Should Oregon Switch to the 4-3 Defense? A Coach’s Perspective

My friends–the Grizzled Ol’ Coach, Mike Morris, has some superb information concerning a potential conversion to a 4-3 defense at Oregon. Some of you will need to brace yourselves as you will read some things that you will NOT like or agree with, and in compromise for his shared wisdom, I retained them.  They are his views, not mine.  -Charles Fischer

In a recent article on 247 sports, Justin Hopkins quoted recent Duck commit Gary Baker saying that Oregon coaches told him they were planning on running four down linemen [in their base defense] next year.  Hmm.  Let’s talk about this.

First, let me establish some strongly-held beliefs from a guy who coordinated defenses for 30 years and has studied defenses for 50 years:

Nowadays, there are no secrets, and NO magical defensive schemes that confound offensive opponents and render all their plays useless.  Further, there is NO defensive coordinator, at any level, that can significantly change the effectiveness of his team’s defense except by having vastly superior players.

If today’s offensive teams don’t commit turnovers and/or commit penalties, they’re almost impossible to stop, even if the defensive players are better than their offensive counterparts.

All a defensive team can hope to do is maximize its players’ abilities.  That brings us to switching to the 4-3 front.  My favorite axiom is: It’s not WHAT you do, but HOW you do it.  Every defensive scheme has won championships and looked brilliant at times – and been thoroughly shredded.  But what scheme is best for the specific personnel of  the 2015 Oregon Ducks?  I’m thinkin’ 4-3, because it would better emphasize the strengths and negate the weaknesses of next year’s Ducks.

Let’s have some fun and see who would play what:


Tony Washington lining up at defensive end.


Let’s start with the two guys who’d benefit the most by this change: current linebackers Torrodney Prevot and Christian French.  They’d go from being mediocre 3-4 OLBs to excellent 4-3 DEs.  Both are gifted as pass rushers, but lousy out in space.  In the 4-3 they could concentrate solely on wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield.

Who else?  6’6″ and fast, T.J. Daniel got rave reviews as a pass rusher when he redshirted, but wasn’t physical enough as a 3-4 DE.  6’7″ freshman Jalen Jelks could be a heck of an outside pass rusher.  Henry Mondeaux would also do, if he isn’t switched to TE.  Now freshman Gus Cumberlander doesn’t seem so thin as a 4-3 DE.

In the future, the easiest position at which to recruit quality players is 4-3 DE.  Every high school puts its stud at defensive RE and tells him to go kill the QB.  But almost all those studs never play in space in high school, and have a hard time transitioning into 3-4 OLBs.

Austin Malaota getting ready to rush.

Austin Malaota getting ready to rush.


Obviously we start with DeForest Buckner.  DTs in a 4-3 have to be able to play the 1 and 3 techniques.  Certainly no problem for DeForest.  He’d get to penetrate, as opposed to controlling the blocker, which he was asked to do in the 4 technique of the 3-4.  DeForest would be Oregon’s equivalent of ASU’s Will Sutton or SC’s Leonard Williams.  And then be an All-American and drafted in the 1st round.

Alex Balducci would start initially because of his experience, and that would be fine; he improved a lot at the end of last season, and would benefit from not playing the NT/0 technique.  BUT we all hope Canton Kaumatule is the beast we’re hoping for.  Wouldn’t that be a beautiful 6’7″ Hawaiian duet?  DeForest and Canton crashing into the backfield.

And we could keep the bad-ass Polynesians coming and attacking, with Tui Talia, Austin Maloata, and freshman Rex Manu. Wow, that’s such a beautiful thing to imagine.

As you’ve probably noticed excellent DTs – guys that weigh at least 290 and can still move quickly – are the hardest players to find.  Well, our coaches have found a bunch, including stud freshmen Drayton Carlberg and Gary Baker.

Now the Ducks have to assert this recruited physicality on opposing offenses by attacking with a 4-3.  No more “bend, don’t break.”  The less time Duck opponents’ defenders get to rest, the better it is for Oregon’s offensive effectiveness. A strived-for goal for all defensive teams is to be able to bring consistent pressure on the passer without blitzing.  The 2015 Ducks could achieve that goal.


Joe Walker analyzing the opposing offense.

Joe Walker analyzing the opposing offense.

