Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Attack, Attack, Attack: Inside Tony White’s Multi-Faceted Defensive Philosophy

January 25, 2023

First, you’ll hear him say “attack” a lot. That’s the initial point Tony White tells the camera, situated under a projector. Doesn’t matter if it’s the defensive line, linebackers or secondary. Each position, each player is expected to attack.

The New York State High School Football Coaches Association asked White to speak on defense while he was at Syracuse. There, he conducted a course on attacking offenses through multiple fronts. He broke down film and pointed out the various tweaks his defense made out of its base defense. White lays out his defensive philosophy in that course. It’s not unlike what he shared with Greg Sharpe last month on an episode of Sports Nightly and but it underlines the purpose White’s defense play with.

“It’s a defense that finds answers,” White told Sharpe. “The 3-3-5 and the flexibility it gives, it allows the play caller to find answers.”

In his educational course directed towards coaches, White’s focus is proactive. Not just finding answers to the offense’s success but dictating the offense’s moves by its defensive success. Attacking the line of scrimmage so the opposing offensive line is moving laterally, or backpedalling, in order to block what’s coming.

White believes the defense is capable of that through its versatility. Offensive coaches are really good these days, White said. So good they can sometimes teach defensive players a thing or two from time to time. In order to throw the offense off, White likes to show multiple fronts and move pre-snap. The offense has to scheme in practice for each front. Disguising or delaying each look confuses the offensive line first and the backfield second.

In his only meeting with local media so far, White’s stressed the versatility and multiple looks his defensive vision affords. It’s a multiple defense, he said, and it shifts with on-field personnel and the team’s strengths. At its core, it involves five coverages and six basic ways to attack the offense. Those six considerations for attacking an offense are: to the tight end, away from the tight end, to the field, to the boundary, to the running back and away from the running back. That pronged attack can come unbalanced or balanced from the linebackers. In this case, balanced would mean two outside linebackers attacking and unbalanced includes the middle linebacker with an outside linebacker.

On film, this plays out against Clemson. The perennial conference power struggles to adjust and account for every oncoming defender. A quick running back sweep away from the blitz is disrupted because of penetration at the tackle. The running back shuffles back, allowing the blitzing linebacker to pursue and make a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

“If you want to bring balanced blitzes, unbalanced blitzes, whoever you want to bring, it makes this job hard for these guys,” White shines his laser pointer at the offensive line. “When you can make the job hard for these guys, they’re not just flying off the ball, knocking you back, double-teaming you, all this stuff. These guys are coming off the ball slow, looking for who’s coming.”

It’s a diverse front with little movement and a basic one-word, sometimes two-word call between the defensive linemen and linebackers. But the offense has to account for several potential defensive fronts. Balanced blitzes provide a defender, moving with momentum, to attack the edge and prevent an outside run. It also causes havoc in passing situations. Because the the offensive line naturally back pedals to create a pocket, the offense retreats in passing situations. In a game against Pitt, with a staff that included former Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, White’s balanced blitz got into the back field. Kenny Pickett, a Heisman finalist quarterback, started his scramble 8 yards from the line of scrimmage and turned his back to the defense 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

“Make those guys say ‘Who’s coming? Where’s it coming from? What are they doing,'” White explained. “Because if they do that you’ve got a chance.”

Film review showed instances against North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Miami, all with the offensive line moving laterally for chunks of the game. White’s improved defense at Syracuse attacked opposing offenses and initiated contact. White reviewed film when he coached the secondary and his game as interim defensive coordinator at Arizona State. The same aggressive ethos stood in the Pac-12. In a game against Cal, White points out the strong side of the offensive line shuffles and absorbs the defense on a designed run because of uncertainty. The running back’s main blockers are apprehensive because they’re uncertain of who to block. As a result, every lineman stayed at the line of scrimmage on a play when they’re allowed to lead block.

The multitude of defensive fronts and possibilities create havoc. That’s the point. And it happens by attacking, White said. Syracuse’s defense last year adopted the moniker of “The Mob.” They wanted everyone flowing to the ball. That’s also part of what White stresses. In order to do that, he likes to warm up with a quick 15-yard pursuit drill to start practice. He said it’s not intensive, it just gets the blood pumping and angles right before practice. White also likes to instill a cut drill where a defender pushes off a cut block and accelerates to the next point. That drill ends with a tackle—always end with a tackle.

White’s also used coaching words and philosophies from Herm Edwards and Marvin Lewis. Take the chance, what matters is “the grass” and then deflect praise and absorb criticism. He’s a veteran, cerebral football mind who’s now coming into the largest program he’s coached at. Big Ten football at a premiere program. How does he see his attacking, aggressive mindset adapting at Nebraska?

“When they take the field you’re going to know they play for Nebraska, they’re part of a tradition that’s really unlike any other in the country,” White told local media earlier this month. “You don’t have to look up at the score, when that defense runs out there, you’re going to sit up in your seats, you’re going to grab your popcorn and you’re going to pay attention. Because those boys are going to play. Period.”

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