The Defense Under Troy Reffett

If you have followed NT football this season, you know that Mike Ekeler was important, but the defense was Troy Reffett’s scheme … sort of. From the preview:

Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett are bringing a more attacking, flexible, and unpredictable defense. It is the perfect defense to pair with an attacking, up-tempo offense. The emphasis will be on chaos and creating the turnovers that will give the (hopefully) explosive offense the ball.

Reffett coached 3-3-5 at ULM who were known for getting turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback in a pass-happy league. You might remember his 2012 team that upset No.8 Arkansas and gave Auburn a run into OT the following week. … Nate Brown inherits a talented secondary. Brown played and coached under Reffett at his alma mater ULM and also brings experience with the scheme being implemented.

Ekeler and Reffett were both calling plays for the defense?

The defense — particularly the pass defense — was tremendous at times. The attacking scheme generated sacks, but not enough. Apparently the arrangement between Ekeler and Reffett was one of professionalism, but disagreement. Ekeler was a little more bend-but-don’t break, 4-3 (2 DT), while Reffett is more aggressive and likes three down lineman. Again, going back to his ULM days, this makes sense. The blog and many followers were fans of Mike Ekeler’s play calling, his personality, recruiting ability, and more. We wish him well at his new gig at UNC as he takes over for Gene Chizik.

Make no mistake, *ahem*, the 5-defensive back scheme was always Reffett’s because it was what Seth Littrell wanted. The compromise led to playing the “3-3-5” scheme that was more a “4-2-5” with 3-stack personnel.

To wit:

2016 HOD Bowl Depth Chart — Defense

A note before we continue: Innovation is constant, and modern base defense is a nickel package with either a 2-DT, single gap front or a 3-man, two gap front with varying hybrid linebacker/safety combinations behind them. There is hardly a “right” way or a “pure” scheme. While the 3-3-5 or “3-stack” defense is newish, it is essentially an old 4-3 under formation with speedier players.

I think the compromise Ekeler and Reffett made was up front. NT’s depth chart looks a little different than Reffett’s old ULM ones or a typical 3-stack lineup. For those not versed in the particulars, the Jack position is unusual here. Jacks are usually what you call the rushing/hybrid LB in a 3-4 scheme 1. Last season NT nearly always was bringing four rushers, and the Jack was usually the “fourth” guy. Typically a 3-stack defense will bring four or more rushers, but mix up the rushing backer.

At least in Gary Patterson’s TCU 4-2-5, he will have two different coaches calling plays for the front (the lineman and backers) and the secondary. Chris B Brown at Grantland:

Patterson isn’t the only coach who divorces his fronts from his coverage calls — Bill Belichick is another — but Patterson takes the principle as far as I’ve seen by having different coaches call TCU’s fronts and coverages, in many cases independent of each other. “The best system is to have one guy thinking about how to stop the best run play and the best pass rush, and another guy thinking about the best coverage,” Patterson said in 2006. “That’s the ultimate.”

Here is where we are speculating a bit — was NT doing this exact same thing? Ekeler and Reffett were co-coordinators and each calling a separate part of the defensive scheme makes a ton of sense.

Generally speaking, a 4-2-5 defense will have a typical DE roles — a rushing end, and a strong side end. Teams that run a base 4-3 (meaning with two DTs, as everyone’s base is nickel) will call their rush end Elephant or WDE or LEO (Linebacker/End). 2

While a lot of the defense was not exactly what I expected coming into the year, I chalked it up to the transitional weirdness of having players recruited for a 4-3 playing a 3-3. This experimental 4-2/3-3 hybrid — if it was even that — was successful at times, but terrible at others.

So What Does This All Mean?

Reffett at DC likely means a true 3-stack look instead of calling a 4-2-5 a 3-3-5. It means Josh Wheeler is likely going to be a more traditional LB or move to DE.

To wit:

E: Ends. Essentially stay the same.
N: Nose. Stays the same.
M: Mike LB, needs to stuff the run.
R: “Rob” LB, needs to be a great athlete.
L: “Lou” or “Luke” LB, needs to be a great athlete.
$: Spur, an outside LB/SS type. Plays the strong side, matches up with TEs. (Tyreke Davis?)
B: Bandit, a safety/nickleback. The “Nick” in the current terminology. Dee Baulkman/Preston.
F: Free safety. Great tackler.
C: Unchanged.

Other than some personnel changes and changing where guys are standing, the main thing is more versatility and more aggression. When Josh Wheeler lined up at Jack, it was clear what our intentions were.

We will likely see less two-high safety looks with (perhaps) KiShawn McClain in the Bandit role that Jabril Peppers was originally recruited for in Michigan’s 3-3-5.

Two takeaways from this:

  1. I am excited about the change
  2. I feel a little silly for not noticing the 4-2-5 thing earlier. I chalked it up to the personnel, the transition, and when we played Army: the matchups. At best, it was a clever attempt at a hybrid, at worst merely a compromise that neither coach was fully comfortable with. Again, the differences between a modern 4-3 and a 3-3-5/4-2-5 are slight 3 but I imagine it was the little tiny details that are different that caused the rumored issues.

Who said the offseason was boring?


  1. Reffett coached in a 3-4 scheme early in his career. 
  2. UTSA calls theirs ‘SAM’, confusing everyone – link. Southern Miss calls their’s wolf 
  3. Also TCU has a 3-3-5 package they call ‘nickel’. All 4-down lineman teams have one. Similarly, most 3-4 / 3-3-5 squads have a 4-DL package. See earlier about the ‘Jack’ position.