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On street fighters, land sharks, and fat Cowboys

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College football needs more undersized Randy White types at defensive tackle.

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We all have a type. In sports, we probably have more than one. I will forever have a soft spot for a nice, lanky receiver, one capable of high-pointing a jump ball and athletic enough to explode through traffic on a bubble screen. There’s a reason why Danario Alexander will forever be one of my favorite Mizzou players ever.

Defensively, I wasn’t sure what my type was until I remembered Randy White.

I’ve been juggling a lot of different books on the Kindle at the moment, and one is a (free through Kindle Unlimited!) publication by John Lawson III, called Tom Landry and Bill Walsh: How two coaching legends took championship football from the Packer Sweep to Brady vs. Manning.

Overall, it’s as wordy as its title. Seems like every point is made two or three times. You’ll find yourself skimming a decent amount because of it. But it does a pretty solid job of describing the innate uniqueness of basically the first football team I was ever exposed to: the late-1970s and early-1980s Dallas Cowboys.

“There are no fat Dallas Cowboys,” narrator John Facenda declared at the beginning of the highlight film recounting Dallas’s 1977 season. “It is a long, lean, and limber team.”

The gospel according to NFL Films was correct, as far as it went. But the Cowboys weren’t a bunch of gymnasts. They dominated a violent sport for two decades. The reason for this success rested not only upon the likes of Staubach, but upon the likes of [Hollywood] Henderson.

Right before a 1978 game against New England, the 6-foot-2-inch Henderson went up to Patriot tight end Russ Francis, who stood four inches taller.

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” Henderson said, pointing his finger at one of the decade’s top two or three tight ends. “I’m gonna kick your ass all day long!”

At 220 pounds, Henderson was a welterweight linebacker. At 240 pounds, Francis was one of the league’s most intimidating skill players.

“Thomas, do you realize who you’re talking to?” Dorsett asked Hollywood. “That guy’s a big, strong dude.”

Henderson replied, “Yeah, Tony, I know. Don’t worry about it, man.”

On the first play of the game, Henderson hit Francis with what Dorsett described as a “wicked forearm shot.” And Henderson continued the beating for the whole game.

That’s what the Cowboys were like if you hated them—really obnoxious, seemingly more style than substance, and, in reality, tough as nails.

Henderson famously flew a bit too close to the sun, but he wasn’t the true heart of the Doomsday Defense anyway — it was the undersized pit bull in the middle.

When the Cowboy concluded the 1977 season with a 27-10 win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 12, [Harvey] Martin shared the game’s most valuable player award with Randy White, the man playing next to him. White was a 6-foot-4 inch defensive tackle weighing 245 pounds. In other words, his size was pedestrian when compared to other defensive tackles. Nevertheless, White was the Tasmanian Devil. [...]

As with many of Landry’s players, it didn’t matter that White’s size was unremarkable. “I’ve never been afraid of anything, and Randy White scared me,” [safety Charlie] Waters said.

General manager Tex Schramm and head coach Tom Landry did a fascinating job of unearthing athletic play-makers and then figuring out what to do with them. They selected a prototype power forward (and, briefly, professional boxer) from Tennessee State No. 1 overall in 1974 and helped him become a matchup nightmare at defensive end. They turned a Grambling cornerback who couldn’t backpedal into one of the best ball-hawks to ever play in the NFL. They turned an undrafted, beautifully mustachioed free agent from Ouachita Baptist into one of the best DBs of the 1970s. And they unleashed a 245-pound defensive tackle (which was small even for the 1970s) as a catalyst for all the havoc around him.

Randy White was one of a kind in a lot of ways, but he still filled a niche I wish I saw more of in football: the street fighter in the middle.

We know the roles that defensive tackles can often fill. In a 3-4, or other two-gap systems, they are the space eaters that occupy multiple blocks and, most of the time, free up gaps for the linebackers behind them. In a 4-3, there’s a bit more disruption potential, but the chief role for just about any tackle in college or pro football is “be really big and bump with other big guys.”

There are still occasional exceptions, though. From 2010-12, Kent State produced three straight top-60 defenses (per S&P+). The Golden Flashes peaked at 15th in Def. S&P+ in 2011, and even though running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham got most of the attention, the defense was still the major driver for Kent’s 11-win run in 2012.

