Gameplan: Jack linebacker and Pete Kwiatkowski’s pass-rush

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If there was one flaw in the Texas roster waiting for Steve Sarkisian and his staff, it was at the crucial “edge” defensive position. When Tom Herman took over in Austin it was a program strength. Todd Orlando was constantly struggling to work out what to make of a roster with multiple promising edge players Charlie Strong had found among the 3-star ranks such as Breckyn Hager, Malcolm Roach, and Charles Omenihu.

Orlando got mixed results from his efforts to fit their talents into his brand of 3-down defense while restocking the roster with bigger bodies to play as 3-4 defensive ends. When Chris Ash took over in 2020 there was one sole remaining edge talent, Joseph Ossai. Now Ossai is off to the NFL Draft leaving a roster with the bigger 3-4 ends Orlando had accumulated behind for the next coach. Immediately upon arrival, Sarkisian and his staff were trying to plug the hole with recruits like David Abiara and transfers like Ray Thornton of LSU and Ovie Oghuofo of Notre Dame.

The Washington defense under Pete Kwiatkowski was famous for using a “2-4-5” setup, listing both “defensive ends” instead as “outside linebackers” on the depth chart and playing them outside-in in the exact opposite fashion of how Orlando was using his defensive ends in the “tite front.”

Working out and understanding how exactly Kwiatkowski’s “2-4” front works has taken me essentially until this past week to truly unpack, even with this handy guide to PK’s preferred terminology for the positions in his “nickel front.” There is a unique feature to his designs and how he plays his personnel up front which are a major departure from what you typically see, particularly at the Jack position. This distinctive feature will be majorly influential on Texas’ 2021 and 2022 defenses.

Pete Kwiatkowski’s “Jack linebacker”

Can you identify the “Jack” linebacker in this formation from Washington against the Air Raid USC Trojans back in 2019?

It’s only partially a trick question, the Huskies are in a dime package in this example. Here’s another challenge…

Where’s the Jack now?

Here’s how these formations look on the chalkboard with the positions designated by letter. In the first example against USC:

The Jack is Ryan Bowman and he’s lined up in a 4i-technique with the “Dime Backer” (“D”) lined up outside of him and the middle linebacker in a normal spot behind the nose tackle. The “X-backer/defensive end” is actually subbed out here for a sixth defensive back, safety Trent McDuffie (#22). The Huskies are in a “tite front” such as those Orlando used with the Jack and a defensive tackle in 4i-techniques and the nose over the center in a 0-technique.

Here’s the second example against Utah:

The Jack is still Ryan Bowman and this time he’s aligned more like you’d expect from an outside linebacker hybrid, standing up off the edge. The X-backer this time is Joe Tryon, a 6-5, 262 pounder, and the oddly named Dime Backer is lined up like a normal weakside/will linebacker would be as the boundary side inside linebacker.

In most defensive schemes you’d consider the X-backer position to be the true edge player and pass-rusher of the unit, which raises major problems if the defensive coordinator wants to scale down to a dime package. You need at least three solid defensive linemen on the field to hold gaps in a base dime defense or else all the extra defensive backs are at risk of being run over. But then what does the edge player do? Play like an inside linebacker as Orlando attempted with Ossai, Hager, and Roach? Sit on the bench while a safety takes his place? Stays on the edge while a safety replaces an inside linebacker?

It’s a non-issue for Kwiatkowski because the Jack is both the main pass-rusher AND the strongside end asked to set the edge to the strong or wide side of the formation. In most defenses the Jack is an outside linebacker on the weak side who may drop into coverage or blitz off the edge. In Kwiatkowki’s defense that role belongs to the X-backer and when the Huskies would get into a dime sub-package they could take the X-backer off the field for a safety and not have to remove their top pass-rusher.

You see this preference play out in recruiting where Washington would prioritize finding powerful defensive ends to play on the edge with high motors and heavy hands. Ryan Bowman (6-0, 280) and Zion Tupuola-Fetui (6-3, 280) have owned the position for the last several years while X-backer has been manned by guys such as Joe Tryon (6-5, 262) or Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 234) who are built like your typical outside linebacker hybrids.

The incoming 2021 class includes a number of defenders who project as “Jack linebackers” who bring heavy hands and hard-nosed play to the edge in addition to pass rush such as David Abiara, Jordon Thomas, Barryn Sorrell, and maybe Ja’Tavion Sanders. In the meantime…

Finding a Jack in 2021

While Sarkisian made it a priority to add Ray Thornton and Ovie Oghuofo, at 6-3, 225 (Thornton) and 6-3, 240 (Oghuofo) both of them project to X-backer rather than the Jack position. It’s hard to set the edge weighing under 250 pounds and you can forget about asking one of them to ever slide inside to a 4i-technique unless they have some Hager in them. Even Hager withered away in 2018 trying to hold up inside over a full season.

