Inside the Gameplan: Finding the 4i

Chris Nelson. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Chris Nelson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas’ search for defensive linemen has become a pretty fascinating topic this offseason. The team is struggling to find depth at the position, losing both existing players and committed recruits at the position. The search for the now notorious “4i-technique” linemen who can fit Todd Orlando’s 3-4 defensive scheme is becoming a major theme in the recruiting story.

How the Longhorns handle this position in terms of recruiting and development is a major factor in how the Herman/Orlando era will go, particular because recruiting blue chip DL is generally a blue blood privilege that is a big factor in how Texas can differentiate themselves from other programs in the Big 12. Everyone has access to talented receivers, everyone is struggling to find linebackers, but only the top schools have access to the blue chip DL. Oklahoma is moving back to a four-down defensive front in part because of their own struggle to recruit and develop 4i-techniques for their 3-4 defense over the last few years.

Now it’s Texas’ turn to try and figure this conundrum out.

What is the 4i-technique?

The number of the technique tells you where that player is lined up in relation to the offensive line. A 0-technique is heads up over the center, a 1-tech is shaded to either side of the center, the 2i-technique is not quite head up on a guard but lined up across his inside shoulder. The famous 3-technique is outside of a guard, and the 4i-tech is lined up across from an offensive tackle shaded just slightly to his inside shoulder.

The 4i-technique is a common alignment in the 3-4 defense and has become much more prevalent this decade among teams trying to deal with the spread offense. The challenge in defending spread offenses, especially teams that are lining up four receivers and then perhaps using the QB as a runner, is in handling all four interior gaps (the A-gaps and the B-gaps) while still getting guys lined up across from center.

Using 4i-technique DL that can fill the B-gaps reduces the stress that spread offenses can put on teams as the nose tackle and inside linebacker can then handle the two A-gaps and thus free up the other inside linebacker to vacate the box without getting too far away from his run game responsibility.

4i solves B-gap issues

As you see in this diagram, the three DL and the inside-backer remaining in the box (in this case the weakside LB) can handle the four interior gaps while the middle linebacker and B-backer tend the edges. The challenge against this set is trying to position the middle linebacker to be able to help cover that “H” slot receiver without taking him too far away from his run game responsibilities. The use of a 4i-technique that can fill the B-gap and allow the middle linebacker to get wider makes this less of an issue for the defense.

The sacrifice is surrendering the use of the traditional defensive end, who’s constant presence on the edge makes him a threat to rush the passer or set the edge. Orlando’s 3-4 still has the B-backer sitting on one edge, so you aren’t giving up more than any 4-3 defense that tends to use a sturdier strongside end who’s more of a run defender opposite the pass-rushing weakside end. The nickel or sam linebacker on the other side often has to play the run pretty aggressively though for this reason.

Another challenge here is that the 4i-technique needs to be a guy who can handle playing heads up across offensive tackles, who are typically big and fairly athletic, and working his way inside into the B-gap and frequently out into the C-gap in the event of a blitz. That’s a lot of hard work that often just sets up a linebacker to make the play and claim the glory.

Finding guys who are capable and willing to thrive in that role is a challenge. Most sturdier defensive linemen dream of playing the 3-technique and shooting the B-gap as an interior pass-rusher, which is more difficult when you start heads up on the best pass-blocker on the opposing team. Other sturdier young DL may fancy themselves as 4-3 strongside ends or even extra-big weakside ends that are primarily pass-rushers. The upshot of this is that guys aren’t necessarily drawn to playing in a system where they have to play such a difficult role.

Examining some effective 4i-based defenses

There are examples of teams that have built really strong defenses using the 4i-technique in their fronts and not all of them are teams that are recruiting top tier talent. I’ve drawn up four different examples so you can see what these units can look like and how they tend to be composed.

Let’s start with Orlando’s two better defensive lines, the 2014 Utah State Aggies and the 2016 Houston Cougars:

Orlando 2014-2016 DL

The Utah State DL had already been recruited to run this defense by Gary Andersen so Orlando certainly benefited here from working with guys that had been chosen and developed for the 4i-techniques. The star of the show was B.J. Larsen, a kid who went off on a two-year mission with the LDS Church after high school and ended up growing and giving football another chance as a walk on after he finished his mission. By the 2014 season he was about 25 years old with years of skill development in the position. Still, nine sacks is pretty dang good and instructive to how a player in this alignment can still do real damage in the pass-rush if he has a knack for it that Orlando wants to utilize.

At Houston, the Cougars were also already running a 3-4 defense before Orlando arrived and had been recruiting the kinds of guys that can play as 4i-techniques. In particular, it helps to have some length if you’re going to be grappling with offensive tackles but you also need some quickness so that you aren’t going up against someone that’s both bigger, longer, and faster than you. Houston already had guys like Malveaux around that were more or less ideal in terms of their physical measurables.

The 2016 Cougars returned their 2015 DL more or less intact but B.J. Singleton went from starting nose tackle to “guy that helps spell Ed Oliver.” Malveaux was a pretty solid player but on this team Oliver was the guy doing more of the damage in the pass-rush, mostly because he’s a freak.

