For the past few years, the Colorado football team has had a “base” 3-4 defense.
New defensive coordinator Chris Wilson employed a 4-3 scheme when he was in the same role at Mississippi State several years ago.
So, will the 2021 Buffaloes’ base defense be a 3-4 or a 4-3?
“I would say we’re probably both,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said.
In reality, the Buffs’ defense will cater more to the skills of the players rather than to a particular scheme.
“We have a plan, and it’s built around our players, the things that they can do well,” said Wilson, who was promoted to coordinator this winter and is beginning his second year coaching the Buffs’ defensive line. “Then, being complimentary enough where it’s difficult for offenses, but simple for us.”
Under the direction of previous defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, the Buffs showed improvement from the 2019 season to 2020. According to multiple people within the program, however, it was a complicated system to learn.
Dorrell and Wilson have both used the term “player friendly” to describe the new defensive plan.
“Here’s what I know: schemes are predicated off of players,” Wilson said. “If all the systems were great, everybody would call the same plays all the time. It comes down to doing what our guys can do. My biggest deal is to make sure I do a great job of identifying and evaluating our best players, and that’s the ultimate goal.
“Secondly is doing a great job of knowing our opponent, and being able to find their deficiencies, as well as the things that we may be deficient on. Those subtleties can steal downs for you, and if you steal a couple of downs within a game, you win a game.”
Knowing the opponent is part of why the Buffs aren’t going to be tied to a particular base defense. Although the Buffs have had a 3-4 base in recent years, they have often used two, three or four down linemen at various times in games. The Buffs seek even more versatility this year.
“We have to be multiple on defense,” Dorrell said. “You can’t really say you can play an odd front for the whole football game. We’re going to be able to play 3-4 systems, four-down systems. We’ve obviously got sub packages, things like that – just depending on what the offense presents to our defense.”
Regardless of the alignment on a given play or series, Wilson’s goal is to help the players easily understand the plan so they can let their talent take over.
“When a guy knows what to do, and he knows how to do it, he plays fast,” Wilson said. “That’s why your systems have to be complimentary enough where they can analyze quickly and play fast.”
Last season, the Buffs ranked among the best teams in the country on third downs (13th, 31.76% conversion rate) and in tackles for loss (seventh, 8.17 per game).
On the other hand, CU allowed 42 plays of 20-plus yards and forced just eight turnovers during the six-game season – with half of those coming in the opener against UCLA. Playing fast can help to improve those numbers and the overall production of the defense.
“We’re going to be whatever we need to be every week to get our best players on the field, and to take away the things, hopefully, that these offenses do pretty well,” Wilson said.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement for us to become a dominating defense. If we can take the ball from people, not wait for a mistake, but we can take the ball from people, now we’re a dominant football team.”
To get there, the Buffs will lean on the talent of the roster. Wilson, in a coordinator role for the first time since 2010-12 at Mississippi State, is excited for the challenge of helping the Buffs become dominant.
“This is my second opportunity to do this, so I have a lot of experience there,” he said. “I had a chance to do it at Mississippi State, in an elite conference just like the Pac-12. The thing is doing the things that your guys can do, and number two is being able to identify and develop your systems, and that’s the most important thing.
“This is great opportunity. Obviously it’s not something that you take lightly but I’m very fortunate that I’m around a really, really good group of men, really good teachers and mentors.”