Everywhere around the country, defensive coordinators are having to make tough decisions about what to look for in personnel, particularly at linebacker. The results of those decisions look increasingly different than they did 5-10 years ago and the ongoing trend towards smaller, faster, and more coverage-savvy defenders is only going to intensify in the coming years now that the strongest programs in the country are embracing the spread passing attack. Of course that’s all to Texas’ benefit, because it’s been a long time since it was possible to play great defense in the Big 12 with personnel chosen for their run-stopping ability and now they won’t be punished in any hypothetical posteason opportunities for orienting their recruiting in that direction.
The trick to beating 2018 Alabama, for instance, has a lot more to do with holding up in coverage than being able to take on a lead block. Oklahoma’s hilarious trend towards base personnel not only failed to offer them anything against Georgia last year but their ineptitude when playing anything other than a base 4-3 is about to cost them again when they face Tua Tagovailoa and friends.
There’s two good ways to try and defend modern spread attacks and both of them share some similar features in terms of choosing personnel. The first is to continue to play aggressive run-stopping schemes like Texas’ tite front paired with aggressive run fits from the OLBs, but to get faster everywhere so that when teams use RPOs or other schemes to get the ball in space the defense can recover. Texas’ handling of bubble screens over recent years is a good example, they’d often send the nickel to outnumber the run and trigger the bubble screen, which would then face a big corner like Davante Davis hemming in the WR’s block while a fast safety like Brandon Jones closed in from the hash.
The other route is to drop everyone back and dare opponents to beat you in the box, running on your DL. North Dakota State dominated spread offenses at the FCS level with this strategy and it’s more or less how Alabama tends to play it as well. At times North Dakota State did that with base 4-3 personnel but their LBs tended to be pretty quick and Alabama does this from nickel and dime sets that field LBs that can run better than 4.6 in the 40.
A good, modern defense needs to hit two out of three on the following methods to stopping spread offensive tactics.