Coaches Comments: An Inside Look at the Brady Hoke Defense

Coach Morris Analysis, Fish Reports

As a retired high school football coach, I had the opportunity on a Thursday night (3-31) to hear Brady Hoke speak at the Oregon Coaches’ Clinic, and the next morning I got to watch my one-and-only practice of the season. I thought I would share what I noted, and what you might want to look for at the Oregon Spring Game.

Some learnings:


Brady can certainly “talk the talk.” He enthusiastically displayed the macho rhetoric of a typical defensive line coach. Jerry Azzinaro and Ed Orgeron would have loved it, and having that tough-talking voice lead the Oregon defense could definitely be a very good thing. I really believe:

“A team will reflect the personality of its coach.” 

I was even more impressed by Hoke’s emphasis on the attention to (seemingly small) details. Rah-rah rhetoric in a bad teacher is worthless. At the practice I was very impressed by how the entire defensive staff precisely taught their new defense. Don Pellum seemed more enthusiastic than I ever remember. Ron Aiken and John Neal have always been great teachers – but there was, perhaps, a bit more enthusiasm in their education of different players doing different things.

If coach Hoke’s players can “walk the walk,” have a bad-ass identity, an intimidating swagger … If they could fulfill Hoke’s – and the fans’ – dreams of a physically-dominating, turnover-creating defense, all-important team confidence and better recruiting would follow.


Coach Hoke briefly talked about his 4-3 defense at the clinic, and then I was able to see much of it for myself at the practice. His base is the “4-3 under” front he used at Michigan, and the Ducks ran a VERY similar 4-3 coordinated by Nick Aliotti [with Pellum], until Azzinaro and Chip Kelly convinced Nick to change to a 3-4. I’ll cover some of the base 4-3 here, but the Ducks ran stuff at practice that Hoke didn’t talk about, and there are sure to be a lot more “tweaks” to come.

The diagram shows the  base 4-3 defense, with a “Left” call:

The 4-3 Under Defense at Oregon.

Created by Coach Ryan Mitchell

The 4-3 Under Defense at Oregon.

The front 7 is composed of two different groups: the SAM [Strongside Linebacker], the END, the MIKE [Middle Linebacker], and NOSE [Nose tackle] are the strong group (four defenders) that line up to the side of the call. The other group: the TACKLE, the RUSH [end], and the WILL [Weakside Linebacker] go to the side opposite the call.

It can be confusing to a fan when it is announced as a “4-3” defense, but as you see in the illustration, there are five defenders on the LOS. Those who have a hand on the ground, the defensive linemen, are what is counted. In the diagram above, you see the SAM linebacker on the LOS, but he is standing up and is to defend the outside perimeter and is located on the LOS due to the presence of a tight end.

The call, determines where the strong side group aligns, and it will either be a FIELD call, or STRENGTH call coming from the defensive coordinator. With a field call the strong group will align to the wide side of the field, while with a strength call, (based upon strength of formation) you will see the strong group align to the TE side of the offense regardless of where on the field.

In the first week, Hoke used only field calls, so the defenders could get more quickly aligned and focused. Also with field calls, the defense doesn’t have to shift the front if the offense shifts the strength of its formation.

BASE PERSONNEL    [Who does what?]

END: [Strongside DE]

The END aligns on the outside shoulder of the call-side tackle (see “E” in diagram), and uses a 5-technique [I will talk about the specifics of the techniques in another article.] Physically, he’s like a typical 3-4 DE and is stout enough to take on the TEs and double-teams.

Duck candidates at END include:

Henry Mondeaux

The 4-3 Under Defense at Oregon.

Created by Coach Ryan Mitchell

The 4-3 Under Defense at Oregon.

TJ Daniel

Gus Cumberlander

NOSE: [Nose Tackle]

The NOSE aligns on the call-side shoulder of the center, and uses a 1-technique. (See “N” in the diagram) He’s typically huge but not very tall, like a 3-4 NT.

They include:

Austin Maloata

Gary Baker

Wayne Kirby [in the fall]


The TACKLE aligns on the outside shoulder of the guard opposite the call-side, and uses a 3-technique (See “T” in the diagram). He is bigger than an END and faster and usually taller than a NT:


Rex Manu

Canton Kaumatule

Drayton Carlberg

Elijah George

Eventually, the DTs will have to be able to switch responsibilities if the offense shifts its strength.

RUSH:  [End]

The RUSH aligns, in a 3-point stance, in a “ghost 6”-technique [where a TE would be if there was a TE] (See “R” in diagram). The defense wants RUSH to the open [non-TE] side because he’s primarily a pass rusher – smaller and faster than the END. RUSH must also be able to drop into coverage on a zone blitz.


Torrodney Prevot

Jalen Jelks

Justin Hollins

Eddie Heard

SAM:  [Strongside Linebacker]

The 4-3 Under Defense at Oregon.

Created by Coach Ryan Mitchell

The 4-3 Under Defense at Oregon.

The SAM aligns just outside the TE, usually slightly deeper than the line of scrimmage (See “S” in diagram) as some coaches make reference to his alignment as a “wide 9.” The SAM and WILL LBs must eventually be interchangeable in their responsibilities, and because of all the spread formations, they both have to be fast and athletic defenders in space. Big safeties make ideal OLBs as SAMs or WILLs.



Jimmie Swain

Jonah Moi

Eric Briscoe

Troy Dye

Paris Bostick

WILL:  [Weakside Linebacker]

The WILL is an OLB similar to the SAM physically (See “W” in diagram). He plays more inside than SAM, in a “40 alignment” over the tackle in the base 4-3 but doesn’t have to be as physically strong as MIKE (A LB alignment is a defensive lineman’s technique with a zero added). A 4-technique for the line is head-on the offensive tackle, so a “40 alignment” [a better word than “technique”for a LB] is head-on the tackle at LB depth.


Johnny Ragin

De’Quan McDowell

Darrian Franklin

Kaulana Apelu

MIKE:  [Middle Linebacker]

This is the classic MLB. He doesn’t have to have the speed or pass coverage skills of SAM and WILL but must be a stud 1-on-1 tackler [Aligns over the call side guard] (See “M” in diagram).


Danny Mattingly

AJ Hotchkins

Keith Simms [in the fall]

The Secondary

Ugo Amadi returns in the secondary.

Kevin Cline

Ugo Amadi preserves the victory over the Huskies.

The secondary is what you’d expect, personnel wise.

At the clinic, Hoke said that they’d only worked on a quarter-quarter-half zone coverage for the first two days. That means the wide-side corner and safety each have deep responsibility for 1/4 of the field. The short-side safety has deep responsibility for the other 1/2 of the field, and the short-side corner has the short outside [flat] zone.

The base defense in the secondary is a 4-shell [with two high safeties], and at the practice, they did some work on man coverage.

Expect a lot of zone blitzes, if the front four can’t bring sufficient pressure. Hoke’s major emphasis in his talk was on creating negative plays [TFLs = tackles for loss]. No more “Bend, but Don’t Break.”

“Be the PREDATOR, not the prey” was Hoke’s favorite mantra.

Remember. the practice I saw was only the third of the spring, and coach Hoke didn’t provide much depth of information in his clinic presentation. I’m sure a whole lot of stuff has been added, but in the spring game, you’ll only see the basic stuff.

I left that spring practice thinking …

“Duck fans are gonna have a lot of fun watching their defense this season.”

Mike Morris
Football Analyst for Networks
Pleasant Hill, Oregon

Top Photo by Kevin Cline

Do check the surprising analysis article about the 4-3 versus the 3-4 defense here

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