April 10, 2014 // Notre Dame Football

For Notre Dame Defense: 3-4 or 4-3… Both?

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(Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

Bob Diaco unequivocally installed and stayed with the 3-4 as Notre Dame’s base defense when the Kelly regime began in 2010. The defensive scheme was integrated with meticulous recruitng profiles, particularly on the DL and at Outside Linebacker, with very defined roles for the “Cat” and “Dog.” The 4-3 was not entirely absent, often with Shembo moving up within the 3-4 structure to create a fourth linemen, and sometimes, the personnel was altered and a “pure” 4-3 was used, especially on passing downs.

This defense, and the recruiting for it was a success. The 2012 defense was both excellent and astounding. Excellent because the “profile-perfect” front three of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore anchored the defense. It was astounding because it protected a cornerback corps that was makeshift (Lo Wood’s injury) inexperienced (high school RB KeiVarae Russell) and lacking depth (Shumate was often the third CB and Danny Spond stayed on the field rather than go to a nickel). But it was a remarkable defense, the most effective at Notre Dame in decades.

That was then, this is now. The “Cat” and “Dog” have been euthanized.


First the 3-4 defense is just a yard or two away from the old “Oklahoma” defense invented by Bud Wilkinson and started as more of a 5-2. Archival note: Wilkinson shares a special place in Notre Dame History along with John Wooden, as each coached the longest winning streak in their college sport, a streak which was ended by Notre Dame squads, albeit some 27 years apart. The 3-4 defense was atrophying before the NFL led a resurgence. It was deemed to be more effective in dealing with the modern NFL offenses which tilted emphasis toward passing.

Over half of the NFL teams currently use the 3-4 as the base defense. It is noteworthy that the New England Patriots recently shifted from the 3-4 to 4-3 as their base. Moves made by Belichick are observed, and imitated, quite often.


To oversimplify, the 3/4 works best when you have a massive, quick nose guard, massive, strong (not necessarily the quickest) defensive tackle/ends, and tall, quick OLBs who can blitz, tackle swift running backs in space and cover receivers.


Simply, there are relatively fewer mammals who meet the NT/DE/OLB requirements of the 3/4 than there are who meet the “profiles” of the parallel or complementary postions in the 4-3. It is no accident that Notre Dame’s best recent defense was 2012 when Nix, Tuitt and KLM comprised the front three. It is no stretch to think that Nix and Tuitt could start in a successful pro 3-4 for a decade. But finding profile recruits is difficult.

Last year, only Josh Frazier and Matt Elam (the latter with an asterisk or two) were “perfect profile” nose guard recruits. Even Alabama, with its recruiting machine had to twice resort to Junior Colleges to find a nose guard anchor. The two were Terrence “Mount” Cody and Jesse Williams and each anchored a national championship defensive line. Similarly with the OLBS.

Bama’s best defense was 2011 and people like Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw were the OLBs.

Such players are rare finds.


While Kelly has said that Notre Dame will still employ the 3-4, and be multiple, all the activity and all the player statements seem to indicate a stampede toward installing the 4-3, as the primary, dominant, and nearly exclusive base defense. We will not really have the final answer until the Owls of Rice come a hootin’ in on August 30th.


Right now, the tackles would be Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, the ends would be Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams. That is a feasible starting lineup, though depth is either questionable or absent. Isaac Rochell is the top reserve, followed by Justin Utopu. Chase Hounshell seems to be on the path back and Andrew Trumbetti, the early entrant, has impressed. Jacob Matuska is a project, and may be a year away from contributing. Tony Springmann, if he returns at his previous level, would be a HUGE addition. Tony is a mauler. And while there is little data yet, there is a chance that the light bulb may have gone on for Anthony Rabasa. Some frosh will get playing time.

The sticking point is the linebacking corps. Today the starters would be Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Kendall Moore.

That is a disaster area. Or an aptitude test question:

Which one of these three does not belong with the other two?

