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OSU’s defense gets back to basics

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With the hire of Jim Knowles from Duke, Oklahoma State is making the sort of “let’s just keep it simple” move that propelled their last defensive rise.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Virginia Tech Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season was one of the first in a while in which Oklahoma State wasn’t on the cutting edge of new developments around the Big 12. Their offense was brilliant as always, with senior QB Mason Rudolph throwing for nearly 5k yards and 37 TDs while WRs James Washington and Marcel Ateman both went over 1k receiving yards with 13 yards per target and lead RB Justice Hill ran for another 1467 yards.

Oklahoma State has been dropping eye-opening stats for this entire decade with four seasons in which their QB threw for 4k yards (Brandon Weeden in 2010 and 2011, Rudolph in 2016 and 2017). They have a better run/pass balance than most teams in college football due to their “spread-I” formations and creative use of RPOs, traditional play-action, versatile TEs, and zone running. Yet despite all those gaudy numbers and five top 10 S&P+ offenses this decade, they have a single B12 title and no national championships or playoff appearances. Why? Defense, they haven’t played good defense since the early part of the decade.

Mike Gundy has now moved to try and rectify that issue by hiring Duke DC and David Cutcliffe assistant Jim Knowles to coach the Oklahoma State defense.

Oklahoma State’s journey on defense

Mike Gundy’s career as a head coach looks very similar to that of other offensive-minded head coaches, with lots of turnover at DC and lots of unsuccessful hires:

Gundy’s Cowboys

Year W-L Offensive S&P+ ranking Defensive S&P+ ranking Class ranking per 247 Defensive coordinator
Year W-L Offensive S&P+ ranking Defensive S&P+ ranking Class ranking per 247 Defensive coordinator
2005 4-7 (1-7) 84th 65th 47th (9th) Vance Bedford
2006 7-6 (3-5) 16th 53rd 18th (4th) Vance Bedford
2007 7-6 (4-4) 2nd 71st 25th (4th) Tim Beckman
2008 9-4 (5-3) 5th 78th 32nd (5th) Tim Beckman
2009 9-4 (6-2) 48th 20th 34th (5th) Bill Young
2010 11-2 (6-1) 5th 38th 29th (5th) Bill Young
2011 12-1 (8-1) 1st 21st 25th (4th) Bill Young
2012 8-5 (5-4) 8th 43rd 31st (6th) Bill Young
2013 10-3 (7-2) 20th 9th 31st (5th) Glenn Spencer
2014 7-6 (4-5) 78th 76th 27th (4th) Glenn Spencer
2015 10-3 (7-2) 19th 70th 40th (7th) Glenn Spencer
2016 10-3 (7-2) 9th 67th 45th (7th) Glenn Spencer
2017 10-3 (6-3) 3rd 70th 38th (4th) Glenn Spencer

Looking at Gundy’s tenure as a whole, there was a single stretch of consistently productive defensive play that overlaps nearly perfectly with Bill Young’s time as the defensive coordinator in Stillwater. Now Glenn Spencer was there coaching up Young’s LBs (very effectively too) for the entirety of that stretch and Spencer coordinated the veteran 2013 defense that Young left him to the best year by any Gundy-era defense.

Then OSU graduated multi-year starters at MLB, SLB, FS, SS, CB, and their dime package DBs and never recovered from that exodus in any of the four seasons since.

The recruiting rankings have slipped some towards the latter end of this decade but they weren’t particularly predictive of OSU success in previous years. It’s clear enough that Gundy has struggled to field teams that play title-caliber defense when Bill Young wasn’t around to coach them.

Bill Young’s contribution

Before Bill Young arrived, Oklahoma State was trying to play a multiple, disguise-heavy, and blitzing style of defense against the rapidly evolving offenses in the Big 12. It was not going terribly well but Gundy recognized an opportunity to change things by stealing Bill Young away from a Kansas team that had just gone 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in a historic season under HC Mark Mangino. Incidentally, Kansas then fell apart in following years without Young around.

Young made two significant changes to the OSU defense, first scrapping much of the disguise and multiplicity in favor of simpler schemes and secondly installing a base 4-3 package that featured a hybrid as the “star” or strong side linebacker. For the majority of Glenn Spencer’s tenure that role was executed by fiery little Shaun Lewis, a 5-11, 220 pound spark that owned the flats and the perimeter where Big 12 offenses were accustomed to feasting.

Even through the Glenn Spencer era that position remained consistent with Oklahoma State routinely favoring LB/S hybrids in that role and then coverages such as cloud quarters or cover 3 in which they’d be funneling the slot receiver up to a safety while forcing the edge.

Those cloud coverages necessitated that Oklahoma State play a strong safety behind the “star” who could pick up a slot and carry them in deep coverage and it also put pressure on the cornerback against play-action and RPO plays that would trigger the star to attack the edge and leave the defense in 1-on-1s against the offense:

Against your standard weak inside zone play with a pass option attached (a bubble screen here) the Cowboys would look to play downhill at linebacker and spill the ball to that star LB supporting from the edge while deferring coverage responsibility to the strong safety and the cornerbacks.

