Michigan Football: Why the Wolverines Should Run a 3-4 Defense


Nov 1, 2014; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive lineman Chris Wormley (43) defensive tackle Bryan Mone (90) linebacker Joe Bolden (35) safety Jarrod Wilson (22) and linebacker Jake Ryan (47) celebrate against the Indiana Hoosiers at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In his two most recent head coaching stops, Jim Harbaugh’s defense has primarily featured the 3-4 look. Now as the head coach of the Michigan football program, there is no reason for that to change.

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For the last four years under former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison (retained by Harbaugh as the defensive line coach) the Wolverines have been a base 4-3 front. Enter new defensive coordinator D.J Durkin, a former Harbaugh assistant at Stanford and most recently the defensive coordinator at Florida under former head coach Will Muschamp. Though Muschamp (a defensive guru in his own right) is known as a proponent of the 4-3 system, he still allowed Durkin to mix in some 3-4 looks. Working under Harbaugh again, Durkin will have the green light to make a full switch to the 3-4. It’s just a matter of when the talent on the roster fits the scheme, and in that case there is no better time than now.

Michigan’s 2015 defensive line contains a wealth of versatile players (a must for running a 3 man front), the most versatile being 4th year junior Chris Wormley. Wormley, who can play either end or 3-technique tackle in a 4 man front, projects as an ideal 5-technique in a 3-4. 5-techniques line up on an inside shade of the offensive tackles and that is where Wormley’s combination of strength, size, speed and length will give him an edge, as 5-techniques need to be able to stuff the run as well as provide a pass rush worthy of writing home about. The latter being something that Michigan has had its struggles with in recent years. The other 5-technique will be Wormley’s 2012 recruiting classmate Willie Henry. Henry has bulked up from 293 to 311 pounds this offseason, (a good indicator that Durkin is serious about the 3-4) and I believe Henry will have a breakout season as a result. Though he has the size to play nose his game lends itself to that of a 3-technique, lining up further away from the ball to utilize his explosiveness to shoot gaps and get penetration. He has had problems taking on double teams, so a move to the 5-technique(further away from the ball) and the added bulk will help immensely with this issue.

The key to any successful 3 man front is having a legitimate space eater in the middle. Michigan has just that in true sophomore Bryan Mone. Mone has bulked up to 325 pounds this offseason and 1-technique (lined up directly over the center) seems to be the ideal position for him. It is a position that demands the ability to take on double teams. It is a better fit for someone like Mone, (who can occupy 2 gaps) than it is for someone like Henry who is better with shooting gaps and getting penetration.

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Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a full scale switch to a 3-4 defense is finding out who will be the outside linebackers. 3-4 outside linebackers are similar to 4-3 defensive ends and often stand up on the line of scrimmage (outside of the offensive tackle) and rush the passer. Many believe that true junior defensive end Taco Charlton is too big to play this position, but think his skill set translates well. He hasn’t necessarily set the world on fire as a 4 man end, so why not move him out in space and take away some of his gap responsibility, while giving him an easier path to rush the quarterback. When dropping back into pass coverage he could use his length to disrupt passing lanes. On the other side, Durkin could rotate senior pass rush specialist Mario Ojemudia and redshirt freshman rising star Lawrence Marshall, who has the body type and skill set to be an NFL talent at this position.

In the middle, you need to have guys that are essentially MIKE linebackers in a 4-3. Michigan just so happens to have that in seniors Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan. They would make a great tandem starting side by side and a lot better option than one of them having to play the SAM spot, as Bolden played the best football of his career last year filling in at MIKE when Morgan was lost to injury. Senior James Ross III, the incumbent starter at the WILL, would provide quality depth at this position.

In addition to the skill sets of the current front 7 personnel, running the 3-4 will help Michigan gain an edge when it comes to future recruiting. Hybrid outside linebacker, defensive end type players are all the rage in the NFL right now and giving prospects a chance to play and develop in the system will benefit the Wolverines; especially when recruiting against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, who do not run the system. It all starts, however, with laying the foundation in 2015.