Fortunately for Kwiatkowski, Todd Orlando’s recruiting strategy did leave a pair of ends behind who might project more cleanly to the Jack in Marqez Bimage (6-2, 251) and Jacoby Jones (6-4, 264). Both of these guys have played some 4i-technique under Orlando and also shown some pass-rushing ability on the edge under either Orlando or Ash.

Jones’ sole sack as a Longhorn came lined up as a 3-technique against Oklahoma State on a third and sixteen. He ran a twist with the nose into the opposite B-gap and found a crease to run through in order to bring down Spencer Sanders.

Bimage’s sole sack as a Longhorn came in 2019, beating a Texas Tech right tackle inside in a 3-man rush as the fieldside end:

Bimage’s role spelling Orlando’s ends is close to what Kwiatkowski will be looking for from his Jack. Another good example is how Omenihu was utilized on the 40 Acres, occasionally lining up inside as a 4i-technique but generally working off the edge on passing downs. Bimage and Jones were previously stuck as tweeners in between the defunct B-backer position Orlando often subbed out for a dime anyways and an ideal 4i-technique with size like Ta’Quon Graham but now they find more natural homes in Kwiatkowski’s Jack position.

Generating a pass-rush

Kwiatkowski is going to bring the sort of three and four-man pass-rushing waves I’ve been hoping to see from Texas for several years now. His Husky defenses were very famous for generating pressure without bringing more than four very often.

The Jack is the primary, full-time pass-rusher who is sent after the quarterback off the edge or on inside stunts and loops. Kwiatkowski’s nickel front then has two additional, part-time pass-rushers. The first is the X-backer, whom he uses a little like Orlando did with the B-backer to the great frustration of Texas fans, dropping into coverage as often as he rushes the edge. The difference is Orlando would drop B-backers while utilizing obvious edge-rushing talents like Hager or Omenihu in the 4i-technique where they struggled to get outside in order to turn the corner on tackles. Then Orlando would use the weakside linebacker (the Rover in Orlando’s parlance) as the fourth and primary pass-rusher, sending them on inside paths through the guards.

Kwiatkowski will bring the X-backer or use the Dime Backer (his version of the Rover) as a fourth pass-rusher and at other times he’ll bring the nickel, mike, or a safety. In some seasons the Huskies had really strong X-backers they’d bring regularly off the edge and the Jack and X-backer’s roles were hard to distinguish from one another. In other years, you’d sometimes see one of the safeties creep up the leaderboards for most sacks (usually with 3-5 sacks). The Dime Backer is also routinely brought on the blitz, although not to the same extent as Orlando’s Rovers, and Kwiatkowski uses his faster, space-erasing linebacker as the Mike rather than the Dime. In Texas’ 2018 defense it would have been Anthony Wheeler as the Dime/Rover coming on inside blitzes while Gary Johnson played clean-up as the Mike.

For Texas in 2021, the X-backer is likely to be manned by one of the incoming transfers, Thornton or Oghuofo, neither of whom have the size or means to hold up as a Jack in this system. Both are solid pass-rushers who will likely end up serving as edge-rushers fairly often or else dropping into the boundary flat in zone coverage. Juwan Mitchell will be the heavy favorite to play the Dime Backer spot while DeMarvion Overshown’s range is put to use at the Mike.

So while the Longhorns probably won’t have a heavy-handed edge-rusher at the Jack who can make the base, 3-man rush work to its ideal, they’ll be in good shape in terms of being able to disguise and bring a fourth rusher from the X-backer, Mike, Dime Backer, safety, or nickel positions which will all have solid and experienced blitzers. There’s also Alfred Collins, who will be a force multiplier for anything Texas does and likely from a variety of alignments.

Down the road Texas is going to benefit in a major way from Kwiatkowski’s emphasis on recruiting and developing pass-rushers who can work from a 3-man front. It’s very hard to play great defense in today’s Big 12 without those solid, strongside end/edge hybrids like Ronnie Perkins, JaQuan Bailey, James Lynch, and James Lockhart who allowed their teams to affect or bring down the quarterback while dropping seven or eight into coverage.

The 2-4-5 structure is also useful for allowing the defense to bring pass-rushers in groups of three or four that can vary and come with disguise and movement, although if Texas is playing smaller bodies at both Jack and X-backer who can’t slide inside of a tight end it’ll require some adjustments on the back end in coverage.

For the last several years Texas has struggled to recruit and make the most of the state’s top pass-rushing talents. Kwiatkowski’s Jack linebacker position is going to give them a chance to blend the state’s talent with the realities of modern defense.

History major, football theorist.