Kendall Moore

Jaylon Smith

Joe Schmidt

The anticipated rise of Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph has not yet occured. And, poignantly, as each day passes, the likelihood of the return of Jarret Grace, ever, seems less likely. The good news has been the blossoming of John Turner, moved from safety to OLB. But right now, one would expect opposing offenses to locate Jaylon Smith and attack the other two areas. Nyles Morgan will have plenty of opportunity to compete, play, and possibly start given the current situation. Fortunately, we do not play an intimidating offensive unit in September. Rice is prolific, but against weaker teams. It would not be a bad thing if they were able to probe our defense and expose the weaknesses. Michigan was very good defensively but so hapless offensively that it cost Al Borges his job. And Purdue, even with Danny Etling settling in, is not a big threat. Syracuse is pedestrian.

Simply, our young defensive front seven should not cost us in September. The October gauntlet of Stanford, North Carolina and FSU is a different, and more menacing, kettle of fish.


The depth chart for the defensive front seven is 15 months from being as awesome, if less experienced, than our OL currently is. On the front four, the following players have eligibility remaining:

Sheldon Day

Jarron Jones

Romeo Okwara

Isaac Rochell

Tony Springmann

Chase Hounshell

Anthony Rabasa

Jacob Matuska is a redhirt frosh

Andrew Trumbetti has gotten praise as an early entrant

Freshman DES who arrive in June are:

Grant Blankenship

Jhohnathon Williams

Jonathan Bonner

Freshman DTs who arrive in June are:

Peter Mokwuah

Daniel Cage

Jay Hayes

Notre Dame allegedly leads for Jashon Cornell

That is 16 bodies for four positions, or a four deep. At linebacker, the following players have eligibility remaining:

Ben Councell

Jaylon Smith

Joe Schmidt

John Turner

Jarrett Grace, although there are question marks

Redshirt frosh:

Michael Deeb

Doug Randolph

June arrivals

Nyles Morgan

Nile Sykes

Greer Martini

Kolin Hill

Notre Dame targets are lean Josh Barajas and a plausible five star get in Justin Hilliard. That is a dozen, even if we don’t count Grace, which again is a four deep.

By September, 2015 we will have a depth chart that may even scare away some potential recruits!


Conceivably our second most important defensive asset after the remarkable Jaylon Smith. Smith has not yet spent twelve months on campus, and he is now ready for the next level. “Limitless potential” A hackneyed phrase, but perhaps appropriate for Smith.

Brian is tough and does not blink. He was the head-and-only-coach at Wayne State. He will bring his players along, not crushing them for their inadequacies, but coaching them up, individually and together. He will believe in them even before they believe in themselves. A coach with less experience and less charisma would not be able to exercise the crisis management that is currently required. We will be challenged, but not inept. Jon Tenuta is not walking through that door.


It seems like more 4-3 than 3-4 but we will probably see some 3-4. Here is the bad and good news. This defense will not be as predictable and boringly dominant as the 2012 defense!

Go Irish!

Comments to this Article

  • USAF Irish commented on April 10th, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Mr. Duranko,
    You are clearly my favorite ND sports journalist. Really enjoyable reads. Thanks!


  • storespook commented on April 10th, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    A good read. Though I like the 3-4, I am more in line of using which scheme best fits what personnel we have currently, including mixing it up between the 3-4 and 4-3 if necessary. Can’t wait for the spring game and have a lot of anticipation for fall.

    Go Irish


  • HURLS commented on April 10th, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    This was a really good, informative-yet-not-intimidating read. Kudos.


    Ron Burgundy replied on April 10th, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    I’d say from that spelling I detect a Boston accent. Am I correct?


  • jeff commented on April 11th, 2014 at 2:13 am

    The offense better score a ton of points this year.


  • duranko commented on April 11th, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    jeff, I agree that this will be the year that the offense will need to rescue the defense, unlike 2012. But we will probe the defense a bit further right after Spring practice. While there are key defensive losses,
    a closer look, I think, reveals that greatest zone of risk is at linebacker/. One curiosity is that our September schedule is not daunting, with Michigan in a bit of a recovery mode. But October!! Yikes! That is the true gauntlet.

    But, jeff, my own surmise is that the offense will score a lot of points this year. Lots.


  • Heismanti5 commented on April 11th, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    I long for “boringly dominant”


  • Brad commented on April 14th, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Check out this blog. Another great job outlining these principles:




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