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From Austin to Boise to Columbus To Tuscaloosa, Defense Now Rules the Game

Call it poetic justice. The day after his teleconference earlier this month was hijacked by a female blogger who called in to solicit his thoughts on, among other things, whether Lindsay Lohan might leave prison early to enter rehab, TCU coach Gary Patterson lamented his tongue-tied reply ("Umm ... no answer"). "I wish I'd been prepared for the question," said Patterson, "because I actually loved her in The Parent Trap."

It seems only fitting that a man who specializes in springing unpleasant surprises on opposing offenses should, every so often, be the victim of one himself.

If Patterson isn't the keenest defensive mind in college football, he's certainly in the top five. TCU led the nation in total defense last season for the fourth time in Patterson's nine-year tenure as top Frog. He's done it by running a scheme that is equal parts nasty, confusing, suffocating and ahead of its time.

While it wasn't designed with this goal in mind, Patterson's system, the 4-2-5, turned out to be an effective antidote to the various species of spread offenses that took root across the republic over the last decade. Most 4--3 teams send a linebacker to the sideline on obvious passing downs, replacing him with a fifth defensive back—the nickel. TCU's base defense is a nickel package. That extra DB (the 5 in the 4-2-5) is a kind of safety-linebacker hybrid, a talented tweener who is equally at ease covering a receiver or bringing the lumber in run support. Five defensive backs "allow you to get more speed on the field," says Patterson, "but they've got to be physical, got to be good tacklers."

While the Horned Frogs have been on the vanguard of this approach, plenty of defensive coordinators have been paying close attention, scouring recruiting lists and their own rosters for "hybrid" guys who give them the best chance to check the spread of the spread.

A peso for your thoughts, Carl Pelini. "The big thing for us," says the Nebraska defensive coordinator, "is finding guys who are physical enough to play in the box and who at the same time can step outside and match up on an inside receiver.

"Five years ago," he adds, "defense was all personnel-driven"—coaches frantically substituting to match offensive players on the field. "The more hybrid players you have on the field, the better you're able to match up by formation rather than by personnel."

One such hybrid is the Cornhuskers' hard-hitting Eric Hagg, a 6' 2", 210-pound senior with superb coverage skills. A nickelback for the past two seasons, Hagg will be an every-down player in Nebraska's new base defense, the so-called Peso, a nickel by any other name. It was Hagg who picked off Colt McCoy's second pass in last December's Big 12 title game—the first of three interceptions the Texas quarterback threw during a nightmarish outing in which he was sacked nine times and bludgeoned into near incoherence.

That game, a 13--12 Texas victory, also marked a sea change in college football. A year after Oklahoma set a Division I-A record by averaging 51.1 points a game, the supremacy of the hurry-up spread offense was officially at an end. The pendulum—as embodied by the clublike right arm of Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh—had begun swinging in the direction of the defense, as this look at SI's top four teams suggests. Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State and Texas all do defense a little differently, but the best teams all do it extremely well. And like a linebacker coming off the edge, this defensive uprising is certain to accelerate in 2010, as coaches continue to concoct schemes and personnel packages designed to dull what was once the cutting edge of offensive football.

Four of the five BCS bowls last season were won by teams which finished the year in the top 10 in total defense (No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Florida, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 10 Iowa). The exception was the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., where Boise State (No. 14) beat TCU. The Broncos won that game, though, basically by out-Pattersoning Patterson.

A year earlier the Frogs had spoiled Boise State's perfect season, nipping the Broncos 17--16 in the Poinsettia Bowl. The following spring Patterson had few qualms about allowing Boise State's defensive staff to come to Fort Worth for a clinic on the 4-2-5. "It was nice," recalls Pete Kwiatkowski, now the Broncos' defensive coordinator. "They took us to a barbecue." As a recent convert to the 4-2-5, Boise State had much to gain from the visit. But the teams were in different conferences, so what was the harm in sharing? And what was the likelihood of their being paired in a bowl game for the second straight year?

Oops. "Had we known we'd be playing them" so soon, Patterson allows, the invite would've been yanked.

Upping the ante on the 4-2-5, the Broncos spent much of the Fiesta Bowl in a 4-1-6. Flustered, Frogs quarterback Andy Dalton was picked off twice by junior cornerback Brandyn Thompson, who returned the first of those interceptions 51 yards for a touchdown.

A product of Franklin High in Elk Grove, Calif., Thompson is typical of the young men who end up playing for Boise State coach Chris Petersen: bright, devoid of ego and underappreciated coming out of high school. Thompson took up the Broncos on their scholarship offer because no one in the Pac-10 was biting. "About the only thing I knew about Boise," he recalls, "was that they played on a blue field."