Or against play-action of the sort that OSU has used to feast on defenses:

The design of the coverage allowed the LBs to attack the run aggressively but at the cost of leaving the DBs in tough spots. Mason Rudolph threw countless TDs to James Washington against other teams in this coverage on the post route when the strong safety would get sucked in picking up the dig route run behind the LBs.

Those soft spot were what pushed Spencer to mix in a lot more cover 3 and also some three-down packages and other schemes that would allow him to mix and match trade-offs and try to protect his players with disguise and multiplicity while hopefully forcing turnovers. The secondary just didn’t hold up in this system.

From Glenn Spencer’s 4-3 to Jim Knowles’ 4-2

Knowles has run a 4-2-5 for the last few years at Duke and one that relies on a different brand of quarters coverage from Spencer and OSU. Instead of using a S/LB hybrid in the “star” position that plays the edge aggressively, Knowles and the Duke Blue Devils were using a S/C hybrid at the nickel that had more of a coverage oriented role.

So against the same kind of inside zone/bubble screen spread-option play the Blue Devils would handle it like this:

The key differences are that both safeties play everything more flat-footed, the corners play a good deal more press-man outside like Michigan State used to under Pat Narduzzi, and the nickel “covers down” on the slot rather than reading the line for a key telling him to support the run. The result is a structure in which the defense gives up a little bit of leverage inside in order to avoid run/pass conflicts down the field.

Here’s how it would look against OSU’s dig-post play-action play:

That strong safety would be reading the receivers and trying to split the deep routes while the nickel ensured that the slot wouldn’t be running free on the dig route. The free safety might take a step against the run but his deep alignment would still allow him to play as inside help for the corner.

This kind of 4-2 quarters scheme is probably the best base defense to play of today’s world of anti-spread, four-down structure. If the DC is looking for something that is simple, sound against anything, and relies more on help defense than individual star play this is a more sturdy structure. The corners are isolated down the sidelines but they have help inside, the LBs can still play aggressively because of the dual-safety run support, and the nickel focuses on preventing the offense from snatching up found money on the perimeter with throws to the slot. This is the base defense that Auburn has leaned on to help them unlock their athleticism and play top 10 defense the last two years under Kevin Steele.

Here’s the Duke five-man secondary which helped the Blue Devils finish 41st in defensive S&P+, 34th against the run, and 22nd against the pass:

Duke’s 2017 secondary

Position Player Origin Production
Position Player Origin Production
Field corner Mark Gilbert: 6-1, 175. Soph 3-star from NC 6 INT, 14 BUs
Star/Nickel Jeremy McDuffie: 5-11, 175. Junior 3-star from GA 4th leading tackler, 3 INT, 9 BUs
Strong safety Jordan Hayes: 6-0, 180. RS Soph 3-star from GA 7 BUs
Free safety Alonzo Saxton II: 5-11, 180. Senior 3-star from OH 2nd leading tackler, 10 run stuffs
Boundary corner Bryon Fields, Jr: 5-11, 185. RS Senior 3-star from NC 3 INT, 7 BUs

And here was OSU’s four-man secondary and hybrid star, who finished 70th in S&P+ on defense, 36th against the run, and 41st against the pass:

OSU’s 2017 secondary

Position Player Origin Production
Position Player Origin Production
Field corner AJ Green: 6-1, 180. Soph 3-star from DFW TX 4 INT, 5 BUs
Star/Nickel Calvin Bundage: 6-2, 205. Soph 3-star from OK 3 sacks, 10 run stuffs
Strong safety Ramon Richards: 5-11, 185. RS Senior 3-star from SA TX 3rd leading tackler, 2 INT, 11 BUs
Free safety Tre Flowers: 6-3, 200. RS Senior 3-star from SA TX Leading tackler, 2 INT, 8 BUs
Boundary corner Rodarius Williams: 6-0, 180. RS Frosh 3-star from LA 10 BUs

The Blue Devils had similar recruiting stories but they were more pass-oriented, and more effective overall despite being younger and smaller. Duke was paced more by their linebackers while playing a more conservative defensive structure while OSU was more aggressive but still ended up relying on their free safety to lead the team in tackles.

Better program fit and the new best practice on defense

That’s how I’d sum up this hire for Mike Gundy and the ‘Pokes. The Oklahoma State offense is all about economy of concepts and using tempo and the stress of balance and spacing to set up the Cowboys to consistently out-execute their opponents. They go find good athletes with upside on offense every year, develop them over time in their base concepts, and then go whip up on people.

On defense they have a similarly good development track but have tried to rely on multiplicity rather than simplicity to carry their water and it’s gone terribly wrong for them. Jim Knowles represents the same kind of move they made when they hired Bill Young, emphasizing simplicity and pressure on defense to force the offense where they don’t want to go (down the sidelines or underneath in Knowles’ defense). If you can beat them, more power to you, but their focus is more on chemistry and soundness than disguise.

If Oklahoma State can consistently play top 40 defense or better then that could raise the ceiling for what this program might achieve with Gundy’s consistently excellent offenses. Knowles isn’t a sexy hire but he might be the right one to guarantee that another elite offense isn’t wasted.