Comparing the TCU 3-3-5

After TCU held Michigan to single digits in the first half of the CFP a few days ago, I promised myself i’d go over what makes it work many times and why they may have been having success. It’s important to remember that TCU had success in the Big12 and that the B1G is much different (even different than where Coach White is coming from), I also know that Michigan ended up scoring a truck load in the second half, but I wanted to at least go over it for you because there were times it worked very well.

Let’s start with the 3-3-5 (or odd stack) has been around for a while, as Rocky Long gets credit for being the true genius with it. Teams have really been starting to adapt to it as it gives you a ton of flexibility with the numerous offenses you are going to see when you face teams from week to week. Think about how you go Iowa 2 TE, then Purdue spread em’ out, etc. You see, a 3-3-5 isn’t necessarily what we will be in all the time (Syracuse ran that base front less than 50% of the time), but it allows your defensive coordinator to have RULES for each position. That is the biggest thing with all of this for kids that are 18-22 years old. When you had the 5-2, and even the 4-3 nowadays, you would tell the WILL LB “you do this unless they come out in this formation or motion to this” and there would be dozens of them. The idea is to keep things simple for your players and what their responsibilities are. Further, they can mask nearly every coverage or blitz they are in as motions don’t really change what is needed. Lastly, it allows for the blitz, coverage, or other things the defensive coordinator has called to not get “checked out of.” What I mean by that, is back when I played, basically any motion made it so that the defense “CHECKED 3” which meant motion made the defense check to a cover 3 no matter what was called. It got really easy for teams to know what the coverage was going to be and exploit it. The 3-3-5 allows for the defense to stay in calls more often and disguise what they are doing longer. Let’s get into it…

“We don’t have the dogs to run it like TCU did”

One of the things that always drives me nuts about the people that say you can’t run a 3-4, or 3-3-5, or whatever and that you need to run a 4-3 is they will always say “it’s tougher to get players to run a 3-4.” I adamantly disagree with that. They always point to the NG and the edge rusher guys as things that are tough to get here. When it comes to the NG, we recruited Nash Hutmacher over Wisconsin who wanted him for the same spot and was a top 10 defense. Williams who went to Lincoln Southeast never got an offer from Bob Diaco, but ended up going to Wisconsin. Then you have the transfer portal where we brought in Darrion Daniels that it doesn’t get much better than. If you look at the edge spots of the 3-4 that we were running, Luke Gifford was there who grew up 10 minutes from Memorial Stadium and became all-conference. Garrett Nelson plays edge for us and is from Scottsbluff, probably would take another one of him. I had people telling me Ochaun Mathis was a sure thing NFL first rounder when we got him (I told them they were wrong at the time), but you can see we get the talent if we need it. It’s not more difficult to recruit one or the other. Hell, we had people saying we needed to shift to a 3-4 back when Pelini was here because it was easier for us to get linebackers than it was for us to get defensive linemen.

My point is we will always be able to get the players for whatever we want to run. Taking them to all-conference caliber requires development. And you heard it all over twitter after I made this comment about the 3-3-5:

And you had responses like this:

This section i’ll let you know what kind of players TCU brought in for their 3-3-5. Pay special attention to the ones that we would “be unable to get like NG and Edge”.

TCU Defense:

DT: Dylan Horton – a transfer in from New Mexico in 2021, he was a TWO STAR safety out of high school with zero FBS offers

NG: Damonic Williams – started as a TRUE FRESHMAN for the Horned Frogs as a THREE STAR player who decommitted from Cal to join TCU in 2022.

DT: Terrell Cooper – a TWO STAR defensive lineman who only had offers from TCU and Memphis out of high school.

WLB: Johnny Hodges – Transferred to TCU from Navy and was a ZERO STAR out of high school.

MLB: Jamoi Hodge – A THREE STAR recruit out of high school with no massive offers.

SLB: Dee Winters – A THREE STAR recruit out of high school, had a few decent offers.

CB – Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson – A TWO STAR recruit out of high school probably with the best career for the Horned Frogs with 1st team all-conference honors.

