eight defenders, the free safety. With the other defenders mixed in, while his job will still often be to play deep, he now has a wider variety of assignments he can take on besides centerfield, from half-field safety to man-to-man on a slot receiver or even as a blitzer. But the advantages really show up with the other defenders.
The "Bandit," or "B" in the above diagram, is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end player, something becoming increasingly common in the NFL. Indeed, many NFL teams line up in the 4-3 "Under" defense as shown above, but then replace that weakside defensive end with a linebacker, just as Disch did at Southern Miss and will do at North Carolina. Disch specifically pointed out to InsideCarolina.com that this is the role DeMarcus Ware typically plays in the NFL, as "it allows you to play some 4-3 and some 3-4" all in the same defensive concept. Moreover, tactics like the zone blitz, which in a true 4-3 often require a defensive lineman to drop into coverage, instead can rely on the Bandit to confuse the offense -- is he blitzing or dropping into coverage? -- and to very often be wrong.
The next hybrid player is the "Ram," whom Disch referred to as the "Spur" back at Southern Miss. He replaces the "Sam" or strongside linebacker, and really functions as a kind of hybrid linebacker/safety/nickel player. Spread offenses, both those that run or pass, use fewer and fewer two-back formations each year, so there is less need for a guy who can step into a fullback's block and more need for someone who can cover wide swaths of the field on both runs and passes. Further, while with increased use of spread attacks there are generally fewer tight-ends, the ones that do exist -- think of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots -- must be covered by someone who can match them athletically. And, since the name of the game is confusion, this player may even need to be able to drop off and play a deep half-field coverage, particularly as a change-up during a blitz. Lastly, this is a change that really came about from the necessity of dealing with up-tempo spread offenses like Oregon's or, more relevant to the ACC, Clemson's, as the defense cannot rely on getting the right substitution in the game every time. Instead, the Ram player lets Disch and Koenning put their best eleven players on the field and go play.
Finally, the strong safety has a role like the strong does in many defenses, but in this one it's amplified as he is not the only "rover" player back there. The big advantage to this is it gives Disch and Koenning more flexibility in terms of personnel, as they don't have to find one single guy every season who can handle every single defensive adjustment. Instead, they have three (and sometimes more), and while each will have dynamic responsibilities, they can ensure that each player is only being asked to do the things he does well.
It all should add up to a fun defense for UNC fans to watch in the fall. Fedora, Disch and Koenning have to replace some great talent, especially across the defensive line, but their system is flexible enough -- it really is nothing if not flexible -- to adapt to the personnel and attacks they'll be facing. They will certainly be aggressive and multiple, so when fans aren't trying to guess who is blitzing and who is dropping into coverage, it'll probably be because they are too busy celebrating some big play on defense.
Chris Brown writes and edits smartfootball.com and is a featured contributor to Grantland. He has also written for the New York Times, Yahoo! Sports, and Slate.