Gameplan: Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense

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With the hire of Montana State head coach Jeff Choate as inside linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian’s staff is now complete. There are some helpful breadcrumbs in some of the title designations and known pay scales to deduce how this staff is going to work together and what the philosophy and approach will be on defense.

Choate has worked with Pete Kwiatkowski in the past, both at Boise State working with the linebackers and then at Washington helping with the defensive line and special teams. The timing of his hire, coming off the heels of Mike Stoops reports and then a resounding backlash to those reports, suggests Choate is Pete’s guy. A brief glimpse at Montana State film reveals some schematic sympatico as well.

Choate’s title at Texas is co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Pete Kwiatkowski is defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach, Terry Joseph is defensive pass game coordinator and “secondary” coach, and Bo Davis and Blake Gideon are assigned “defensive line” and “safeties.” It seems obvious enough Joseph will have some real say in what sorts of coverages and techniques the Longhorns use on defense, Kwiatkowski will oversee the overall unit, and Bo Davis and Blake Gideon are probably going to be asked to do some volume recruiting. Joseph has a rep for being a worker on the recruiting trail but Choate and Kwiatkowski don’t. They reached this level by coaching up players once they’ve made it to campus.

We’ve already discussed some of how Terry Joseph’s pass defense worked at Notre Dame and what Steve Sarkisian saw on film when he studied the Irish and how they approach defending the RPO spread. This week we’ll break down the other side, how Kwiatkowski likes to handle the run game and rushing the passer.

Pete Kwiatkowski’s 3-down front

It’s becoming difficult these days to differentiate between 3-down and 4-down defenses, Kwiatkowski’s fronts at Washington were definitely 3-down in personnel but they played a variety of fronts and techniques. There were a few consistent themes to his fronts from year to year. They had six main positions in the nickel front.

Field end: This guy was typically a big, high-motor technician who was often asked to be a VERY versatile hybrid. Sometimes he’d be in a 4i-technique, other times standing up on the edge like an outside linebacker.

Ryan Bowman held this position down for several years. He was a 6-0, 265 pound former walk-on with a lot of power and motor. In the 2016 playoffs against Alabama the Huskies used the 6-5, 340-pound Vita Vea as the field end and stood him up on the edge at times like a 3-4 outside linebacker. Some of their field ends were pretty effective pass-rushers and used as such, some of them were more on the run-stopping side of things. In 2020 they played Zion Tupuola-Fetui here and because of his pass-rushing prowess got into more of their 2-4 looks that allowed him to stand up on the edge. He rewarded them with seven sacks in four games.

The 2-4 moniker is deceiving though. He could just as easily slide inside to a 4i-technique on another snap and was a bigger guy, designating him as a linebacker is questionable. There were times when the Huskies played with two true linebackers as stand-up ends and other times when those “linebackers” were guys like Tupuola-Fetui or Bowman.

Nose/defensive tackle: The Huskies and Kwiatkowski have a rep for using “two nose tackles” at a time, which isn’t completely wrong but not totally accurate either. Their 3-technique defensive tackles often applied some two-gapping techniques akin to what Chris Ash was asking of Ta’Quon Graham last season but this sort of technique doesn’t necessarily preclude a pass-rush. Ask anyone who faced Nebraska in 2009 or 2010 when Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick were putting up double-digit sack seasons in a similar scheme.

The nose tackle would get a variety of tasks, often in a zero-technique, sometimes standing up the center as a two-gapper and other times slanting and taking gaps. The 3-technique would slant and loop some. He’d also stand-up guards and do some two-gapping work.

The Huskies often used some tite fronts in which the field end and 3-technique tackle would play as 4i-techniques with a jack linebacker on either perimeter. They could upsize or downsize to use two jack linebackers and three defensive linemen, two jack linebackers and two defensive linemen, one jack linebacker and two defensive linemen, or zero jack linebackers and three defensive linemen. The specifics of the techniques and fronts used tended to change with the season’s roster and the week’s opponent.

