There are going to be some new defensive sets this season. Of those the most talked about has been the new three man front. A three man front has always been a popular topic among Gamecock fans, especially when Todd Grantham took over at Georgia, installed a 3-4, and South Carolina started beating the Bulldogs regularly.
Of course the 3-4 set wasn’t the reason that Carolina beat Georgia, though Grantham might have been. Nonetheless the 3-4 defense has been viewed by many with some skepticism, especially with regard to its ability to stop the run. A four man front, which is what many teams run, including USC, is believed to be better against the run because there are more defensive lineman to occupy blockers. This is an over simplification and typically is inaccurate. For every Grantham defense out there that develops a bad reputation, there is also Kirby Smart at Alabama creating wonderful defenses with 3 down linemen.
First a word about nomenclature. Typically defenses are described, in simplistic terms, by the number of defensive linemen and linebackers who are typically on the field. A 4-3 defense has 4 defensive lineman and 3 linebackers. A 3-4 defense has 3 defensive linemen. Usually, but not always, the number of secondary players is not included and can simply be deduced by subtracting the total number of linemen and linebackers from 11.
For the last few years the Gamecocks have run what they’ve called a 4-2-5 defense. This is one of the aberrant names which includes the number of secondary players. The name implies there are four down linemen, two linebackers and five secondary players, but that’s not completely accurate. One of the secondary players is the Spur. Sometimes in running situations the Spur plays a role similar to a linebacker, and other times he is off the ball in coverage like a cornerback. Essentially USC’s defense has already been multiple showing either a traditional 4-3 front, with the Spur up as a third linebacker, or a 4-2-5, which is very similar to a 4-3 in its nickel package.
But isn’t a switch to a three man front a bigger change? Yes, it is, but the change may be more of a personnel change than a wholesale schematic change. The Carolina defense now has as its strength, the linebackers, and it’s relative weakness is the line. Using a 3 man defensive line allows USC to trade a strength for an area of less depth.
And, don’t expect Carolina to be static in a 3-4. Although several writers call the new defense a 3-4, a 3-3-5 is probably more accurate. After all, the only change from the 4-2-5 is that a lineman is being switched out for a linebacker. The new linebacker, called Bob in Lorenzo Ward’s defense, can be used in any number of places, much like the Spur. He can be an extra linebacker; he can play on the line like a stand up defensive end, or in some cases he can be in the secondary. If the Spur is back in the secondary and the Bob is moved back as well, Carolina would be in a defense that would look a lot like a traditional dime.
All that being said, as soon as someone runs the ball successfully against the three man front, there are going to be calls to switch back to the four man front. That may not be an option for long periods of time because of the personnel on the roster, and it may not be desirable given one other advantage the 3-3-5 has over the 4-2-5. As we’ve alluded to, the 3-3-5 can quickly look like a 3-4 to stop the run, can look like a 3-3-5 nickel for neutral downs, and can even give a dime look, something that might be called a 3-2-6, though no one calls it that. Why would the ability to change to these defenses without changing personnel be so advantageous? Well, in case you play a hurry-up, spread offense, like say Auburn or East Carolina or Clemson.