The source of most of Kent’s havoc during this time was 260-pound tackle Roosevelt Nix. The Reynoldsburg, Ohio, product racked up 65 tackles for loss (fourth on the all-time NCAA list) and 24 sacks in four seasons.

Kent State Golden Flashes v Ohio Bobcats 11-19-2013
Roosevelt Nix (5)
Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Deemed too small to play the position in the NFL, he flipped to fullback; in 2017, his third season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he scored two touchdowns.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Doug Martin, former Kent State coach and current NMSU coach, identified a unique talent who went against type, and he figured out how to craft a unique, exciting defense around him. When Martin was fired, Darrell Hazell took over and rode basically two unique, smaller-than-prototype talents (Nix and Archer) to basically Kent State’s only good season in the 40-plus years since Nick Saban, Jack Lambert, and Gary Pinkel graduated.

Sometimes, though, you don’t need a little guy to start the fights. One of my favorite defenses in recent memory was Ole Miss’ 2014 Land Shark defense, one that finished second in Def. S&P+.

By Hugh Freeze’s third year in Oxford, he had begun to compile the talent necessary to achieve pretty solid heights in the SEC West. (Yes, I know the lengths he went to to acquire such talent. But however it came together, it was fun as hell to watch.) But it wasn’t just the talent that stood out; it was the personality.

Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack’s group was fast and mean, and to me, it started in the middle, where you had one of the more creatively awesome pairs of defensive tackles you’ll ever see. First, you had Denzel Nkemdiche, the all-world recruit and human propellor blade. It seemed that half the time, his job wasn’t to follow the ball or even pay attention to the play — it was simply to destroy an opposing interior lineman. Maybe two.

Next to Nkemdiche, however, resided a Randy White type. Isaac Gross played nose tackle at 240 pounds, and while Nkemdiche was leaving bodies strewn about, Gross was bursting into the backfield. He and 220-pound end Marquis Haynes combined for 17 tackles for loss. This was a unit that was supposed to be too small for big, bad SEC power offenses. And in case there wasn’t enough speed in the equation, nickel back Tony Conner (who was nearly as big as Haynes) added another nine TFLs.

In all, Ole Miss racked up 99 TFLs (11th in FBS, with six of the 10 teams above them playing more games) and ranked 10th in havoc rate (TFLs, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays). At most, half of the defense would have been considered of average size for their position. Even Nkemdiche was listed under 300 pounds. But this was still nearly the best defense in the country. It left opponents hungover, too — of eight SEC foes, six lost their next games after playing the Rebels, and a seventh (Vanderbilt) damn near lost to UMass the week after.

Creating havoc is a shortcut of sorts in college football. The top 15 teams in havoc rate this season had an average five-year recruiting ranking of 33rd but an average Def. S&P+ ranking of 14th.

2017 Havoc Rate top 15

Team Havoc Def. S&P+ 5 Yr Rec
Team Havoc Def. S&P+ 5 Yr Rec
Michigan 1 10 19
Wisconsin 2 3 34
Ohio State 3 8 2
Alabama 4 1 1
Clemson 5 2 12
Virginia Tech 6 9 28
Mississippi State 7 19 25
Troy 8 17 104
Arkansas State 9 56 95
Northwestern 10 23 48
Penn State 11 12 21
South Florida 12 28 59
Miami-FL 13 22 17
LSU 14 18 3
Appalachian State 15 24 107

Take out four elite recruiters from that bunch (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and LSU), and the point becomes even clearer: the remaining 11 high-havoc defenses averaged 51st in five-year recruiting and 20th in Def. S&P+. Only one top-15 havoc defense ranked outside of the Def. S&P+ top 30 (Arkansas State), and even the Red Wolves (95th in five-year recruiting, 56th in Def. S&P+) drastically overachieved their recruiting rankings.

Now, there are a lot of ways to create havoc, starting from the front of the defense, the back, the edge, the middle, wherever. You don’t have to go find an undersized chaos agent and sic him on opposing offensive guards.

But I’ll sure enjoy it if you do. I do wish we saw more of the street fighter types, guys whose job it was to throw off the offense’s plans, job responsibilities, and blocking schemes no matter where the ball ended up going. Gotta figure that when you have the scariest guy on the field, you’re gonna win more often than not, whether he’s 210, 240, 270, or 300 pounds.