SS – Mark Perry – The lowest THREE STAR in the system according to Rivals, and a transfer in from Colorado with his first year at TCU being 2022.

FS – Bud Clark – TCU’s lone FOUR STAR commitment out of high school.

CB – Josh Newton – A TWO STAR player out of high school who transferred from Louisiana-Monroe as he signed there out of high school.

NB – Millard Bradford – A THREE STAR safety who actually went to a prep school.


So, for anyone that says “we don’t have the same caliber of players as TCU” just doesn’t know what they are talking about. The breakdown:

4 stars: 1 player

3 stars: 5 players

2 stars: 4 players

0 stars: 1 player

The NG that is impossible to recruit chose between Cal and TCU and was a true-freshman, we can find a guy like that. The impossible to recruit OLBs, one was a zero star and came in from Navy, one was a 3 star, and the nickel back that will slide down there on occasion was a 3 star from a prep school. It has zero to do with what you run or what you can bring in, it’s all about developing them and knowing your system. All of those guys we would have had just as good of a shot at getting as TCU, remember, these guys all committed to the Horned Frogs before they were making the college football playoffs. Patterson was just fired in 2021.

Now, let’s also be clear, TCU still gave up quite a bit of points against Michigan. The first half looked great and the second half not so much. But the point is, it can be done with this defense. TCU was 120th in scoring defense for 2021, they are currently 66th in scoring defense for 2022 in year 1.

According to Rivals, there’s only been one year (2016) that TCU had a better recruiting class than us. (I know, they did this year too capitalizing on CFP). Us getting the players in to run this is not going to be the issue.

Let’s be aggressive and not get papercut to death

One of the great things about this defense to me is they try to create havoc by confusing the offense and the OL. I defended Chinander quite a bit, but I got so sick of just staying in 2 high safety and watching us get 4 yarded to death on runs until we blew a coverage for 60 yards. Here is a clip of the type of pressure that I will be excited to see from a Syracuse team that doesn’t outrecruit us either:

I of course was combated with this response after being excited we were blitzing from the 3-3-5:

Literally every single play you draw up on the chalkboard for the offense has it going for a touchdown. I’m not sure what this person was getting at, if he didn’t like the blitzing or didn’t like the 3-3-5 I was referencing, or the talent argument. But here’s a clip from a CFP team with unreal talent, staying in a 4 man front and not blitzing and having the exact same thing happen:

That’s not just some unstoppable play, that’s just the right play call at the right time. My entire point is the fact that if we can figure out how to get aggressive and create some havoc on defense, I’ll be pretty excited and I can deal with some long gains with our DC and players trying to make plays. I watched what happened the last 5 years while we stayed back to prevent big plays.

But how do we get pressure or stop B1G teams with a 3 man line?

I have been getting this a lot, but it’s going to be close to the same answer as what was going on with Chinander. Chins had 3-4 rules, but many times we were in a 4 man or even 5 man front. You know what i’m talking about, all of the people I would argue with that said we had moved to an even front. No, we hadn’t, our rules were still 3-4. Offenses and defensive playcalls just dictate it looking different sometimes. Allow me to expand… so people hear 3-3-5 and think this:

But the reality is we can drop an OLB of ours onto the LOS like we did with Garrett Nelson frequently in this 3-3-5 to create an even front and have people arguing if we are really running a 3-3-5 all over again like last offseason, such as this:

And if you are feeling really frisky or really afraid of Iowa lining up to beat us in 2 TE sets, what about a 5 man line?

The long and short of it is we can get more guys up there if we need to, don’t let the 3-3-5 worry you and think we are doomed.

TCU and Iowa State

So, the 3-3-5 came into the Big12 when Iowa State started running it a few years ago, and they had a ton of success early on even making a conference title game. Here’s the big difference with what TCU and Iowa State do in the Big12 compared to what we might see from DC White. Iowa State and TCU will run a 3 high safety look a majority of the time. In the Big12 they were more worried about stopping the pass. A good way to figure this out is where teams put their Nickel backer.

