The 3-3-5 started creeping into the college football landscape following the 2017 Iowa State campaign that saw them go 8-5. In ‘16, the Cyclones had a newly appointed Head Coach in Toledo’s Matt Campbell and struggled to match the talent in the Big 12, especially on defense, going 3-9. Defensive Coordinator John Heacock and Campbell knew something had to change.
Iowa is not a recruiting hotbed, and Iowa State is considered the little brother to Iowa, losing many battles for the top talent in the state. The Cyclones needed to maximize the hybrid talent they had on their roster and create a unique defense that would challenge the Air Raid systems within the league. Before the schematic switch in ‘17, Heacock had been a base 4-3 coach. That wouldn’t cut it with the talent on the roster and the offense in the league. So in the offseason, the Cyclone Stack was born.
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Ironically, Oklahoma would have a historical offensive year in ‘18 on the back of Heisman winner Baker Mayfield (Panthers) and under the tutelage of USC’s current Head Coach Lincoln Riley. Oklahoma State would also have a tremendous offensive year, finishing behind the Sooners in OFEI (BCFToys). But, the Sooners’ only loss in the regular season came to the Cyclones 31-38. The Cyclones would finish 28th in DFEI, and people around the Big 12 were starting to take notice.
My first experience with the system came at February’s Lone Star Clinic (‘18). Following a 10-4 season where Gundy felt the defense held them back, he moved on from Glenn Spencer and replaced him with Ohio State’s current DC, Jim Knowles. Safety Coach Dan Hammerschmidt had the task of doing a defensive clinic talk without knowing exactly what the Cowboy defense would look like. Instead, he told the coaches in attendance that something was going on in Ames; their defense was unique, and Gundy hated it.
Though Iowa State went 7-6 in ‘19, they had close games with the top teams in the league. Coaches around the country were taking notice and trying to reverse engineer the Iowa States defense. Inspired by the Cyclones, Baylor made a wholesale switch to the Odd Stack after they struggled to a 7-6 in ‘18. Even Georgia was studying the concepts. Fast-forward to 2022, and numerous teams are featuring the 3-3-5, even in the vaunted SEC!
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Looking at current college football efficiency ratings, you will see multiple Big 12 3-High teams in the top 25: Iowa State, Kansas State, TCU, and Tech. The defense has become part of the fabric for many teams that can get hybrid players and develop them. In leagues such as the Big 12, American, and many other G5 conferences, the diversity of offensive schematics lends itself to the system.
The scheme first developed as an “Air Raid” killer has become a suitable concept for many teams to use as their base defense. Even the SEC, which features NFL talent on every roster, has seen teams turn to the 3-high system to match the offensive evolution in that league. As a result, half the league is in the country’s top 25 of the most efficient offense. One of the best examples of the scheme receiving legitimacy was how teams played the ‘19 LSU Tigers’ historic offense. Even Georgia experimented with the Odd Stack alignments after watching Auburn use a variation of the scheme to hold the Tigers to 23 points (by far their lowest total of the year).
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Once thought of as a gimmick, it is now a mainstay in the college football landscape. As I wrote in Hybrids, following the ‘18 season, the cyclical nature of the football would eventually lead to offenses moving away from four-open formations and back to bigger packages. In ‘22, many offenses at the higher levels are creating 12 personnel packages that feature a WR and a blocking TE. The evolution is similar to the last two times the defense got the jump on the offensive side of the ball.
In the ‘80s, the Hybrid Fire Zone 3-4 became all the rage, and Lawrence “LT” Taylor changed the game forever. The EDGE position was in its infancy, and the sack was king. So teams began drafting and developing rush ends. To counter the Giants’ LT, Washington Head Coach Joe Gibbs invented the H-back or moving TE position. The H-back allowed the receiving WR to escape into a route while the H-back did the dirty work on the Fire Zone pressures.
In the 2000s, the Tampa 2 defense overtook the NFL to counter the passing attacks. Defenses within this scheme needed lightning-quick LBs and D-linemen to attack the pass. A result of this was the defenses, in essence, got smaller. The natural answer to a lighter package for offenses is to get big, as the NFL regressed into its three-yards-and-a-cloud of days.
We now sit in a time where the Spread has won, but the defense is using hybrid schemes to counter. Modern offenses are going with 12 pers. to place the defense into difficult personnel decisions. At the NFL level, many defenses are packaged base, and offenses take advantage by using 12 pers. looks to run Spread concepts. At the college level, TEs are becoming increasingly important. The best example of this is Georgia, which features Soph. sensation Brock Bowers (#19) and the massive Darnell Washington (#0) sitting at 6-7 270.
Ole Miss vs Kentucky
The trickle-down of the McVay/Shannahan offense that features 11 and 12 pers. groupings with pre-snap motion and a Wide Zone run game have begun. An excellent study of how 3-High defenses choose to attack the Pro-Style attack from the NFL was seen in October, as Ole Miss defeated Kentucky, whose last OC is currently with the Rams, and this year’s OC, Rich Scangarello, hails from the 49ers.
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