Thompson was a Parade All-America compared with Ryan Winterswyk, a 6' 4", 230-pound safety at La Habra (Calif.) High who suspected his natural position in college would be linebacker. Despite making 150 tackles as a senior, he got little love from recruiters. He was preparing to go the juco route when Broncos secondary coach Marcel Yates invited him to come on up to Big Sky country and ... walk on.

After enrolling in January 2006, Winterswyk was switched to defensive end that spring. Life on the line of scrimmage took some getting used to. "At safety you're 10, 12 yards off the ball. You see the play develop," he recalls. "At end it's in your face, right away."

The light went on for Winterswyk the following fall. Every so often, as a redshirt running on the scout team, he would beat left tackle Ryan Clady, "which would make me feel better about myself." Clady, now a Denver Bronco, started in the 2009 Pro Bowl.

Winterswyk has gone from walk-on to four-year starter. His 19 career sacks include a clutch fourth-quarter takedown of Dalton in the Fiesta Bowl. Once a clueless freshman who struggled to master a three-point stance, he's now the star of a defense returning 10 starters. His rapid ascent embodies the Boise State program, which in 15 seasons has risen from I-AA to serial BCS buster. If the Broncos can put together their third undefeated season in four years, they will be on the short list to make a return trip to Glendale, this time to play for a national title.

Boise State returns all but one defensive starter. Alabama returns one defensive starter. But the defending national champions are favored to get back to the BCS championship game because they restock their defense every year with big and fast defenders who thrive in a 3--4 scheme that utilizes their athleticism. One of this season's reinforcements is Dont'a Hightower. An inside linebacker, Hightower is said to be more physically skilled than his mentor, Rolando McClain, who won the Butkus Award last season.

Two years ago Hightower became the 11th true freshman since 1972 to start for Alabama in a season opener. A cut block thrown by an Arkansas player last September tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee. Doctors told Hightower he'd be out seven to eight months. They were flabbergasted to see him back on the field, in full pads at spring football, in six. Nonetheless he says he'll start the season in a knee brace, "just to be safe."

Good call. Unlike their counterparts in a 4--3, the inside linebackers in a 3--4 aren't protected by down linemen; opposing centers and guards are able to "climb" to the second level and engage the 'backers. "That's the thing about the 3--4," says Hightower. "If you don't have a dominant noseguard and two good inside linebackers, teams will run on you all day. If you make a mistake, there's a huge hole, and everybody knows whose fault it is."

It makes sense, then, that Hightower (6' 4", 260) and fellow inside 'backer Courtney Upshaw (6' 2", 263) are more broad-beamed than any hybrid. The fact is, you don't hear as much about hybrid players at Alabama in particular, or the SEC in general. While most SEC teams have elements of the spread in their offense, this is also a part of the country where the power-running game remains paramount.

"I would say no," replied Gators offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, when asked if he has noticed an evolution in body types at linebacker in recent years. "You've got some big dudes who can run and some smaller dudes who can run. A great player might come in a smaller body one year," a bigger body the next. "In the end we're all out there looking for the same guys."

Tide coach Nick Saban, for his part, is looking at the understudies of star defensive end Marcell Dareus, who faces a possible suspension for attending a South Beach saturnalia allegedly hosted and paid for by a sports agent earlier this summer. It was Dareus, you may recall, who knocked McCoy out of the BCS title game and put a shiv in Texas's ribs late in the first half with a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown. While his absence would be keenly felt, "we are not concerned," says Saban, who often encourages his players to transform "stumbling blocks" into "stepping-stones" and who will now have an opportunity to practice what he preaches.

The Tide rolls with Saban's 3--4. Nebraska has the Peso. TCU and Boise run a kind of Perma-Nickel. What does Ohio State have? For starters, it has the superpowers of Brian Rolle, the 5' 11", 218-pound middle linebacker who at the moment of impact with blockers and ballcarriers transforms himself into former Buckeyes and NFL hulk Pepper Johnson, if we are to believe linebackers coach Luke Fickell. "Some guys are small, and some guys are big," Fickell says in reference to Rolle, "but what it comes down to is whether you have that ability to play big."

"I'm good against the pass, but I feel like God built me this size just for the run," says Rolle, whose supreme self-assurance evokes that of Willie Mays Hayes in the movie Major League. ("I hit like Mays, and I run like Hayes!")

Only slightly bulkier is Ross Homan, a 6-foot, 227-pound weakside 'backer who had 108 tackles last season. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has zero problem with the relative lack of size of Rolle and Homan. "We've gone away, a little bit," he allows, from the downhill, run-stuffing Chris Spielman prototype. "How much iso do you see anymore? And with all the one-back stuff these days, you don't see that many lead plays either.

