Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Defensive Coordinator Tony White Explains the 3-3-5 Is About Personnel, Not Numbers

January 06, 2023

When most in the Nebraska football ecochamber, from fan to media outlet, focused on the numbers of the 3-3-5, Tony White focused on personnel. It’s adaptable. Anything it needs to be. Anything to win games.

Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator finally answered those questions on Friday. The university invited media members to the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium for a question-and-answer session, the first public comments from either White or Marcus Satterfield since their respective hirings.

White ran through a litany of questions from his long-standing friendship with Matt Rhule, his defensive philosophy, the Big Ten, the younger staff that will work under him and his knowledge of Nebraska’s legacy. And just so it’s clear: he wants to learn about the Blackshirts tradition and how to do it right before making a decision.

First, White shared his thankfulness for the job. He thanked Rhule, athletic director Trev Alberts chose him for the position out of an open field of candidates. He chose this job because of his relationship with Rhule and his perception of Nebraska. White formed his football knowledge in middle school and high school. He graduated high school in 1997.

“That was Nebraska,” White explained. “You looked up and you saw Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska.”

He’s familiar with the Big Ten offenses somewhat. Purdue played at Syracuse and brought a different game. Rhule told White that 11-personnel was the top package from every team in the conference but one last year.

“It’s a deal we’ll have to account for and our personnel will come into play,” White said. “We need to put our guys in the best position to make plays.”

He said he grew up in the 3-3-5, playing in it at UCLA under Rocky Long, who has since replaced him at Syracuse. It’s fundamentally that in a number but the formation is much more complex than that because of its versatility. A conventional nickel, White referenced, is a 4-2-5 concept. That can be achieved easily, as can other fronts, through shifting personnel at certain times. White said that allows the coaching staff to cast a wide net in recruiting and put athletes where they fit best.

“It gives you a chance to recruit and the great thing about Coach Rhule is he’s really big on recruiting the big guys up front,” White said. “We’re going to recruit our tail off up there and then adjust our defensive personnel with what we have.”

White isn’t dedicated or set to any specific bit of the defense. They’ll implement a bear front or a stacked defensive line if needed. Anything to win, he said. In terms of specific personnel at Nebraska, he knows a few of them. He remembered recruiting Ty Robinson at Arizona State. He shouted out Luke Reimer, Nick Henrich and Nash Hutmacher. Of course, White hasn’t had a chance to “feel the guys out” yet to match spots with personnel. The rover position at Nebraska will be similar to its implementation in Rocky Long’s system. He’s also excited to see how the linebackers lineup plays out.

The defensive coordinator is excited about his support staff. He thinks defensive line coach Terrance Knighton is funny but can get after you if needed. White even called secondary coach Evan Cooper “a walking Red Bull advertisement” for his energy. Nebraska hasn’t announced the linebackers coach yet but multiple reports indicate it will be former Carolina Panthers staffer Rob Dvoracek. White’s excited for them to talk defensive concept once the recruiting period finishes. While they’re young, they’ve been raised in football and White likes their football knowledge.

“First thing you see and you feel is the energy,” White said. “I don’t see it as a detriment. At the end of the day it’s all on me to make sure we see things a certain way.”

Some of their energy is used in recruiting, which became one of the immediate priorities of the coaching staff at the time they came in.

In terms of grand scheme, White wants his defense to be known for passion. He organized his thoughts before saying he wants a defensive unit that doesn’t look at the score, but play with full effort regardless.

“When they take the field you’re going to know that they’re playing for Nebraska,” White said. “They’re part of a tradition that’s unlike anything else in the country,”

“You don’t have to look at the score, you’re going to look up from your seats, you’re going to grab your popcorn and you’re going to pay attention. Because those boys are going to play.”

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