All of their fronts used defensive linemen to cancel out interior gaps and cover up the linebackers or push the pocket for the featured pass-rushing weapon…

Jack linebacker: This is the featured pass-rusher in the defense and really a true linebacker despite the occasional 4-down look of the defense. They’d have this player box in runs on the edge like a sam linebacker in an old school 4-3 Under defense. I haven’t seen him spill a block yet and they regularly drop into coverage or stunt inside.

In both of the following examples, the Huskies box in plays run off tackle with pullers and use a safety to come clean up from depth.

The goal is to force the ball into congested space where the tackles are creating a pileup. Within the scrum inside the box it’s harder for ball carriers to find the space to have two-way go’s so they can evade tacklers. Without space to work in, they’d be easier targets for the linebackers and safeties.

The Huskies are playing with two jack linebackers in the 2-4-5 front in these clips. Both of these guys are boxing in the edge since they’re both true jack linebackers, were one of them a defensive lineman he might spill the ball instead.

Kwiatkowski could be flexible about how his jacks looked. When they arrived they inherited Hau’oli Kikaha, a 6-3, 246 pounder who was coming off a 12.5 sack season in 2013. In year one with Kwiatkowski before going to the NFL, Kikaha had a remarkable 19 sacks. No one since has matched those numbers. In 2019 they played a guy named Joe Tryon at the jack position who was 6-5, 262 pounds and recorded eight sacks. Their 2016 playoff defense featured 6-4, 230 pound Psalm Wooching at jack (six sacks) unless Alabama was in heavier personnel in which case 6-3, 286 pound Jaylen Johnson was lined up there.

Middle/weakside linebacker: Ben Burr-Kirven is the most famous player to man the middle linebacker position for the Kwiatkowski Huskies. BBK measured in at the combine at 6-0, 230 pounds and was lighter for most of his time in Seattle. He ran a 4.56 40 with a 4.09 shuttle, which helped explain how he’d managed to make 176 tackles as a senior in 2018.

Both of the Huskies’ linebacker positions tended to be smaller, box safety types like BBK. The size and technical skill of Kwiatkowski’s defensive line covered them up nicely and he’d mix in some different fronts and slants to help the linebackers run to the football and work at favorable angles.

There wasn’t a huge difference for these two positions except the weakside linebacker usually had the jack outside of him while the middle linebacker would have the nickel or strong safety and there was less space into the boundary outside of the weakside linebacker than for the middle linebacker. As the Big 12 knows well, if the middle linebacker is aligned to the field he tends to have to work in more space than the weakside linebacker and Kwiatkowski would choose his linebackers accordingly.

Philosophically, the Husky fronts remind me of the way Bill Belichik schemes his defense. On a down to down basis they’re more interested in controlling space and angles in the box than trying to shoot guys after the quarterback. They’ll take the longer, more careful path to get to the passer and maintain discipline in their lanes, a useful habit for facing mobile quarterbacks in the spread offense. When it’s time to get after the quarterback, they’d mix in some stunts and twists to help their athletes (the jack in particular) get after it.

In those 2016 playoffs, freshman Jalen Hurts completed 7-14 passes against them for just 57 yards and was nearly picked on his first attempt. On the ground he had 19 carries for 50 yards, which includes three sacks by the Huskies, and zero touchdowns. Alabama won the game 24-7 because running back Bo Scarborough got loose for a couple of long runs and the Tide pick-six’d Washington quarterback Jake Browning.

Imagining the 2021 Longhorns in a Kwiatkowski front

Some aspects of building a year one defense will be an easier task for Kwiatkowski than it would have been for Chris Ash. In 2020 Ash was inheriting the ideal defensive end who was otherwise being wasted in Joseph Ossai along with several really promising defensive tackles. For 2021 his preferred 4-down structure was going to be up against it trying to fill the void left by Ossai.

Kwiatkowski has shown a commitment to setting and rushing the edge which will help the Longhorns recruit top pass-rushers in the future, but he’s also worked regularly with D-lines involving a lot of big kids of the sort Orlando was stockpiling. Additionally, his system puts less on the jack as a down lineman than Ash’s system, which expands the pool of potential candidates to fill hole left by Ossai’s departure.

