Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Creating Chaos: Diving Into New Defensive Coordinator Tony White’s Spin on the 3-3-5 Defense

December 10, 2022

Social media lit up when ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported Syracuse defensive coordinator Tony White accepted a deal to join Matt Rhule’s staff as defensive coordinator at Nebraska. Husker fans, who care passionately about Nebraska’s legacy for strong defense, cast their initial impressions of White’s 3-3-5 defense. Many of them without much familiarity to the system. On Friday afternoon, the university confirmed White as the program’s next defensive coordinator.

So what is this system? What makes it special? Why in the world would Rhule want this at Nebraska?

Quick history lesson. White learned the system from 3-3-5 innovator Rocky Long. He’s a former New Mexico quarterback who’s spent his nearly 50-year coaching career riddling quarterbacks. Long recruited White to UCLA, where the linebacker played field general. Long has split head coaching and defensive coordinator duties at New Mexico and San Diego State since White graduated. White, who was a linebacker at UCLA when Rhule was defensive line coach there, joined Long’s coaching staff for a total of nine seasons at San Diego State. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers wanted to improve his defense and hired White. The Orange’s defense improved and Rhule chose White to help him re-engineer a lackluster Nebraska defense.

“If you’re at a place where you have the ability to get a lot of good defensive linemen all the time, you don’t have to go to it,” Babers told The Daily Orange in 2020. “But if you’re at a place where sometimes you have good defensive linemen, sometimes you don’t, it can be a defense that can really confuse quarterbacks in the throw game and really give the offensive line some problems in the run game.”

But how does this defense work? At its base level it is as its name indicates. Three on the defensive line, three at the second level and five in the secondary. It was born out of necessity to help undersized defenses utilize speed but evolved along with the players themselves. Don’t let the name fool you, it can provide physicality at the line and strop the run. White’s iteration in Power 5 football has collapsed space between the defense’s first and second levels and allowed the defensive backs to cover more ground with more freedom. It’s the similar scheme Long installed at New Mexico in the late 1990s. At that time a particular rover could leave the secondary and collapse on the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. That player—Brian Urlacher. (Fun fact, his son, Kennedy, is a 3-star junior safety in Arizona that Nebraska offered in October.)

“You’ll see more defense in one game (against Long) than you’ll see in an entire year,” Mike Leach said when he was at Texas Tech.

At Syracuse, White used the base 3-3-5 with shifting roles and movements to create chaos. Two modern edge rushers can start in their two-point stance while two of the three linebackers from the second level rush the line at the uncovered guards. Those edge rushers, with more athleticism than the ends Long typically recruited, can also drop into coverage and allow for more hybrid looks. One package White utilized at Syracuse involved shifting the second-level players over, allowing one to play as an effective edge rusher with two interior defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage.

In obvious running situations, White’s defense created a conventional bear formation with defenders aligned with the center and both guards while the edge rushers start along the outside shoulder of the tackles. Syracuse utilized the same function of that formation through its conventional three-down front with direct or delayed blitz packages. White’s also incorporated that roaming safety, like Urlacher in the late 1990s, in blitz packages. The defensive line flows one direction, forcing the offense to rotate that direction as well. That roving safety comes from the opposite direction near the original tackle position, leaving either an engaged tackle to leave a block or the running back to recognize the blitz.

While this defense was created and tweaked as a way to compensate for a size disadvantage, modern collegiate linebackers are more suited to both stop the run and drop into coverage. This allows more creativity for White and more freedom for those on the field. At Syracuse, White instilled aggression into the defense. They became known as “The Mob” in upstate circles for the team’s mentality.

“The ball is the main thing in football,” Syracuse linebacker Marlowe Wax said of White’s system, “so if we all attack it, if all 11 people try to attack it at once, good things are gonna happen.”

White was nominated for this year’s Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football. He wasn’t the only one at Syracuse earning accolades. The Syracuse coaching staff gave out six “Mob Awards” with various criteria this season, according to Emily Leiker of Syracuse.com. Players who roam the entire field were bestowed the War Daddy award. Strongman went to a player whose dirty work avoided the spotlight. Home Run went to a linebacker who made a game-changing play. Then there were self-explanatory Big Hit, Effort and Game Ball awards.

“It’s more than just one person making one play,” NFL-bound Syracuse defensive back Garrett Williams said. “I think it speaks to all the little plays that people probably forget or the little things people are doing every play to set up somebody else to make the play.”

Rhule utilized the 3-3-5 defense through Phil Snow to turnaround Baylor. He chose White for similar reasons. After all, he’s turned Syracuse’s defense around. The Orange finished 100th or worse in total team defense in three of the four seasons before White’s arrival. Syracuse finished in the top 30 the last two seasons.

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