"There are real cowboys in Laramie now," Koenning said. "I don't think I've been to too many places where there were real cowboys. They'd be out riding on horses all day and then they'd come in and drink a beer."
It was in Laramie, as a nod to the western storyline, that Koenning coined the term "Bandit" for his hybrid defensive end/linebacker position that would become the cornerstone of his version of the 4-2-5 defense. In his first season as defensive coordinator, the Cowboys led the nation in interceptions and ranked second in sacks.
Koenning was elevated to head coach within three years, and in 2000, his staff was immersed in a recruiting battle for Yuma, Colo. native Guy Tuell with the likes of Colorado, Colorado State, Kansas and Northwestern. Tuell, checking in at 6-foot-1 and close to 200 pounds, didn't consider himself a linebacker coming out of high school, even though that's where schools projected him. With the spread offense filtering into the mainstream out West, Koenning told Tuell he could play a unique safety position. Tuell accepted the offer and soon earned Honorable Mention All-Conference honors as a true freshman in that strong safety role in 2001.
The name for that hybrid linebacker/safety position has changed over the years and has now morphed into the Ram at North Carolina. By replacing the strongside linebacker with a fifth defensive back, Koenning was able to get more speed on the field to counter various spread looks. The 53-year-old downplays the significance of his 4-2-5 scheme, noting that 4-3 defenses have created 4-2-5 looks for decades by adding a nickel back on obvious passing downs.
Gary Patterson gained notoriety by installing his 4-2-5 scheme for Dennis Franchione at TCU in 1998 before taking over the head coaching position in 2000 when his predecessor departed for Alabama. The Horned Frogs led the nation in total defense from 2008-10 under Patterson's direction, which elevated the legitimacy of the 4-2-5 design.
There is a distinct difference between the schemes that Koenning and Patterson employ, however. While TCU utilizes a lot of 4-3 looks, UNC's coaching staff prefers the 3-4 approach. Koenning estimates that his defense only runs a true 4-2-5 roughly 30 percent of the time. The challenge then becomes adjusting the 3-4 to the spread offense.
Spreads operate the running game using zone blocking schemes, meaning the offensive linemen block areas, not necessarily defenders. A typical 3-4 defense lines its three down linemen head up with the center and tackles and uses slant/angle movement to create confusion. "It's hard to stay in the correct gaps when you're moving against zone blocking schemes," Koenning said.
He's countered that problem with the Bandit. By having a player versatile enough to put his hand down alongside a defensive tackle while also being able to drop back in coverage, Koenning has been able to line up in a 4-2-5 type front, which allows for shifting to better manipulate the gaps. That strategy solves the zone blocking issue and the defense is still able to create a 3-4 defense at the same time.
"The Bandit position has been the key to that," Koenning said. "To me, that's been the difference in what we do versus what a lot of other people do."
The one constant with this defense is its versatility. Not only when it comes to schemes, but also in the coaching staff's willingness to cater to their players' talents. When Koenning moved to Troy in 2003-04 as defensive coordinator, his unit played a lot of 3-4 early with his Bandit dropping into coverage. That approach quickly changed.
"I started noticing that [the Bandit] was a pretty good pass rusher and I said, ‘You know, it doesn't make a bunch of sense to be dropping this guy,'" Koenning said. "So over the second half of the year and into the next year, we didn't drop him very much. It was a guy named DeMarcus Ware. That's just part of it. It didn't make much sense to be dropping him because he's one of the most prolific pass rushers there's ever been. We're going to do what our guys do best."
Ware, who currently plays for the Dallas Cowboys, finished his college career with 195 tackles (57 for loss), 27.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles.
While Tuell's skillset at Wyoming prompted the use of the 4-2-5 at times, it wasn't until Koenning took the Clemson defensive coordinator job in 2005 that he employed the scheme on an every down basis. The shift in approach was once again based on personnel. In 2007, DeAndre McDaniel earned first-team All-ACC Freshman Team honors playing the down safety position (Ram). He was big enough to play linebacker—which he played in 2008—but was able to play man coverage in the secondary.
"Typically, what you want at the Ram position is a guy who's a great blitzer, a guy that can cover man-to-man and a guy that's efficient at playing zone," Koenning said. "Really all that is is an inside corner. You're playing inside leverage or outside leverage. There's a little bit more to it, but not really. If the corner's playing on the outside guy, then he plays on the inside guy. He's either inside leverage or outside leverage and the safety plays off him."
Koenning's work at Troy—a top-10 national ranking in scoring, rushing, pass efficiency defense and yards per play in 2004—opened the door for his move to Clemson. All four of his Tiger defenses finished in the top-25 in scoring, total and pass efficiency defense each season. He returned to his alma mater, Kansas State, in 2009 following Tommy Bowden's firing at Clemson. The Wildcats allowed 140 yards and 12 points per game fewer than the previous year under Koenning's direction. He further added to his defensive resume running the 4-2-5 in two seasons at Illinois ('10-11), improving the Illini from 91st to seventh nationally in total defense.
