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Look Back: TCU's Gary Patterson – Innovator or Sideshow?

Looking back at Tortilla-Retorter extraordinaire dedfischer looking at Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense.

Ethan Miller

Reading through the comments on the Iowa State Offense postmortem thread, I noticed LonghornScott mentioning some stuff about Gary Patterson being a 4-2-5 pioneer. I was reminded that our buddy dedfischer penned an article about this way back December of 2010. I had Bing Bong hit the microfiche so we could surface it for your viewing pleasure today. - S.R.



As we watch from afar at the new direction Texas decides to go at DC, it's brought up a subject I've pondered for a while. What is the best defensive system for the college game?

I'm still not sure.

However, I am somewhat excited about watching the Rose Bowl this season to see how Gary Patterson stacks up against the power running game of the Wisky Badgers, a true test of the versatility of his 4-2-5 system. Based on their respective performances against only common opponent, UNLV, I've got to think this is going to be one of the better matchups in the BCS bowls.

We've seen about every type of defensive system employed across the Big 12 to stop spread offenses over the last decade and I am continually amazed at the lack of popularity in Patterson's schemes. Maybe he's the only guy running it because he's the only one who knows how to coach it, or maybe his lack of NFL pedigree, tends to warrant a lack of respect.

One thing that can't be argued is that over the years he has proven to be the antidote to spread offenses. I'm continually impressed with how he stays ahead of the curve despite losing elite players to the NFL. Most likely, no one on his defense this season will get drafted as high as Jerry Hughes or Daryl Washington, yet here he sits with the most versatile and elite defense in the country.

Don't believe me? Let's look at his performance against Baylor and Robert Griffin III relative to Big 12 South teams:

TCU - 263 yards (99 rushing/164 passing) and 10 points

OU - 361 yards (237 rushing/124 passing) and 24 points

OSU - 464 yards (197 rushing/267 passing) and 28 points

UT - 328 yards (109 rushing/219 passing) and 30 points

A&M - 503 yards (291 rushing/212 passing) and 30 points

Tech - 507 yards (80 rushing/427 passing) and 38 points

One thing we can all agree on is that RGIII and Baylor created some problems for South DCs, whether it be a 4-3 or 3-4 multiple team. And, it's not just Art Briles he stumped as traditionally tough to prepare for offenses like Utah and Air Force were clamped shut.

The big question is why does it work so consistently year in and year out despite facing the same roster turnover issues of all college programs. While Big 12 South teams are rebuilding and re-installing every 2-3 years, Patterson is simply plugging and playing with guys you've never heard of and breezing to 10 wins a year. If you're naive enough to believe it's simply a function of a weak schedule, then you're probably lacking the same respect for his defensive prowess as most of college football does.

"I was base nickel, when base nickel wasn't cool."

Patterson's 4-2-5 is one of the great wonders for a college football fan as his coaching tree has never bloomed past Dick Bumpas, who appears to be content with being buried in Fort Worth. No one really knows much about it or why it works. The most common answer is the generic weak schedule or recruiting the best athletes playing offense in high school and moving them to defense, but shit, that wheel has been around almost as long as fire. There has to be more to it than that.

So, what is it exactly? Here are a few observations from my extreme amateur eye that seem to reconcile his success for me better than what I've found on the internet message boards:

Simplicity & Roster Turnover

No program in the country is immune to graduation or early NFL departure. At some point, you're starting a new guy. Since 4-3 and 3-4 principles are largely originated from the next level, the coverages and blitz packages have been spawned to confuse guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Which in turn, means they better be really damn creative.

Unfortunately, they are also confusing to the true freshman you're rolling out at safety or the stud linebacker you've been longing to "get it" for the last 2 years. The quality information I've stumbled across on the internet regarding Patterson's system stresses the ease of installation. He's up and running with full installation in 3 practices, while your blue chippers in the Big 12 are still pointing the finger at each other 2 years later. Patterson is perfecting and expanding on day 4, not teaching or toying with personnel changes.

No Situational Substitutions

You rarely see a TCU team struggle with the tempo of an opposing offense. It's irrelevant to them. Personnel is constant and the defensive front operates independently from the coverage schemes behind it. This prevents spread gurus from exploiting substitutional personnel. It also keeps Patterson's 11 best players on the field at all times allowing for superior continuity and communication. This is what they do. Not a sub-package of a much larger scheme, which is why you rarely see confusion or lack of aggression from a TCU unit. It's the same philosophy spread offenses utilize to generate forward progress. Tempo of an offense doesn't wear down your defense. First downs do.

Alignment & Easy Gigs

You typically don't see TCU change alignment very often and this is largely a function of the first two variables. Since the front 4 is working independently, the pawns in the alignment game are usually the LBs. They tend to be playing one of two ways. I'll layman's term this as inside or outside alignment depending on what they feel is the most imminent threat based on down and distance. This allows them to accomplish the same goal as a multiple front defense and get a jump start on primary responsibilities.

Split Coverages & Average Athletes

This is the most confusing aspect of Patterson's system for me as I'm not the most adept at coverage schemes. It's not just my ignorance in the case of TCU as I'm not familiar with any other system that operates in the same fashion. This particular 4-2-5 was established by John Goodner upon Tech's entrance into the Big 12 as a means of stopping the power option game of the time. So, don't be surprised if Wisky struggles to run the ball despite the nickel characteristics. You're outnumbering gaps between the tackles and stretching plays to the outside where athletic safeties serve the purpose of running plays down in the open field. The innovative aspect of Patterson's system is that he has tinkered with the coverages to adjust for today's passing attacks by splitting the coverages down the middle of the offense. Read more here. As Patterson states:

"We divide our packages into attack groups. The 4 DL & 2 LB's are one segment of our defense. We align the front 6 and they go one direction. The coverage behind them is what we call a double-quarterback system. We play with 3 safeties on the field. We have a strong, weak and free safety. The free and weak safeties are going to control both halves of the field. They are the quarterbacks and they will make all the calls...

...In our coverage scheme we are going to divide the formation at the center every snap. We play with 5 defensive backs in the secondary...

...[If the passing strength is to the defensive left] the FS calls ‘read' left. The FS is going to talk to the LCB, SS, and the read side LB. The weak safety aligns on the other side and talks to the right corner and right LB...

...Starting in spring practice, the 1st Mon. we teach Cover 2 (Robber). On Tues. we teach our Blue coverage (quarters)....On Wed. we teach squats-&-halves coverage (Cover 5). After that we are done teaching our zone coverages...

...We don't worry about formations any more. When you divide the formation down the middle, to each side there are only 3 formations the offense can give the secondary. The offense can give you a pro set, which is a tight end and wideout; a twin set, which is 2 wideouts; or some kind of trips set that the defense will have to defend. That is all they can give you.

In 3 days we teach our kids to line up in all 3 coverages against those formations...when we start talking about our game play, we never talk about lining up. All we talk about is what the opponent is going to be doing and how we are going to adjust to it.

Unless the offense lines up in a 3-back wishbone or a no-back set, there are only 3 ways the offense can be aligned and still be sound. Unless we want the coverage to overplay something to one side, we don't worry about formations...."

The advantage this seems to provide is the same advantage a unique offense might have. It's hard for a scout team to provide a sufficient look during the week as the coverage they are showing in practice most likely differs from what your offense will actually see on Saturday.

Anyway, I think you get the point as to why I've been curious over the last few years, if there is way more to Patterson than what we know. I'm also wondering, if we see more teams adopt his policies were TCU to go undefeated and knock off the Big 10 champ in the Rose Bowl.

Your thoughts, as this is definitely somewhat of a mystery given the lack of implementation in college football?