LINCOLN, Neb. — When it works, it’s pretty astonishing.
New Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense at Notre Dame allowed just two rushing touchdowns in 2012 and ranked second in the nation in scoring defense, red-zone touchdowns allowed and passing yards per completion. The Irish finished seventh in total defense.
But does Nebraska have the pieces for the 3-4 defense Diaco will bring to Lincoln beginning next season? Who goes where? What’s it look like?
Historically, this is how Diaco’s 3-4 has set, with three down linemen, two outside linebackers (noted as D and Ca — Dog and Cat — in the graphic below), two inside linebackers (M and W — Mike and Will), two corners and two safeties.
The question now becomes: Who goes where for Nebraska?
This is our best guess, position by position. We don’t know much about the specific kinds of schemes or types of players Diaco intends to use in Lincoln. We do know historically what’s worked for 3-4 defenses. So here goes:
With the 3-4, you have two defensive ends and a nose tackle.
The strong-side defensive end is, historically, a prototypical tackle/end combination, lined up directly with the guard.
Nebraska has a few options on the line. While playing a 4-3 under former defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska had a handful of linemen it could move around.
Most likely, the choice for strong-side end comes down to juniors Mick Stoltenberg, Petyon Newell and Sedrick King. All are run-stoppers and can put pressure on the quarterback, but also can play sound run defense and take care of tackles and tight ends.
The weak side of the line is where pass-rushers typically line up in the 3-4.
The end and Cat linebacker will be in charge of rushing the quarterback and chasing down running plays from behind. Weak-side end is where junior Freedom Akinmoladun could go, though there is an argument to be made that he could be the Cat linebacker. If not Akinmoladun, DaiShon Neal or King could work at this spot.
The final spot on the 3-4 line is the nose tackle.
Lined up directly on the center, the nose tackle’s job is to essentially fill gaps and eat up space. That would work pretty well for 6-foot-2, 295-pound Carlos Davis. His brother, Khalil, could work there, too.
If Nebraska ends up landing 6-foot-1, 315-pound 3-star DT Damion Daniels, the Huskers could plug up the middle with a healthy dose of Daniels and the Davis Bros. for a few years.
Nebraska’s defensive front will not be a problem when it comes to fitting into the 3-4. It’ll just depend on how Diaco wants to mix and match.
The linebacker setup in Diaco’s 3-4 is where it gets hard to predict.
All four linebackers line up near the line of scrimmage, and all present their own challenges for Nebraska. We’ll start first with the Dog linebacker.
Tasked with lining up as a fourth lineman, stopping the run and dropping into coverage, this is a tough spot to fill. Among those on the current roster, senior Marcus Newby might be the best fit.
The first inside linebacker is the Mike linebacker — the quarterback of the defense. This is where Manti Te’o thrived in 2012 under Diaco, earning a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist.
Junior Dedrick Young seems like the best fit for the Mike. He led all 2017 returning linebackers in tackles in 2016 and has grown exponentially from season to season. Linebackers coach Trent Bray seems to have a lot of confidence in Young.
Next to the Mike is the Will. Similar to the Mike, the second inside linebacker has the same responsibilities as any linebacker in a 4-3 defense, focused primarily on making tackles. In this case, the Will just plays on the weak side of the defense.
The best fit here with the current roster seems like senior Chris Weber.
Weber had the fourth-most tackles among linebackers in 2016 and generally was the first linebacker off the bench for any inside backer in need of a breather. Incoming true freshman Avery Roberts could work his way into the Will role, having played inside linebacker at Concord High School in Wilmington, Del., this past season.
And finally, the Cat linebacker. Right now, it’s the biggest question mark.
This generally is the best pass-rusher on the team. You want quickness, you want someone fast who can get to the quarterback, who can line up as a fourth lineman … but you also want someone who can roam around.
This seems like a natural position for Akinmoladun. The same way the Dallas Cowboys used DeMarcus Ware, Akinmoladun could be a physical force from the outside.
But if Nebraska puts Akinmoladun at that end spot, this could be a good spot for Neal.
But it could also be a nice spot for one of Nebraska’s many defensive backs. With seniors Chris Jones and Josh Kalu locking down the corner spots, maybe Nebraska throws a speedier, leaner player in this spot.
The coaches have wanted to get DB Lamar Jackson on the field more to make plays. Maybe this is a spot where they can do it.
Corners in a 3-4 are similar to corners on the 4-3. And even if the defense created a drastic change in the secondary, the personnel set would be quite familiar to Nebraska fans. The secondary returns plenty of experience.
Kalu and Jones, who combined for four interceptions and 21 pass break-ups in 2016, will be the corners again in 2017, barring injuries.
The jobs of the two safeties, however, will change slightly in the 3-4.
The first is the free safety.
The free safety is tasked with ultimate responsibility deep, making sure nothing goes long or over the top. A natural position for senior Kieron Williams, who led the team with five interceptions in 2016.
Opposite him could be another Williams at strong safety, a position that plays on the strong side of the ball and acts more like a deep linebacker handling pass coverage in the middle of the field.
Junior safety Aaron Williams started a good chunk of the 2016 season in a similar role. He closes on ball-carriers extremely well, and had six tackles for loss, three interceptions, seven pass break-ups and two sacks last season.
We’re not 100-percent sure what Diaco is going to do at Nebraska. He did just go 11-26 in three seasons as head coach at UConn and his last great defense was that 2012 Notre Dame squad.
Nebraska might not have the same type of players the Fighting Irish did in 2012, so he might switch up everything. Regardless, the 2017 defense will look drastically different than the 2016 defense, even if it is just in the way it lines up on the field.