Teams like TCU and Iowa State will put him over the slot. Think of it a bit like our Peso coverage that we did when we had someone like Eric Hagg and he was more of a hybrid OLB/Nickel. With what DC White tries to do, his nickel back is typically more in the middle of the field so that he can come either add a 7th man to the box for run fits, or take away short/intermediate passes. I’m actually very excited to see our nickel guy help with those crossing routes we’ve been burned on in the past. Think of a guy like Larry Asante lighting up wide receivers coming across thinking they’ve outran the corner chasing them?

Think of White’s 3-3-5 like an inverse Tampa 2 defense out of the 4-3, expanding on where the nickel back is

Ok, so hang with me here… Rocky Long started this defense, and while he was at New Mexico, one of his best nickel players was a guy by the name of Brian Urlacher. Many people think of him as a linebacker, but he actually played the “Lobo” (nickel title at New Mexico) for Long. In this 3-3-5 that nickel will come flying down. However, in a Tampa 2 out of a 4-3, that MLB will fly out backwards to try and take underneath routes in front of the two deep safeties.

Here’s a video of Urlacher playing that spot two decades ago. Hopefully our guys will make the tackle closer to the line of scrimmage.

That wasn’t necessarily a video to show how good or bad things will be, more just for you to see where our nickel could be playing a majority of the time with one of the best to ever do it showing you.

Run Fits

So here’s where I can foresee a little bit of trouble for us. When playing less guys on the line of scrimmage, run fits will be so important. And it’s one of those things you can’t really learn from watching film or practice, you have to play football to see how holes open. You have to see how your front DL handles the blocks and if you have to take cutback or go over the top.

Nebraska has had a ton of problems with their run fits the last few years (minus when we had the covid senior led 2021 defense). So this is something our defense is going to have to deal with some growing pains in my opinion.

New guys starting everywhere on the backend could create some “misses” on our run fits and have teams gash us. But that is the development piece we talk about with Rhule and his staff.

Smaller DL

TCU started a guy that they recruited for safety at DT for them. They moved him up to 275 pounds from when he got to school, and the 3-3-5 is designed to get more athletic players on the field. If you look at who we brought in, we can get a ton of those hybrid guys here. The 3-3-5 in my opinion allows us to hone in on just a select few DL.

With that said, will we try and get some weight off a guy like Ty Robinson? Or will we move him to NG? Or is him at 320 ok? With all of the movement we do, it’s important to be mobile on that side of the ball.

The End

Long post, my apologies there, but there are some of the things I was excited about and some of the things that are going to worry me. I will love to see what kind of player we are putting at nickel back as he is going to have to do a ton for us. I feel like that’s going to be the player we lean on the most. But at Nebraska I really feel like we can get a ton of those hybrid type players that have been so successful in this system. Then you just have to find a few DL, and you are good. Hell, 3 of our 4 linebackers we started the last couple years are from our state. I’m not trying to debate if that’s good or bad, but my point is we can find guys to play here. No problem.

White took Syracuse from 112th in total defense in 2020, to 19th in total defense in 2021. In 2022 they had the 34th ranked total defense. Syracuse went from 57th in scoring defense in 2021 to 47th in 2022. Those are all very respectable, and for those wondering, when Nebraska’s defense was keeping us in every game in 2021 we were ranked 37th in scoring defense. If we can stay top 50 there, we have a chance to get where we want to be.

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15 thoughts on “Comparing the TCU 3-3-5

  1. I honestly never cared what type of Defense or Offense we ran. I always feel like it’s more about if the coach could recruit the type of players in who will make it successful, even on offense whether that’s power/spread/etc.

    It’s more important to me that the coaches can adapt (which I repeatedly complained about as one of my biggest gripes about Frost and Chinander) than what schemes they run. You definitely want an identity that you fall back on but have to be able to adjust. Whether White proves successful here I don’t think is going to matter that he is running a 3-3-5, it’ll be do we get the right people here, are we developing them, and is he able to adjust if it isn’t going right from season to season & game to game.

