Is West Virginia returning to the 3-3-5 defense? An investigation

Written by Stephen J. Nesbitt on .

Morgantown has descended into outright chaos the last few weeks with rampant rumors flying around that West Virginia University’s American football team has transitioned to the ignominious 3-3-5 defense.

Coaches have denied any and all claims, but defensive lineman Kyle Rose ripped the wound open Thursday night by telling Blue & Gold News’ Michael Carvelli that the Mountaineers had, indeed, begun to install more of a 3-3-5 scheme — this a drastic departure from the traditional 3-4 defense of the last two seasons.

Well, fear not, fine friends, for when it comes to West Virginia’s not-3-3-5 defense, I’ve got exactly the non-answers you weren’t looking for. Do buckle in.

Kyle Rose is a 3-3-5 truther, but not everyone is aboard that same boat.

The trigger man here is the new man at the helm of the West Virginia defense. That man is Tony Gibson, though you might know him as “Mr. Pittsburgh” or the Mountaineers’ fourth defensive coordinator in the past four seasons.

In his coaching days, Gibson has coached under defense coordinators that have employed either the 4-3 (at Pitt), 3-4 (Keith Patterson) and 3-3-5 (Jeff Casteel, Greg Robinson). I asked him Thursday: Is this a return to the 3-3-5 to West Virginia?

"Nah, we're just an odd defense,” he said. “We've got multiple fronts and coverages that we're going to use. It's really no different than we were a year ago [3-4]. We're going to adjust out backers a little bit more.”

To understand what West Virginia is or isn’t running on defense, we must first understand the 3-3-5. In short, it was a defense born in the past two decades to combat the increase in spread and speed-oriented offenses. It’s harder for quarterbacks to read the defense from the line.

The 3-3-5’s numerous aliases include “30 Stack” and “3-3 Stack” and “Odd Stack,” but they all basically boil down to this: it’s a three-man front and three true linebackers stacked behind them. There are five defensive backs, three lined up traditionally and two hybrid safeties/outside linebackers.

The key to the scheme is “intelligent chaos” at the linebacker level. As detailed in this excerpt on Grantland, “players are told to attack gaps, stunt, blitz, and ‘fly around and play football,’ but each call has a reason.”

That makes the 3-3-5 hard to read. And in the Big 12, where offense is a blur, making a quarterback a little confused at the line could buy you some real advantages.

This cosmic 3-3-5 question arose in Morgantown last week when West Virginia’s initial spring depth chart revealed that K.J. Dillon, who Dana Holgorsen had always touted as a safety, was slotted at Spur linebacker.


The staff had always said they would remain in the 3-4 set this season.

And then the weird got weirder when safeties coach Joe DeForest talked about his starting safeties and said, “You've got Karl [Joseph] and K.J. at the two safety spots, and then Jeremy Tyler, who played a lot for us, at the other safety spot.”

Stop that, Mr. Joe, you're wrong. That’s like filling a cup halfway with Karl Joseph, the other half with Jeremy Tyler and then a third half with K.J. Dillon. It doesn’t work. Math is truth. This can’t be.

But maybe, just maybe, his vision of the defense didn’t fit into our cookie-cutter, family-friendly 3-4 set. The 3-4 is our safe space, and it now was getting trampled upon.

DeForest continued: "We're playing with three safeties, so if you've got …”


He spoke all nonchalant-like, as if he wasn't systematically shattering our illusions of the West Virginia defense.

“Whether you call it a Nickel, outside linebacker or safety it doesn't matter,” he said.

So, you’re going to 3-3-5?

"No, it's just the personnel we have,” he said. “We're trying to take advantage of the body types we have, whether they're long and lean and fast or thicker guys. It doesn't matter. Because of the league, we're trying to get as many fast guys on the field as we can. K.J. has done enough as a safety on the roof and enough as a safety down."

I walked over to Gibson, scratching my head, and asked: Is K.J. Dillon’s move from safety to Spur just a semantic change? He’s basically doing the same thing he did last year?

"It's more of a Nickel,” Gibson said. “We want to play with that kind of guy, just for the fact that with this league, other than Kansas State everybody's going to spread you out, go fast and throw the ball all over the place with four and five wide. K.J. played a ton of that last year — that was his spot — so it's nothing new for him."

So, you’re going to 3-3-5?

“Nah,” he said, and then he said they were an odd defense.

No kidding, man.

And then two days later Kyle Rose drops the bomb, and I’m not even over there to ask him the follow-ups and follow-follow-ups and follow-follow-follow-ups.

It’s a maddening adventure, and this is all we know: something is changing with the West Virginia defense. We can’t agree what, and the team can’t either. In order to concoct the biggest non-story of the spring, we could make this A Big Deal. Really, though, it’s kinda not.

Let’s quickly go this this question: Why do we care if it’s the 3-3-5? And why do the coaches care what it's called?

Well, it’s sort of gone out of style. If top-flight teams use it, they go by a different name. The 3-3-5 had its name dragged through the mud when Rich Rodriguez charged Greg Robinson with installing it at Michigan in 2010. Robinson had never coached the 3-3-5, and the results were horrific — it was a crash course, and he crashed and burned.

In 2010, the Wolverines allowed 450.8 yards per game — 110th of 120 Division I teams that year — and 458 points overall, a school record. They allowed 57 touchdowns — and this is in the historically low-scoring Big Ten. Rodriguez's spread offense had it's moments in the Big Ten; his defense never did.

The 3-3-5 is particularly susceptible to big plays, and Michigan was crushed by them. They allowed the fourth-most plays of 10-plus yards (117) and allowed 15 plays of 40-plus yards.

It was ug-ly. I know this because I was there at the time. Tony Gibson knows it because he was there, too.

Gibson talked this week about all the coordinators he’s coached under and all the systems he’s worked in, and here’s the perspective he shared entering his first year of calling the shots.

"What [my experience] does is it allows you to take the best of both worlds and be able to combine them all a bit,” he said.

Oh, so it’s a combination! Say it with me, com-bi-na-tion. We can even cut that down to com-bo or hy-brid if you’d like.

So, is it the 3-3-5? Yes and no. You’re looking at a versatile 3-4, officially, but it’ll take on a look an awful lot like the 3-3-5 at times. And, hey, that could be a really good thing.

West Virginia’s primary struggle on defense last season was its ability to disrupt the quarterback in the backfield. Now, two multi-year starters are gone from the line, the linebacker corps is strong, so why not adapt things to play to your strengths, adopts an attacking mindset and adapt to a conference that has run roughshod over the Mountaineers in the past two seasons.

I’ll leave you with this description from the Grantland 3-3-5 story:

“The original ‘30 stack’ 3-3-5 is no longer the defense of the future. As with most schemes, age has exposed many of its weaknesses, and many of its leading practitioners, like Charlie Strong, have moved on to other fronts and use it as only a subpackage. But in the age of pass-first and spread offenses, the principles underlying it — movement, disguise, aggressiveness, and an extreme focus on speed — are more important than ever.”

Maybe it’s just me, but “intelligent chaos,” even if just a subpackage, sounds a lot better than what West Virginians have seen the last few seasons.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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