Texas was trying to snatch up as many defensive ends in the 2021 class as possible and the new staff has maintained that approach, but having an abundance of positionally flexible big men is more of an opportunity than a challenge for Kwiatkowski.

There’s a few obvious fits here for the Longhorns. Keondre Coburn and T’Vondre Sweat are interior guys who can handle two-gapping from the nose or 3-technique and push the pocket on passing downs. Moro Ojomo played a lot of strongside end last season and has played inside as well. DeMarvion Overshown is exactly the sort of athlete the Huskies would try to field at middle linebacker while Juwan Mitchell probably slides into the boundary/weakside linebacker spot and evades future targeting from Texas Tech.

The two biggest questions concern Alfred Collins and the jack linebacker position.

Collins could play a lot of positions on this defensive line. His athleticism is pretty freakish for his size and Kwiatkowksi demonstrated he’s not a slave to height and weight norms at various positions when he had 6-5, 340-pound Vita Vea standing up in a 9-technique against Alabama.

Check out Collins doing work here on a looping stunt against Colorado:

You can also see Moro Ojomo isn’t out of place on the edge as a defensive end in this clip. Chris Ash tended to manufacture pressure last season with twists and stunts, making use of the D-line’s overall athleticism while mitigating the lack of particular edge-rushing skill. Kwiatkowski will do likewise, the question is where he sees Collins as being most disruptive. He could play field defensive end and put some of Texas’ defensive ends on the bench while Coburn and Sweat hold things down inside, he could be a gap-taking nose, or he could continue to develop as a 3-technique.

It’s not just a question of where Collins does the most damage either, the field end position has been such a hybrid tool in the Kwiatkowski toolbox the next question is whether Moro Ojomo, Jacoby Jones, Reese Leitao, and Marqez Bimage offer enough to feature the position. Collins may be the best option or perhaps Vernon Broughton makes a leap and takes over at this position or owns a timeshare with Ojomo.

Finally there’s jack linebacker. Kwiatkowski does a lot of favors for this spot, often pairing the jack on the boundary with a 4i-technique or a 3-technique defensive lineman, rarely asking him to spill pullers, and frequently stunting him into gaps rather than allowing him to be a stationary target for pass protection. There wasn’t anyone on the Longhorn roster clearly worthy of this favored treatment when the new staff arrived.

Jacoby Jones could maybe get action here, Jett Bush did little in a similar role last season as Ossai’s back-up, and there’s speculation Bimage could rejuvenate his career here after previously bulking up to play more like a strongside end. The staff was obviously unconvinced and two of their earliest moves have been adding jack linebackers Ray Thornton from LSU and Ovie Oghoufo from Notre Dame.

Both of these guys are tweeners who are lighter and athletic (Thornton is 6-3, 230 and Oghoufo 6-3, 240) but most comfortable coming downhill rather than working backward and forward in space as inside linebackers. They’re also both too small to be featured prominently trying to control gaps in a 4-down scheme. LSU converted to a 4-down scheme last season and Notre Dame has been in the 4-3 Under since hiring Mike Elko back in 2017. Both Thornton and Oghoufo have faced diminishing returns trying to find a prominent role amidst those adjustments.

For the 2021 Longhorns, there’s a lot of size and athleticism inside to protect guys like Overshown or Thornton/Oghoufu from getting caught for being undersized and to help set them up to go be disruptive athletes. If both end up taking off in this role maybe we will see a true 2-4-5 scheme in Austin next season, I’m guessing the staff will just be happy to get one Big 12 contender-caliber jack out of these additions.

There’s a lot of options for the new staff to explore and we could see many different schematic approaches as they work out how to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts up front. One thing is for certain, they’ll be looking to control the box very carefully and efficiently in order to protect the secondary and force spread offenses to work in limited space.

Photo Courtesy of the Alamo Bowl

History major, football theorist.