    (This randomly brought up memories of one of the moments I mentally checked out a little bit on Frost/Chinander. It was one of the 1st few seasons, and some team was on the goal line, in a goal-line package, and I remember us still in a 3 man front. With like….0 other people on the line of scrimmage. Like what you would see if the team was on their own 20 in a spread package. I was like, they’re going to just walk right into the end zone on us…which happened. I get mistakes happen, but was baffled that preparation or something went so askew that we had 3 down lineman against a goal line package.)

    1. Yep, I gave Chinander props for his nickel package change. But at the end of the day there wasn’t enough of it in my opinion to help get us where we needed to be.

      We can run anything we want, as long as it stops the run in November is really all we need.

  2. Here is the key statement from your post, “The idea is to keep things simple for your players and what their responsibilities are.” I guess you could call it the “KISS” method “Keep it Simple, Stupid” Sometimes, I think coaches over analyze things and make it more complicated for the players.

    1. Yeah, especially in college I think this is more important, where no matter what other people say about their ‘amateurism’, everyone still has to go to class and can’t commit to focusing 100% of their life on football.

      I think there is a balance that top coaches find, between still game planning for specific opponents, being complex enough to have adjustments and audibles, but being able to streamline it based on the time they have. It’s a different skillset, or at least a different timeframe to manage than coaching in the pros.

      I think it’s why you see a lot of guys like Klieman at KSU and others who have success with not as much talent, because they are really good at laying a foundation of fundamentals first.

  3. By the way, with the coaching staffing finalized, will you do a final review of the last few hires? With a 7 million dollar assistant pool, it doesn’t seem to me that all of that money will be used to pay the assistants. I wonder if some of that money is being used to have a larger support staff?

    1. Ya, I’m trying to piece that together with where the 7 million went. This staff actually has less experience that Frost’s staff that was 5.5 million. I just don’t know much about these guys.

  4. I’m excited to see this defense. I like the fact that Rhule likes to recruit speed. Seems to be a good fit for the 3 3 5 concepts. Eric Fields excites me. Funny you mentioned Eric Hagg. Fields reminds me of him a lot. I think Issac Gifford will be a great fit for this defense as well.

  5. When I heard Rhule was hired and how he approached recruiting to compete with and beat Penn State, it made me think of what I believe (I’m no expert) Nebraska did in the early 90s. My understanding is TO and Mcbride realized that compete with the Miamis they needed speed. To do this they started converting safeties and backs to linebackers and linebackers to the D-Line. Would you say this is similar in concept at least?

    1. That’s precisely what Osborne and McBride did, you’re right. Then moved out of the 5-2 to get more speed on the field. It’s pretty close to what Rhule is doing I would say. I think the DB to LB to DL roles all play so similarly that they don’t have to worry if a guy is “putting on too much weight” because they can shift him down.

      A little too much cart before the horse here, but I often wonder when they are going to run out of defenses to come up with. McBride from a 5-2 to a 4-3 to a 3-4 to a 3-3-5. I mean, you can’t run a 1-6-4 lol

  6. Great research and info! Amazing when you look at the “star ratings” of the TCU defense…they took speed and coached them up to play fast and I liked what I saw. Aside from 300lb defensive lineman that are extremely athletic like you see on Bama and Georgia (which dont seem to grow on trees it seems), I think getting speed all over the defense and keeping it simple for them will help tremendously. Over time, if they can compliment all the speed in the back end, with some massive and athletic D lineman, we might have something working. I do like the multiple fronts they can use from the 3-3-5 and dont care what we run, as long as we know who we are and what we are doing…

  7. Thanks! Great write up. I really enjoy the detail. As you listed all the TCU starters, one question popped into my head…was there a common thread with these players? All really athletic, high instincts, super coachable? You mention development, but some of the guys were new to TCU so it just made me wonder. It also bummed me out to know we have lots of highly rated guys that just seem to not improve much. Coaching matters!

    1. I’ve been trying to figure that out. Like how was the Louisiana-Monroe guy looked at as necessary or the Navy linebacker transfer? I really don’t know, but one things for sure, i’ll take coaches that know what they want and recruit to it over just trying to grab recruiting stars.

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