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On Maryland's Possible Oncoming Transition to the 3-4

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There's a good chance that Brian Stewart, formerly the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Cougars, will be introduced today as Maryland's replacement for Todd Bradford, although I could see it waiting until tomorrow or even longer if there are any negotiation issues. We know how miserly that Kevin Anderson can be with his contract negotiations, after all.

When Stewart is introduced, we'll get our answer to the biggest question surrounding him: will he bring his 3-4 scheme to College Park? He ran it at Dallas. He ran it at Houston, transitioning from a 4-3 in the process. He's a 3-4 lifer. Will the change be coming here, too?

It's a good question, and I'm sure the answer will largely define much of his success in College Park, one way or the other. It's proven controversial for Maryland fans, who rightfully look at the Terrapins' roster and wonder where the fit is. Stewart, of course, has two options here, and they're exactly what you think they are: he could keep with his current 3-4 scheme, or he could adapt to the 4-3 personnel already in place. If he chooses the latter option, this post is basically moot and I just wrote 2000 words for naught.

If he sticks with the 3-4, though ... well, its new to us, is it not? If you're wondering how exactly the Terrapins will transition to the new scheme, what to expect out of a 3-4 compared to a 4-3, who on the current roster does (or doesn't?) fit, or just want to know the basic differences between positional responsibilities, we've got you covered. Let's get to it, post-jump.

The Basics

The positives of the 3-4 is that it gets more athletes on the field at once and is a faster and more fluid scheme than the 4-3, making it much more difficult to predict or diagnose. 3-4's at the college level tend to emphasize athleticism and rack up sacks and turnovers in bunches.

The problem is that it can be tough to find the personnel to do it properly. Because you have one less guy at the point of attack, the front seven in the 3-4 has to be much bigger than it is in the 4-3. That's not too bad in the NFL, but in college most guys with the size to play in the 3-4 lack the technical skill of their 4-3 compatriots, and if they don't they have an absurd number of big offers. So for a team like Maryland that usually can't compete with Alabama, Florida, and the like, that can prove problematic. If they don't have the personnel to run the 3-4, the opposition will likely control the line of scrimmage, and might just run over them entirely.

Like any defense, there are different subsets and looks within the 3-4. The primary split is between one-gap (that is, each defensive lineman is responsible for one gap in the offensive line) and two-gap (that is, each defensive lineman is responsible for two gaps in the offensive line) looks. The Pittsburgh Steelers run a two-gap set, as do the New England Patriots, but it requires massive and talented defensive linemen. It's likely that Stewart will be bringing the one-gap look he ran at Dallas, and in truth it makes much more sense to do as most players are going to be a bit smaller anyway.

But I don't want to oversimplify this: as with any defense, there are going to be multiple looks within Stewart's defense. Sometimes he'll do one-gap. Sometimes it'll be two-gap. Sometimes he'll go with a traditional 4-3. And sometimes there will be a 3-3-5 or a regular nickel or dime package. The base look will be what's used the majority of the time, but expect a fair amount of variation within all that.

Stewart has historically tried to emphasize speed and aggression in his schemes, often as a way to compensate for smaller players at the point of attack. This is good and should fit the roster Maryland has in place, and might make the transition a little easier. If you're looking another in-depth at the scheme Stewart is likely to run, I'd suggest taking a look at this piece at Scardraft that breaks down the Phillips 3-4 with aplomb.

Nose Tackle

Probably the most important piece of the 3-4 puzzle, nose tackles usually are required to eat up two blockers and anchor the middle of the line against the run. Have a subpar NT, and the whole thing can fall to pieces. As such, the NT needs to be both big and strong, usually well upwards of 300 pounds. Maryland, being a one-gap system in the ACC, can probably get away with a NT around 300 or so. It helps if they have enough athleticism to frighten interior linemen, but the size is the most important thing.

This is my biggest concern for Maryland's transition: they lack anyone who could be described as a real space eater on the inside. Joe Vellano, at 285, isn't big enough; neither is Andre Monroe at 275. A.J. Francis comes the closest: he was at 315 when he came into College Park and while he's only at 295 now, he could probably bulk up to a little over 300. That's far from ideal, but it's what we have.

Francis, being a senior, needs to find a replacement immediately. One option is Darius Kilgo, who came into Maryland's program upwards of 300 but has slimmed down to 290. Another is a guy Maryland is currently recruiting hard, 2012 North Carolina defensive tackle D.J. Reader. The big fella from N.C. was 330 pounds his junior year in HS, and has only recently whittled himself down to 306. If he can get back up to 320 or so he'd be big enough to function as a NT at this level, and the ranking services really like his talent. He's an tank and would be able to compete right away with Kilgo to be the keystone of the defense.