Now here are a couple of bigger programs that also utilize the 4i-technique as a big part of their defense, the 2016 Stanford Cardinal and Florida State Seminoles defenses.

Stanford and FSU 2016 DLs

Let’s start with the Seminoles this time. Before you get too excited it should be noted that Florida State plays multiple fronts and Demarcus Christmas was usually a 3-technique defensive tackle while Demarcus Walker played some 4i, moved inside at times, and also played on the edge like a traditional DE.

They generally just go recruit the most disruptive DL they can find and then move them around in a few different spots to cause problems, but they like to have big DEs opposite their “jack” OLB/DE hybrid position that can play in a 5-tech or a 4i and that guy usually ends up being a pretty productive player for them.

With the Cardinal you notice that one of their two 4i-technique DL, Dylan Jackson, didn’t produce very much. That’s partly due to the fact that he was often on the bench as Stanford would use a 2-4-5 nickel subpackage that moved Solomon Thomas inside to a 3-technique or even nose tackle spot with Harrison Phillips usually alongside of him and then a pair of 3-4 OLBs on the edges as the de-facto defensive ends. Much like Texas showed in the spring game with Poona Ford and Chris Nelson inside.

What you notice about the Stanford DL is that they don’t care too much about recruiting size, or at least not heavy guys, they want guys that have strength, length, and athleticism. They recruit 4i-technique players that can also spin inside and play the more glorious 3-technique position and then then alternate between 2-4 and 3-3 nickel subpackages based on situation or the strengths and weaknesses of their own roster.

That’s what Texas should be aiming for, to land long and versatile athletes that can be developed to fit a few different roles to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of the roster in a given year. After all, that’s exactly what they’re doing this year in playing Ford and Nelson inside and Malcolm Roach mostly outside of opposing tackles.

Future Texas DL recruiting

The first class signed by Herman and Orlando wasn’t a group that wasn’t really lighting the world on fire at any position in terms of recruiting rankings. What they did aim to do though was load up on 4i prospects by adding 6-5, 280 pound JUCO Jamari Chisholm and 6-6, 255 pound Max Cummins.

If you note the weights above you’ll see that DL usually gain a fair amount of weight after going to college and while Cummins has the ideal frame he may end up filling out and being a solution to the offensive tackle problem down the line. Taquon Graham is a guy that could potentially learn to slide up and down in various roles like Walker or Thomas, Andrew Fitzgerald is another long-term prospect here that could be great down the line.

Texas’ 2018 targeting is currently zeroed in on the following DL:

Keondre Coburn: At 6-1, 329 he’s a nose tackle all the way in the 3-4 front, they’ll presumably sell him on what this normally inglorious position did for Ed Oliver when it was Orlando calling the plays.

Ron Tatum: He was the ideal swingman that could project as a 4i or a 3-technique but then the fates conspired to keep him home in Oklahoma. Tatum has length and lateral quickness, which is ideal for a spot that’s all about hand fighting with tackles and getting clear of them to their right or left, but now Texas will have to keep looking.

Tyreke Smith: Right now Smith is listed as a weakside end by 247 but I think the recruiting profiles above reveal how off that info can be in terms of long-term projections on these types of players. Smith is listed at 6-4, 265 and he’s more of a brawler and budding technician than a particularly explosive athlete. He’s at his best right now setting the edge, which is what 5-technique DEs specialize in, the 4i is much more likely to need to anchor down and fill the B-gap. He could learn to develop that skill but he seems more like a sturdy 3-tech down the road and he’s also an Ohioan that could be hard to pull.

Ronnie Perkins: This guy is starting to trend towards Texas, particularly with the signing of his pal and fellow Missourian Ayodele Adeoye. He’s at 6-4, 245 heading into his senior year and he’s got other nationally competitive schools like LSU, Michigan, and Oklahoma after him. Whereas Smith is a fighter that mauls blockers, Perkins has the kind of explosive athleticism that gets recruitniks excited. He’s also a pretty nifty TE with nice hands and the ability to run some shifty routes. His athleticism and frame suggest a pretty wide realm of possibilities once he’s received some college education, much like 2017’s Taquon Graham.

Right now it appears as though Texas is in bind trying to find DL that can fit this mold but let’s note one more attribute of the top 4i-techniques listed in our tables above. Most of them were redshirted and the better ones were often upperclassmen by the time they were called on to produce. Most kids don’t come out of high school with the ability to play heads up on a 22 year old offensive tackle and beat them to either gap, that requires the addition of serious strength and skill to pull off effectively. This is absolutely the sort of position where snatching up raw, overlooked two and three-star players with big frames and then putting them in the crockpot for a few years is a viable path to getting high level play. What’s more, even the higher rated players like Taquon Graham or a Ronnie Perkins are likely to need the same kind of development before they can provide the kind of flexible and physical play that makes this system work properly.

Todd Orlando’s defensive scheme can make the most of Texas’ unique advantages in recruiting high end DL talent but his process for deploying them is going to require time and sacrifice. Meanwhile, the search for ingredients that he can cook up into a dominant defense continues.

History major, football theorist.