With Lorenzo Ward predicting that South Carolina will use the 3-4 alignment regularly this season, you might be wondering what the change will entail, given that Carolina hasn't used this alignment in recent years. In this post, I'll note a few 3-4 basics, as well as discuss how I anticipate Carolina utilizing the alignment with its current personnel.
This Bleacher Report article provides a nice breakdown of the 3-4 with a look at some of its different variations. One of the first things to note about the 3-4 is that it asks defensive linemen to play a different role than the 4-3 or 4-2-5. Whereas many 4-3 or 4-2-5 defenses require defensive linemen to display quickness in attacking the ball, most 3-4 defenses ask linemen to occupy blockers so that the linebackers can make plays on the ball carrier. 3-4 linemen are just as responsible for keeping the offensive lineman they're occupying from getting to the next level as they are for being in the position to make a tackle.
Given this difference, you can see one reason Ward wants to go to this alignment: Not only does he want more linebackers on the field given our depth at linebacker relative to defensive line, but this year's roster of linemen features mostly players players who are powerful and good at containment, whereas last year's roster featured faster players who were well fitted for a more aggressive approach for the line.
That said, I expect us to utilize an aggressive style of 3-4. One thing you've probably heard about regarding the 3-4 is one-gap vs. two-gap. While I haven't yet seen this explained by the coaching staff, I expect we'll run a one-gap for a couple of reasons. First of all, the one-gap is simpler and thus more appropriate for college players. You often see two-gap in the NFL, but NFL defenders are obviously going to be much more advanced and capable of operating in a complex system. Second of all, while as said our personnel is more appropriate for a 3-4 alignment than it has been in previous years, we still have some players we're going to be putting on the field such as Darius English who are not prototypical 3-4 linemen. That's to be expected considering that we recruit for a 4-2-5.
This article from SB Nation's Hogs Haven does a nice job of breaking down the differences between one-gap and two-gap. In the two-gap, the defensive linemen are expected to occupy two gaps on the offensive line. They must be able to read and react to the play so they can know which gap to attack while also preventing offensive linemen from blocking the linebackers. Because they're responsible for covering a large portion of the line, defensive linemen in this formation must be big space eaters. Guys who are built to be edge rushers in a four-man line front aren't good candidates to play end in this alignment. The linebackers also play more of a read-and-react technique and must be able to respond to the play. The two-gap requires the defenders to show savvy in recognizing the play call and reacting accordingly, hence why this scheme works better with advanced NFL personnel.
In the one-gap, each lineman and linebacker is responsible for a gap. The gaps are assigned, so this scheme requires less ability to read and react than two-gap. While some plays will still call for the linemen to eat blocks, the one-gap also allows for more penetration from the linemen. This should allow players like English who were recruited for the 4-2-5 to continue to utilize their skill set.
The other thing to be aware of now that we're going to more 3-4 is the various roles of the linebackers. First of all, the nomenclature (Sam, Mike, Will, etc.) used to refer to the linebackers can be a bit confusing because it varies between teams. This article from SB Nation's Georgia Tech blog provides a nice breakdown on the different positions and how Georgia Tech refers to them; the difference for us, I'm assuming based on what I've read, is that Spur (Sharrod Golightly/Jordan Diggs) will fill our Sam role, while Bob (Bryson Allen-Williams/Larenz Bryant) will fill our Jack role.
While this can vary depending on the play, you'll generally see two linebackers line up inside (behind the defensive linemen) and two outside. I expect Skai Moore (Will) and Kaiwan Lewis (Mike) will be our inside guys, with Bob and Jack on the outside. Generally, Will and Mike will be responsible for run support and for covering check downs in pass coverage. Like Sam in Georgia Tech's scheme, Spur will line up on the strong side, which is the side where the tight end or h-back lines up. Spur needs to be able to shed blocks from the tight end/h-back in run support as well as to cover the tight end/h-back. Since a lot of running plays come to the strong side due to the extra blocker, Spur must be good in run support. Bob is basically a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. You'll frequently see BAW/Larenz lining up on the line on the weak side (side without tight end/h-back) and attacking the backfield. This player needs to be disruptive behind the line and should get chances to make big plays, but depending on the situation also needs to be able to help in run support or pass coverage.
Because our personnel at Spur isn't typical for what a 3-4 alignment would feature at Sam, I think you'll probably see a lot of variation in how Bob and Spur are used depending on what kinds of weapons an opposing offense has. In particular, at 5'10'' and around 190 lbs, Golightly is more like the safety-like Spurs Ellis Johnson uses, making him questionable for Sam duty. You might see us favor Diggs, who is built like a linebacker and is more in line with how Ward wants to use Spur, more when we use a 3-4 against teams with athletic tight ends. We might also put BAW and Larenz on the field at the same time in this case, depending on how well Larenz understands Spur's 3-4 assignments.
On this note, I'll end with a caveat: I've gone over some of the basics of the 3-4 here based on how I understand it, but there are lots of variations on the basic concept, and we still don't know much about what Ward is planning to do. We'll need to stay tuned to practice reports and especially to what happens when we put the alignment in action on game day to really understand what the 3-4 will mean for the Gamecocks in 2014.