"We need guys that can run."

The Buckeyes also have the Star and the Leo, which are handles for a pair of—here's that word again—hybrid positions. The Star is a safety-linebacker mix. The Leo is a heartier blend; part linebacker, part defensive lineman. "He's in our [lineman] meetings," says tackle Dexter Larimore, "but half the plays he's dropping into coverage."

Fickell isn't worried about the speed or talent level of this defense. He's worried about the corrosive effects of the praise it has been hearing since the Buckeyes shut down Oregon's vaunted offense in last January's Rose Bowl win. "Not to harp on it," he says, "but we were good in '07, then not quite as good in '08, with all the same guys coming back."

"Criticism doesn't hurt us," he tells his guys. "It makes us tougher, more resilient. It's the praise you've got to be careful with. As soon as you start swallowing it, it'll kill ya."

More hazardous to one's health, possibly, is standing next to Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp on the sideline during a game. The excitable 39-year-old has been known to head-butt his players, and he once opened a bloody wound over his left ear by removing his headset too violently.

Just as Saban learned the principles of defense from his onetime mentor Bill Belichick, so he imparted them to an eager Muschamp, whom he hired from Division II Valdosta State in 2001. At the time, Saban was coach at LSU. With Muschamp as his defensive coordinator, the Tigers won a national title in '03.

Five years and two jobs later Muschamp joined forces at Texas with Mack Brown. Muschamp's effect was immediate and dramatic. "Oh, he came in barkin'," says senior cornerback Curtis Brown. "He just attacked, put our intensity through the roof."

Muschamp has taken a talented, underachieving defense and whipped it into shape, increasing the number and complexity of the Longhorns' blitzes, while insisting that they do a much better job disguising their coverages. But his most remarkable feat has been to convince his players—who work and play in some of the nation's most opulent facilities—that they are, in fact, a scrappy band of blue-collar underdogs.

Three of four secondary starters are back for a defense that led the nation in interceptions and third-down efficiency. Strong, silent safety Blake Gideon is a coach's son who has started all 27 games of his career. Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown (no relation) are NFL-bound corners, according to secondary coach Duane Akina, who should know; in 22 seasons coaching defensive backs, 25 have gone on to the league. Word around Austin is that junior Aaron Williams, the team's third corner, may be more talented than either of the Browns.

"They're playing man coverage with NFL corners," says Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. "Obviously they have good schemes, but when you can line up and play man—which allows you to put another guy in the box to stop the run—you got a great advantage."

Upon his arrival at Texas in 2000, Akina noticed that his four best defensive backs—Rod Babers, Ahmad Brooks, Quentin Jammer and Nathan Vasher—were all cornerbacks. All were NFL talents, but Brooks and Vasher were on the bench. Akina's solution: move them to safety, to get them on the field.

Michael Huff, Michael Griffin and Earl Thomas were all recruited as corners, moved to safety and were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. NFL scouts and coaches value Akina's players not just for their athletic ability, but for their versatility.

That same versatility—corners capable of coming up in run support; safeties covering like corners—makes it tougher for offensive coordinators to find mismatches against the Longhorns. It has given Texas a built-in edge against spread offenses.

The Horns didn't need help against the pass last Jan. 7. With Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy hiding cracked ribs, the Tide rushed for 205 yards and four touchdowns. 'Bama's success on the ground occasioned some soul-searching in Austin. Mack Brown has since decreed that his offense will return to more of a smashmouth personality.

In the ongoing chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators, that is shaping up as a popular countermeasure to take against lighter, faster hybrids: Run right at them. "Hit 'em in the mouth," as Pelini puts it.

While the effectiveness of that strategy remains in question, this much does not: In college football 2010, defenses are dictating the terms.




Open SI's foldout for a look at this year's top Heisman contenders.


Photograph by BOB ROSATO

Gideon (21) and Curtis Brown (3) are part of a versatile Texas secondary that could help the Horns return to the title game.



Thompson (13) and Boise State picked off TCU with knowledge of the 4-2-5 borrowed from Patterson.



TCU's 4-2-5 Patterson's scheme eschews a third linebacker for a fifth, hybrid defensive back who can play the pass or the run.



ALABAMA'S 3--4 In the power-running SEC, the Tide requires an immovable noseguard and two stout inside linebackers.



OHIO STATE'S AND TEXAS'S 4--3 Both defenses rely on versatility. Buckeyes linebackers rush and cover; Texas DBs play both corner and safety.