Defensive End

I actually feel moderately confident on this mark. 3-4 ends are really like hybrid defensive tackles: they have to be effective against the rush, able to take on two blockers if needed, able to open up space for the rush 'backers behind them, and are usually anywhere between 270 and 300 pounds. The weakside end will need to be able to force the guard to help out on his side, while the strongside end is usually more of a traditional DE.

Vellano actually fits well. His size is good and he can stand up to both the run and the pass. I'm never a fan of changing positions for star players, and in fact this would probably kill his penetrative nature, but in this scheme his position is gone; he should fit on the outside just fine. Then there's Justin Anderson, who at 6-5 and 275 is the perfect size and has a great skillset for the spot. They'd be the odds-on favorites to start.

I guess this is where I should talk about Andre Monroe, who will likely be lost in the transition: he lacks the size to play in the middle, but is too short to play on the outside effectively. He'll probably get some spot duty at all three areas, but he's really not a great fit for the system.

As for recruiting, there's another huge prospect on the board in Korren Kirven, a DE/DT out of Virginia who is visiting Maryland sometime around now. His size is ideal at around 6-4 and 275, and while you could consider moving him inside, I'd rather him stay on the outside and be developed into a potentially elite 5-tech. Landing both he and Reader would be a fantastic start to building the core of this defense.

Outside Linebackers

The outside backers in the 3-4 are mostly responsible for the passing game; it's their job to either rush the passer or drop into coverage, and they don't have particularly significant rush responsibilities aside from keeping contain. They need to be athletic enough to drop into coverage as well as get to the passer, and strong enough to not be a liability in the ground game. There's actually some variance between what's expected out of the strong-side OLB and the weak-side OLB. The strong-side 'backer needs to be a bit more well-rounded, able to drop back into coverage against the tight end or stand up to running plays his way. The weak-side 'backer is usually the elite pass rusher like DeMarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman, an athletic freak who blitzes a ton and looks to rack up sacks.

I'm not quite sure who'd fill this hole for Maryland. It's almost as big a problem as the NT issue. The current linebackers don't have the athleticism or pass-rushing ability, while most of the defensive ends are too big to be dropping into coverage. I guess Isaiah Ross, who started at linebacker in College Park before moving down to DE, would be the best option, but I'm not sure I want him dropping into coverage. Then there are hyper-athletic 'tweeners like Ian Evans, Bradley Johnson, and Marcus Whitfield that aren't really proven at this level.

In recruiting, Maryland has brought in a ton of linebackers ... none of whom really fit this spot. A guy like Stefan Houston has the frame and athleticism needed, but he hardly cracks 200 pounds and will be overwhelmed at the point of attack. Other guys like Abner Logan and Brock Dean could probably be great strong-side 'backers but lack the elite instincts and athleticism of a great weak-side pass-rusher. There are two potentially elite options here in 2013, both local, in Dorian O'Daniel at Good Counsel and Jonathan Allen at Stone Bridge in northern Virginia. I'd expect Maryland to push hard for both.

Inside Linebackers

Interior 'backers in the 3-4 bear a lot of responsibilities for the running game. With the nose tackle in front of them protecting them from blockers, they need to be able to stuff the run game anywhere inside the tackles. One will usually try to protect the other from blockers, but they're pretty similar spots in terms of size and skillset. The ILBs need to be both big and quick, able to diagnose well, and sure tacklers. It's a demanding spot.

Good news is that I don't think most of the linebackers would have a huge problem adjusting. These two ILB spots are the most similar to the counterpart in the 4-3. Darin Drakeford is a great fit, and Demetrius Hartsfield shouldn't have any problems either. Alex Twine and Lorne Goree will both need to add bulk, Twine especially, but otherwise shouldn't have a huge problem.

As for the incoming guys, Dallas Griffiths should thrive. His size and diagnosing ability are both stand-outs for him, and will be well utilized in this scheme. Logan and Dean could work here, though they need to bulk up, but then again that's true of most college freshmen. I don't think any should be able to start right away, but they have lots of potential.