It was during that time that Larry Fedora was looking for ways to improve his defense at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles had played a 4-3 defense in Fedora's first three seasons in Hattiesburg, but as he was scouring the landscape for a new approach, he noticed that two of the defenses that piqued his interest—Clemson and Illinois—had the same defensive coordinator. A lateral move from Illinois to Southern Miss wasn't in the cards, so Fedora hired Koenning's linebackers coach, Dan Disch, to run the defense.
Southern Miss improved nearly 20 spots in total defense and 50 spots in yards per play allowed. More importantly, the Golden Eagles went 12-2 and won the Conference USA championship after finishing 8-5 in 2010.
"We could find a lot of guys who could really run and were athletes, so putting another hybrid in—linebacker/safety—we could keep the same personnel on the field and be multiple," Fedora said. "We could go from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to a 4-2-5 all with the same personnel and not have to change people out. That's the advantage to it, in my opinion, is that we can match up with different personnel groupings without having to change out our personnel."
The final game of the Butch Davis era—the 2011 Independence Bowl 41-24 loss to Missouri—highlighted the necessity of shifting concepts to accurately match up with opposing offenses. Interim head coach Everett Withers and defensive coordinator Art Kaufman failed to contain the Tigers as Gary Pinkel's spread offense churned out 513 total yards.
"It's all based on personnel," Koenning said. "If you're putting three wides in the game, then it only stands to reason that you've got to match up personnel-wise. I know when North Carolina played Missouri in the Independence Bowl, they just got embarrassed on all of the little mismatches with the linebackers on the choice routes. It's hard to cover all of those routes with linebacker-type guys, so the more DB's you can put on the field, typically the better."
When Fedora and Koenning arrived in Chapel Hill in the days following the Independence Bowl loss, they brought new defensive schemes, new play calls and new positions. What they couldn't bring, however, were new players to immediately fill those roles. One benefit of the Bandit and Ram positions is the ability for the coaching staff to recruit tweeners—prospects that don't fit the traditional molds of linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. Take Jamie Collins, for example. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder out of Meadville, Miss. was selected to a high school all-star game as a defensive back in 2008. Three years later, he was wreaking havoc as Fedora's Bandit at Southern Miss, totaling 98 tackles (19.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks. Collins checked in at the NFL Combine in February at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds with a 4.64 40-yard dash and was drafted in the second round by New England.
With no ideal prospects on the roster to fill the hybrid roles in 2012, Koenning and Disch settled on senior linebacker Dion Guy (6-3, 237 lbs, 4.9 40) at Bandit and senior nickel Gene Robinson (5-9, 185 lbs, 4.8 40) at Ram. Guy was limited in his pass-rushing ability, so Koenning turned to middle linebacker Kevin Reddick to be his primary blitzer from the linebacker/Bandit positions. Instead of being a strength of the defense in 2012, the Bandit was often tasked with absorbing blockers to create one-on-one opportunities in other areas. That will eventually change through player development, and most importantly, recruiting.
"If weakside pass-rushing defensive ends would study what the Bandits have done in this system, we'd have them waiting at the door to come in here," Koenning said.
There were similar limitations at the Ram. By the second half of the year, Koenning was sliding cornerback Jabari Price into the Ram slot in order to effectively play man coverage. The obvious drawback was that opposing offensive coordinators could pick up on the tendencies involved with rotating different defensive backs. "When they know what you're doing or have pretty good tendencies," Koenning said, "then you don't have much of a chance."
Despite a noticeable lack of talent at key defensive positions last fall, UNC's coaching staff schemed well enough early in the season to put up solid numbers. Through the first seven games, the Tar Heels oddly ranked 22nd nationally in three defensive categories—total, scoring and pass efficiency. Those statistics fell in line with Koenning's resume over the previous decade, as six of his squads finished top-25 nationally in total defense.
"If you can be in the top-20, especially when you're playing a lot of snaps every game, then I think you're giving yourself a chance," Koenning said. "To be a top-10 defense, you've got to have a combination of some pass rushers, some guys that can get you off the field on third down, and then some guys that can cover to make them hold on to the ball just for a second."
But then, as Koenning puts it, UNC just ran out of guys. Injuries and a lack of depth had taken their toll. Over the final five games of 2012, the Tar Heels allowed roughly 480 yards and 37 points per game.
"This is a heck of an offense, so as long as we keep going forward defensively and don't take steps back, we'll be okay," Koenning said. "That's kind of what hurt last year. Last year was the first time in forever that we've not finished well. After [seven] games, we were respectable on defense, but those last [five] games were not what we expect and not what we're going to deal with. We're going to be better than that."
Chapel Hill is a long way from Laramie and its cowboy roots. Koenning's journey to here from there, however, has yielded consistent results at each stop with his ever-evolving 4-2-5 defense. If there's reason for optimism for UNC's 2013 defense, it's found in Koenning's track record. Troy, Clemson and Illinois all ranked 16th or better nationally in total defense in his second season as coordinator.