Well, that was fun – looking at the potential linemen.  Now, looking at the LBs, not so much.  The good and bad news is that almost every one returns.  Never has a team had as successful a season with worse LB play than last year’s Ducks.  Aside from some big plays from Joe Walker, the Duck LBs were mediocre at best.

ILB techniques in the 4-3 are essentially the same as in the 3-4.  So there should definitely be improvement in Joe Walker, Danny Mattingly, and Rodney Hardrick.  The 4th ILB will probably be Jimmie Swain or Johnny Ragin.  Unless a JC guy:  Paris Bostick or Jonah Moi surprises.

Playing ILB – reading offensive sets and plays correctly and tackling talented players in space — is very HARD.  Kiko made a huge improvement his senior year.  Michael Clay was a freak.  Here’s hoping . . . While not spectacular or NFL-worthy, this could be a very “solid” group.  Definitely not hurt by the switch to the 4-3.


Linebacker Christian French getting ready for a showdown against Stanford.

Linebacker Christian French getting ready for a showdown against Stanford.

Well, there’d only be one of them.  The OLB in a 4-3 can be more of a strong safety type.  Tyson Coleman would start as that guy.  While he’s  been inconsistent, Tyson, unlike the other OLBs, plays better in space than at the line of scrimmage.  He should do well in the 4-3.

The guy I’m excited about at this position is Justin Hollins.  He seems to be that rare high school DE who can immediately play well in space.  Fast, long, and tough, Hollins could have a very good career as an OLB.

Johnny Ragin is better qualified to be an OLB than an ILB, but he might be needed more inside.

Eddie Heard certainly sounds good as an OLB.

An interesting 4-3 difference:  Freshman Fotu Leitao [5’11”, 200] would be an excellent fit as a 4-3 OLB.  But he’d be too small for a 3-4 OLB, and have to aggressively play safety. Although Troy Polamalu has played safety for many years with an OLB mentality.

The secondary wouldn’t be affected by the change to the 4-3.

Well, that’s it.    A change in defensive scheme could be very exciting and something to watch for when Spring Football begins on March 30th.

Coach Mike Morris
Oregon Football Analyst for the CFF Network/
Pleasant Hill, Oregon

Top photo credit: Kevin Cline

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Coach Morris

Coach Morris

Coach Mike Morris spent 30 years coaching at seven different high schools throughout Southern California. He coached many players who went on to Pac-12 programs including Oregon, such as Saladin McCullough. He is a writer, Football analyst and a good friend of the Principal of the site.

  • goober mcsnee

    This makes total sense. I am sick to death of the bend don’t break mentality and we suck at linebacker but have a wealth of defensive linemen who could tear it up if they were let loose!

  • JB

    By moving to a 43, they would lose size up front, if they were to move the 34 OLB’s to their hand in the dirt. And the 43 is more of a bend but don’t break, the 34 has the ability to be aggressive when they want. They need to to zone blitz MORE, which means a move to the 43 would be meaningless. And Fotu Leiato is definitely a SS, like Troy he will come up to cover the hot area in a Fire Zone Blitz (3 high, 3 low). And sometimes even blitz him which would be very fun to watch haha. I hope they stay with the 34.

  • berrygraham

    Hey Coach Morris – what do you think about the Ducks keeping the 34, but using a bigger SS in an LB-esque role, like Todd Bowles did last year with Deone Bucannon? Would this allow Pellum the flex allowing one of the OLBs to line up at end as the call required? Would Leiato or Bostick fit this description, as they are about the same size as Bucannon?

  • Eric

    I think it’d be cool if they went to a TCU style of 4-2-5. It’s amazing what TCU can do with the players they get. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on their 4-2-5 and it’s really intriguing.


    Well if Oregon Coach’s did say they would be flirting with a 4-3 Defense then that’s more than likely true. Oregon Coach’s unlike other Pac 12 Coach”s don’t blow smoke up Recruits Arsses they tell them exactly what they need to here if they want to play for Oregon. I was thinking this would be a good move into the future because the LB play still isn’t good enough to consistently be good in a 3-4 and that is really sad if you think about how bad Oregon does in recruiting LB’s.

    • BigBallzChipper

      *hear (not trying to harp you fellow duck)

  • BigBallzChipper

    Dear Coach,
    This is very interesting and I can see why we would want to do this. Also the TCU point & Zone 3-5-3 (I think) they run is interesting too.