Will Notre Dame run a "flyover defense" under Marcus Freeman?

Ian Boyd

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Coach Vass, with his “Make Defense Great Again” podcast has been on an impressive kick this season bringing in guys like Pete Kwiatkowski and more recently Marcus Freeman.

https://soundcloud.com/mdgapod%2Fs03-e03-marcus-freeman
Freeman was a popular coordinator in the last silly season, getting linked to multiple jobs after a third consecutive great season at Cincinnati with Luke Fickell. They worked out their defense in 2018, going 11-2 while giving up just 17.2 ppg. In 2019 they went 11-3 and gave up 20.6 ppg, then last season 9-1 with a narrow 24-21 loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl ruining a potential perfect season. In 2020 they fully realized a defensive scheme they call their “dollar package” and surrendered just 16.8 ppg.

After rumors tying him to multiple places, including LSU, ultimately it was Notre Dame who signed Freeman to replace the departing Clark Lea (new head coach at Vanderbilt). On this podcast, he broke down his dollar package in great detail for Coach Vass.

An alternative brand of flyover defense

The Cincinnati dollar package isn’t quite a “flyover defense” with a 3-safety shell before the snap, but it ain’t exactly a normal 3-3-5 either.

Here’s a glimpse of how they were lining up against Josh Heupel and UCF’s Veer and Shoot when they were in a two-back formation:

Cincy dollar vs UCF veer and shoot.jpg

On bottom you can see Cincy’s nickel Arquon Bush (6-0, 185) lined up across the slot, who’s lined up extra wide per the Veer and Shoot system philosophy. Off screen is another cornerback across from an even wider receiver. Then 15 yards back is the deep field safety in a normal single high coverage alignment.

In the box you have a pair of 5-technique defensive ends, a nose, a pair of 30-technique inside linebackers, and then something more curious. The boundary safety and “dollar” linebacker.

The boundary safety is James Wiggins, who's 6-0 and 205 pounds. The “dollar” linebacker is Jarrell White, who’s 5-10, 205 and lead the team with 77 tackles (nearly eight per game).

Before breaking down how these guys are deployed, Marcus Freeman noted to Coach Vass this is actually a traditional 3-4 defense, which isn't necessarily the first thought you have watching them line up all these defensive backs off the ball. Let me try and show what he even means with such a description.

Here’s a normal 3-4 defense dealing with something wonky like the Veer and Shoot's extreme spread spacing.

3-4 D vs V&S 20F2.jpg

An old school 3-4 defense would tend to bring the strong safety down to cover the slot receiver and then have the big, pass-rushing outside linebackers (S and J here for "Sam" and "Jack") on either edge to either blitz or force the ball into the inside linebackers.

Well, trade out your 6-3/250 pound outside linebackers for a pair of 200-pound safeties and play them seven yards off the ball and you have the exact configuration of Cincinnati’s “dollar” defense.

Dollar vs VS 20F2.jpg

Here’s how the play above worked out, if you’re curious.


UCF had RPOs on the outside but Cincinnati is in man coverage and the two “outside linebackers” start at seven yards deep so it’s hard to find a good passing window on a throw. Instead you’re left to try and power the ball between the tackles.

Cincinnati’s two inside linebackers here are Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers, who were 6-3, 235 and 6-3, 242 respectively. They’re plugging hard and fast inside and then the boundary safety and dollar linebacker arrive before long to clean up. It was difficult for UCF to win the inside battles straight up and then there weren’t “gimme” throws and pick-ups outside in the passing game either going up against man/match coverage.

Most importantly, the dollar doesn't concede wide open alleys the Veer and Shoot often creates against defenses between the tackles and the receivers because Cincy’s “outside linebackers” are parked in the alleys at seven yards deep waiting to arrive where they’re needed. You can't generate easy run/pass conflicts for them because the defense has edges from the defensive ends and between their depth and the man coverage there aren't easy pass options either.

Since the spread offense is about creating space it’s essential to deny space and an easy way for defenses to do that is to park players at depth where they can potentially arrive at different places as needed. Just as with the “flyover defense” you’re using extra safeties and defenders playing at depth to deny windows and space against throws that can kill you.

The difference between this and Iowa State’s flyover defense model from their own 3-3-5 is the Cyclones play with bigger personnel and have a two-high shell. Cincinnati is playing man coverage outside, which Iowa State typically doesn’t have the personnel to attempt, and so they are getting overhangs to play at depth. Coach Cody Alexander compared it to a “cover 1 Katy Tigers defense” which sums it up very nicely.

So Cincinnati’s coverages and schemes are really quite different than Iowa State’s in many facets, but the principle of playing more positions at depth in order to create versatility and flexibility is the same. The "flyover" effect of having extra defensive backs lining up at depth so they can multi-task and deny passes is the same.