Utilized at Maryland

To finish things up, let's look at a potential lineup for the Terrapins:

SDE: Justin Anderson (Jr. / 6-5 / 275) - Anderson is a prototypical strong-side defensive end in this set. He's big enough to hold his own against the rush but also able to be penetrative if need be. He should fit into the role without much of a hitch. Primary backup: Keith Bowers (So. / 6-2 / 260)

NT: A.J. Francis (Sr. / 6-4 / 295) - He'll need to add weight, but Francis is the closest thing to a space-eater Maryland has. This is a physically demanding position, but Francis is by all accounts a hard worker and will relish the challenge. Primary backup: Darius Kilgo (So. / 6-3 / 290) Name for the future: D.J. Reader (Uncommitted '12 / 6-3 / 306)

WDE: Joe Vellano (Sr. / 6-2 / 285) - The weak-side end spot is more like a traditional DT, so Vellano will likely be a better fit here. He needs to eat up blockers and be disruptive in both the run and the pass, enough to draw an extra man and let the weak-side 'backers behind him roam free. Vellano should do well in this area. Primary backup: Andre Monroe (So. / 6-0 / 275) Name for the future: Korren Kirven (Uncommitted '12 / 6-4 / 275)

SOLB: Marcus Whitfield (Jr. / 6-3 / 230) - Whitfield could end up switching spots with Isaiah Ross at WOLB, as it's a bit tough to assess this: the SOLB is supposed to be able to drop back and cover the tight end, and I have much more faith in someone like Whitfield doing that than I do the bulkier Ross. This neutralizes Whitfield's pass-rushing ability, but it's the safer move. Primary backup: Bradley Johnson (Jr. / 6-1 / 220) Other names to consider: Darin Drakeford (Sr. / 6-0 / 240), Lorne Goree (So. / 6-1 / 230) Name for the futures: Abner Logan (Committed '12 / 6-1 / 212), Dorian O'Daniel (Uncommitted '13 / 6-1 / 205)

SILB: Darin Drakeford (Sr. / 6-0 / 240) - Drake has really good size for the spot and his primary job will be (in the run game) taking on blockers to free up the other inside linebacker and (in the pass) covering the middle of the field or rushing the passer. Should do just fine. Primary backup: Lorne Goree (So. / 6-1 / 230) Names for the future: Brock Dean (Committed '12 / 6-1 / 220), Abner Logan (Committed '12 / 6-1 / 212)

WILB: Demetrius Hartsfield (Sr. / 6-2 / 235) - This spot (MIKE) is the most similar to its equivalent in the 4-3. He's basically supposed to be the tackling machine, which is the same role Hartsfield filled last year when he was on the team. He'll rarely blitz and has more responsibilities in the run game, diagnosing and avoiding blockers. Primary backup: Alex Twine (So. / 6-0 / 220) Name for the future: Dallas Griffiths (6-2 / 225)

WOLB: Isaiah Ross (Jr. / 6-1 / 245) - This is supposed to be the elite pass-rusher of the bunch, but unfortunately if Ross doesn't end up here then he'll have to cover a tight end in the passing game ... and I don't want that to happen. Ross is an athletic pass-rusher, mind you, and isn't a terrible fit for the spot, though he's probably not the athletic monster someone like Whitfield or Johnson has the potential to be. Primary backup: Clarence Murphy (So. / 6-2 / 240) Names for the future: Roman Braglio (Committed '12 / 6-3 / 235), Jonathan Allen (Uncommitted '13 / 6-2 / 220)

The secondary should more or less stay the same, with one drastic difference: guys like Mario Rowson, Desmond Kearse, Avery Graham, and, yes, Kenny Tate should be making their way back. These smaller guys really don't have a role with the larger bodies required in a 3-4 set. The only two I could see sticking are Kearse, who's an incredible pass-rusher and could fill in at WOLB in an obvious passing down, and, unfortunately, Tate, who could be tried out at either outside 'backer spot. I don't think it'll happen, mind you, but it could.

Wrapping It Up

Assuming Stewart takes the right approach here, going one-gap and emphasizing speed and athleticism, I can see it working. But make no mistake: going 3-4 this year would be a move made entirely with eyes on the long-term. It's not the best fit for the current roster, or even a particularly good fit, although there are some pieces in reserve that will make sense in a year or two. The good news is that there are multiple recruits in the area, considering Maryland, that make tons of sense for this scheme. Get them in, and you can see the obviously huge ceiling this set has.

It'll be interesting to see how much Stewart tries to force right now, as opposed to taking some elements more slowly and waiting until they fit Maryland's personnel. If he doesn't, he might just be Gary Crowton on the other side of the ball, and we all know how that worked out. I have to say, though, I'm really intrigued to see how this looks. Now I'll almost be disappointed if he stays with the 4-3. Almost.