The defensive struggles by West Virginia during the Oklahoma game caused many to question why Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson runs a 3-3-5 defense scheme. The unconventional defensive alignment can be tough for fans to understand because it is seldom run by other programs. There are several distinctive advantages of the defense. You can find more information on this in a previous article, Why Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 Works, And Why It Has Struggled.
One advantage that is often not discussed with the 3-3-5 is the positive effect it has on recruiting. The defensive alignment calls for three down lineman, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The line has two defensive ends and one nose tackle. The linebackers are a standard alignment of strong, middle and weak side positions. The backfield contains the standard two cornerbacks but where this defense differentiates itself is with three safeties. The additional safety is known as a SPUR and is able to act as either a safety or a linebacker.
The alignment of this hybrid safety gives WVU the ability to place more athletic players on the roster and on the field. WVU is a desirable location for safeties coming out of high school because in this system they’re able to flourish. It is easier to also land multiple elite players at this position because West Virginia uses three on the field at any time instead of the traditional two.
From a numbers perspective, having less defensive lineman on the field and more safeties is also an advantage. There are far fewer players with the size and athletic combination required to play on the line coming out of high school in comparison to those that can play safety. By reducing the amount of defensive lineman on the field the Mountaineers are able to increase the talent of their defensive line by reducing the number of players required to field the scheme. Conversely, more safeties on the field provides an advantage in terms of speed and agility.
Every year there are crops of talented high school athletes who aren’t quite fast enough to play safety in college. On the flip side, there a group of linebackers in high school that are standouts but lack the size for that position in college. These candidates are often less recruited despite their talent because colleges are unsure of where they can fit them into their defensive scheme. West Virginia’s SPUR position is a perfect spot for these players to fill, giving WVU a clear recruiting advantage for athletes who don’t fit a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
Another positive for having this talent on board is that it provides for greater depth on special teams. The majority of your coverage teams for kick off, punt, punt return and kick return are linebackers, corners and safeties. With the increased amount of these positions on the team you have more players to fill these roles.
The 3-3-5 has allowed Mountaineers to shine on the field in college and carry their talent to the NFL. Examples of these players are now beginning to show on rosters across the NFL. Darryl Worley is starting for the Carolina Panthers after being a 3rd round draft pick. Karl Joseph, a safety was taken 14th overall by the Raiders. The Eagles selected Rasul Douglas in the third round of the 2017 draft. Terence Garvin a past star at the SPUR positon is playing linebacker for the Seahawks. Keith Tandy is playing corner and special teams for Tampa Bay. This spring Kyzir White, WVU’s current SPUR will have his opportunity to be drafted. The scheme of the 3-3-5 highlights these players, allowing them to make plays and put themselves in better position for NFL careers. Undoubtedly the story of Mountaineers in the NFL sells well on the recruiting trail. WVU succeeding at the college level certainly helps recruiting as well. Kwantel Raines, an ESPN 300 safety with offers from schools like Florida and Penn State chose to follow the same path that Dravon Askew-Henry took from Aliquippa High School to Morgantown. Additionally Kenny Robinson shining as a true freshman shows recruits the prospect of early playing time.
With West Virginia defensive backs continuing to shine both in college and the NFL, the Mountaineers will better position themselves to find higher caliber recruits from both high school and JUCOs. With that continued success it will be easier to find similarly talented players who want to shine at linebacker and defensive line. The combination of this will put West Virginia in a better position talent wise to compete with the high scoring offenses of the BIG 12.