Translation to Notre Dame

Next season Marcus Freeman will be taking over for the Fighting Irish, who have been playing good defense in their own right the last several seasons. Notre Dame took off when Brian Kelly hired Mike Elko, who brought a modernized 4-3 Under defense from Wake Forest. Elko had immediate success and then was poached by Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M so Kelly promoted his assistant Clark Lea, who also proved very capable in the same system.

Last year they were pretty strong playing a fair amount of quarters and then some cover 3. Their defensive line was good, particularly the defensive tackles who were plain hard to move, and like Cincinnati they could get a pair of really good overhangs on either side of the formation with “Sam” hybrid linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton, the former of whom will be drafted soon.

The challenge at Notre Dame for most of the Brian Kelly era has been finding cornerbacks who can play man coverage and hold up against the level of competition on the Fighting Irish’s schedule. Their go-to boundary corner for mixing in press-man coverage last year was Nick McCloud, a transfer from N.C. State, who’s now gone. In 2018 they were blown out by Clemson when star cornerback Julian Love was knocked out of the game. His replacement was immediately targeted by Trevor Lawrence.

At Cincinnati Freeman was recruiting more speed than you may find on a given Notre Dame defense, and they were certainly faster relative to their competition in the AAC than Notre Dame is against the better teams they face from the ACC. Fickell had managed to recruit Cincy to the top of the food chain and it’ll take some work to do likewise with Notre Dame relative to rivals like USC, Clemson, or the College Football Playoff competition which keeps chewing them up.

The man coverage angle will be the most important for Notre Dame. There’s something very Belichikian in Freeman’s dollar package, which basically downsized to nickel in order to allow the Bearcats to play man coverage without having to either misuse or sub out one of their linebackers or safeties who thrive playing around the box. Bill Belichik will routinely sub down to nickel or dime packages with extra cornerbacks on the field in order to match up with every one of an offense’s receivers with a good man coverage defender so the linebackers and safeties can do linebacker and safety things. How do you make the most of a versatile box linebacker like Jamie Collins or Dont'a Hightower? You let them stay in the box by protecting them with extra cover corners on the field.

Notre Dame’s 2022 class is currently 4th in the nation per 247 and includes a pair of 4-star defensive backs. They’re going to need more, a lot more, particularly at cornerback. They won’t struggle to recruit lineman, safeties, and linebackers to execute whatever schemes Freeman can draw up for winning in the box. Notre Dame pretty consistently has good players up front and at safety, it’s in finding those NFL-caliber cover corners where they’ve been exposed by top competition.

The 2021 Irish will probably not even use the dollar since they’re well stocked with defensive lineman and tackles in particular. But they will still want to rely on man coverage if possible. Perhaps they'll also play with "flyover" depth and use a 4-1 box against the spread with fast overhangs parked seven yards back. Cincinnati would often crash one of their inside linebackers into the line as a de-facto defensive tackle, the Irish could do the same with their real defensive tackles.

So watch for Freeman to mix in his own brand of flyover defense in South Bend and if you’re an Irish fan, hope for improved cornerback play to make it work.
 

stilesbbq

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Going to watch ND this year and eagerly poke holes in them so I feel better about CDC and co choosing Sark over Kelly
 

bowman93

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Great article, Ian. I’m not super familiar with Freeman’s (or is it Fickell’s- I guess we’ll find out) defense but this sounds like a pretty sound scheme to mitigate the damage of RPOs and receivers running into open grass in the alleys, like you said.
I’m curious, since they run single high with this Dollar package, do their corners play true press most of the time or do they bail since they don’t have dedicated safety help over the top? Because it seems to me (an idiot) that if they get beat at the line, it could be points.
Seems risky to play press without a two deep look most of the time unless you have a tremendous amount of faith in both your corners to disrupt the WRs at the line and your DL to speed up the QB.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Great article, Ian. I’m not super familiar with Freeman’s (or is it Fickell’s- I guess we’ll find out) defense but this sounds like a pretty sound scheme to mitigate the damage of RPOs and receivers running into open grass in the alleys, like you said.
I’m curious, since they run single high with this Dollar package, do their corners play true press most of the time or do they bail since they don’t have dedicated safety help over the top? Because it seems to me (an idiot) that if they get beat at the line, it could be points.
Seems risky to play press without a two deep look most of the time unless you have a tremendous amount of faith in both your corners to disrupt the WRs at the line and your DL to speed up the QB.
They do both based on alignment, situation, gameplan, etc.
 
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stilesbbq

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Going to be very interesting to see ND and Freeman face off against USC and UNC is back to back games.

I think they will get the best of Harrell but unsure how they handle Sam Howell, though UNC loses a lot this year.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Going to be very interesting to see ND and Freeman face off against USC and UNC is back to back games.

I think they will get the best of Harrell but unsure how they handle Sam Howell, though UNC loses a lot this year.
That is a tough back to back.

North Carolina will be really interesting next year because they return Howell, the tight end, and the entire offensive line but lose both running backs and both of their top receivers. All the infrastructure is there but they have to reload the gun with skill athletes.