March 30, 2011
Lobo Spring Game -- 2 p.m., Saturday, April 16, University Stadium
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you are a Lobo football fan worried about your Lobos changing up their defense for the 2011 season by going to this high-tech 4-2-5 scheme, don't be. It's really not high-tech and the Lobos ran the 4-2-5 a lot in 2010.
If you are an old-fashioned, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type, and can't fathom a solid defense without a third linebacker in the box, well, it's time to think outside the box.
The Lobos will still have that third linebacker. He'll just be called a "Lobo" and he'll also be a defensive back.
Actually, the "Lobo" position is an exciting position to watch in the 4-2-5 look. This hybrid "Lobo" is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde type: half linebacker/half safety. However, UNM's first-year defensive coordinator, George Barlow, probably would like to see a lot more of that ornery Mr. Hyde.
For sure, the New Mexico defense has to step up the production level in 2011, if the Lobos are to reach their goal of playing in a 2011 bowl game.
That need for increased production is one reason for the shift to the 4-2-5, but probably the biggest adjustment on the "D" side of the football is the shift in philosophy up front. The Lobos are going to "read" less and attack more.
"We are going to be as aggressive as we can be, get the linemen and backers up the field," said Barlow. "We want to get them vertical and get them playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
"We don't have real big kids, who can anchor down and read and hold gaps. We have to play more to what we have. We have lighter kids, who have to get moving toward the ball."
In Mike Locksley's first two seasons at UNM, the Lobo defense was more a read-and-react front. That's a good philosophy if you are the biggest, baddest (cq), strongest and meanest up front. If not, you often are reading and reacting while you are getting pushed backward. Not a good thing.
The philosophy for 2011 forces the offensive linemen to react quicker to hard-charging Lobos.
"We aren't going to sit and read, we are going to just go," said senior defensive end Jaymar Latchison. "We used to wait for things to come to us and now we are going to go to them. It's a lot simpler this year. We have to decide whether we are going to go to the left or right and then we go all out. We get to run past all those big linemen now."
Another problem with a read-and-react defense is that unless you are really good at holding your ground and making tackles, you don't often put the opposing offense in bad down-and-yardage situations.
Senior linebacker Carmen Messina has been one of the top tacklers in the nation the past two seasons (No. 1 in 2009), but often his tackles (like Brian Urlacher) came after the enemy picked up some decent yardage. With this change in philosophy, Messina and all Lobos have the chance to impact the line of scrimmage and put offenses in bad down-and-yardage situations. That's a key to getting your defense off the field.
The Lobo Position: This position is key to the 4-2-5 and it's imperative that you have an athlete with the versatility to play the dual demands that come with this position. The Lobo is half linebacker and half safety. He has to be physical and tough enough to deal with massive linemen and get to running backs when in a run-support mode. He also has to have the quickness to play cover defense against tight ends, running backs, and receivers coming across the short flats. This player has more pure "read" responsibilities because he must quickly decide if his primary responsibility is run-support or pass coverage.
The 4-2-5 is also a change in philosophy, but it's more an alignment thing in a move to be more versatile and quick to the ball. Barlow used the 4-2-5 at James Madison where he coached from 1999 to 2008, the last four seasons as the defensive coordinator.
"What makes this more exciting for me is that it's a higher level and we are playing against higher-quality teams," said Barlow. "We`re running a lot of the same schemes, but we have added a few things. Most coaches will add to their package as they find things here and there that they like.
"There are a lot of 4-3 similarities in the 4-2-5. It's not as big of a switch as people seem to think. We aren't making wholesale changes and we were in the nickel (4-2-5) a lot of the time anyway."
To simplify, the biggest difference is turning a linebacker into the hybrid Lobo. This versatile defender has to have the physical abilities to effectively provide run support while being quick enough to hang with receivers.
Some critics of the 4-2-5 will say it's not as effective against the run because the hybrid linebacker is not as big and tough as a pure linebacker is. However, a lot of teams (TCU) have found great success against the run because of the toughness of their defensive lines and the speed added with the hybrid defender.
One obvious advantage in the 4-2-5 is having the versatility to adjust to offenses that lean to the pass.
"In our conference, you have to be able to adjust to all the formations you see where teams are putting out three wides and four wides," said Barlow. "We will set up to stop the run first and foremost, and try to force teams into wanting to throw the ball. We have to be gap sound and stop the run."
"This defense gives you more versatility while you also more speed on the field and have the ability to get to the ball quicker."
Another advantage of the 4-2-5 is having versatile athletes, who can throw a lot of looks at an offense (pre-snap) and then shift into a different scheme in post-snap. For example, the two UNM safeties closest to the box, can slide into the box and give a run-prevent look, but are versatile enough to slide back into pass coverage. It will help the Lobos with this shifting having played out of this 4-2-5 shape in 2010.
"You can throw out a lot of looks because you have the ability to adjust and recover to what comes at you," said Barlow.
To again simplify what UNM is trying to do on defense, it's stick to receivers like glue and get to the football as quickly as you can with a lot of helmets. "For the most part, that's what we plan to do," said Barlow.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.