For 17 years, Alabama fans have become accustomed to a standard set of vocabulary describing the different positions on defense and way of looking at the depth chart and roster.
Whether it was talking about the Jack linebacker or the Star and Money defensive backs, one could almost have convinced themselves that these positional names were the standard jargon across college football. We all knew a Jack was a linebacker that rushed the passer, and we always knew that the Star position was more than the third cornerback, but a player who had to be as comfortable playing as a mini-linebacker as they were playing a safety or a corner.
Despite Saban shifting his scheme around over the years as college football evolved, he still always listed his depth chart (that we saw all of once a year) as a 3-4 defensive front, even when we knew the actual base defense was more of a 4-2-5 with the ability to alter one of those edge players as another interior lineman or another outside linebacker, depending on the package. We saw his pass rush philosophy change from one of an interior mush rush and linebacker blitzes to one focused on winning edge rushes
In the secondary, Saban’s famously complicated and generally unreplicable pattern-match zone-ish scheme was always at the heart of everything. We saw a shift from a predominantly single-high safety defensive scheme to a 2-high look for most of the second half of his tenure, reducing some of the responsibility on the outside corners after a rough stretch from 2012-2015, but we also saw that lead to less players in the box and a little more vulnerability to outside run plays. Then in his final season with Kevin Steele at DC, we saw that revert somewhat, but it was still largely the same scheme as it was under Pete Golding before that.
Again, though, despite all of the changes, the terminology, positional archetypes, and the depth chart were constants.
Now, though? Times are changing.
New head coach Kalen DeBoer is wide receiver by trade and offensive guru by reputation. As is often the case with head coaches with a specialty, they tend to be willing to take up-and-comer coordinators under their wings for the side of the ball they specialize in, while hiring more experienced coaches for the other group. Even Saban, a renowned CEO-style coach, did this, tending to go for more experienced playcallers and former head coaches on offense, such as Lane Kiffin, Mike Locksley, and Steve Sarkisian.
DeBoer, for his part, almost immediately hired Kane Wommack, the head coach of the South Alabama Jaguars, for his defensive coordinator. If you’ve only paid attention to the top few teams in the country, his name might have been a bit of a surprise, but anyone from the lower half of Alabama should have been very familiar with Wommack’s work and success over the last decade.
After playing fullback and tight end for Arkansas and Southern Miss from 2005-2009, Wommack spent a little time in the southeast as a GA before getting his first real gig as a DC for Eastern Illinois, then getting a call back to the Southeast to be South Alabama’s DC.
After allowing an abysmal 37 points per game in 2015, the Jags improved up to only 25 points per game in Wommack’s first season, and then 24 ppg in his encore. His work there got him hired by Indiana for his first gig at a P5 school (this is also when he overlapped with DeBoer, who was the offensive coordinator). Despite being a perennial doormat in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers overacheived in 2019, the year that Wommack and DeBoer were both there. They allowed only 24 points per game, and for reference, the Hoosiers were generally above 33 ppg for the ten years prior and above 29 since Wommack left.
Wommack then got his first shot at being a head coach, coming back to South Alabama in 2021 and taking the Jags to a few really impressive seasons. Check out the S&P+ graph below (an advanced composite metric - this one is defense only, so lower is better). The blue line is South Alabama, and the red line is Alabama, for reference.
When Wommack took over as head coach, the Jags’ defense improved significantly, with their 2022 defense being pretty much on par with all of Nick Saban’s defenses since 2018.
So, with all of the actual results behind us, just who is Kane Wommack? He’s the son of a longtime DC, Dave Wommack, with ties back to Frank Beamer, Bud Foster, and Gary Patterson - a group of defensive minds that were early adopters of the three-safety defenses that have, in many shapes and forms, become the norm in college football over the last 8 years or so. Below is a couple of links to some good journalism and background work from his time at Indiana:
“Kane’s done a great job preparing these guys and creating a culture of accountability on that side of the ball with how we practice and how we prepare,” Allen said, “and the attention to detail and just the things that it takes to be great in this conference.”
The results have been impressive, as the Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in interceptions (10) and sacks (12). IU is tied for second nationally in turnover margin at plus-2 per game.
Attention to detail is something that was not lost in the transition from Allen to Wommack. The son of a longtime college defensive coordinator, Dave — who was essentially the architect of the 4-2-5 scheme the Hoosiers employ — Wommack knows what it takes to do the job.
There is also an added layer of accountability that comes with being the son of a defensive coordinator who now coaches under a former d-coordinator.
“It’s my job not to be the best defensive coordinator I envision, but the best defensive coordinator Tom Allen wants for this program,” Wommack said. “I’m trying to work relentlessly to do that day in and day out.”
The “Swarm D,” as Wommack has labeled it, seems to more fit its moniker in 2020. An athletic group, especially at the linebacker and secondary positions, has played with more speed and anticipation. The defensive front has been more physical, helping hold Michigan and MSU to 13 and 60 rushing yards, respectively, in the last two weeks.
IU sits at No. 18 in the country in rush defense, allowing 111 yards per game.
Dave Wommack isn’t sure who first came up with the 4-2-5 defense. He just knows that, going back to the 1980s, he, Bud Foster and Gary Patterson spent a lot of time riffing off it and one another, as they developed their own philosophies.
“I’m sure we stole most of the stuff when we were doing it, but the guys that I kind of counted on to talk to the most were those guys,” Dave Wommack said.
Foster became one of the most successful defensive coordinators in the country, working under Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. Patterson built TCU into a force in the Big 12.
And Dave Wommack took the 4-2-5 all over the south, winning an ACC title at Georgia Tech and developing the No. 1 overall defense in the country at Ole Miss.
Wommack is a legacy defensive coach with a history and lineage of putting together defenses that became modern before they were modern. He’s improved the defense at every single place he’s been, and he’s had significant success at head coach. He’s known primarily as an X’s and O’s savant, but quickly built a reputation as a teacher, a personable mentor, and a strong, shrewd recruiter in his three years as a head coach at South Alabama.
In other words - if he has a good season at defensive coordinator for Alabama, he’s going to get a head coaching job at a P5 school very quickly.
With all of that aside, you’re hear to learn about scheme. So let’s talk some scheme. Assuming that Wommack keeps up what we’ve seen from him at USA and IU, his defense is, technically, a 4-2-5 defense that he’s labeled a “swarm” defense.
The “swarm” part is a bit of a fun moniker, but essentially it boils down to a philosophy of being more of a spot-drop zone defense built on defined levels on the field. The back seven players typically drop to two different-depth layers down the field, with the intent of watching the ball at all times. True man-to-man is rare, and the desire is for players in coverage to be able to make breaks on every single throw, gang tackle short passes, totally eliminate yards after catch, see and attack all runs plays, and never get beat by play-actions or other trickeration.
The effect is that the defense really limits yards after catch, generally prevents run plays from getting very far past the line, and is able to get a jump a lot of in-breaking routes in the passing game.
Now, before we jump into the front seven alignment and philosophy, an explanation of the position names is needed. Here’s a good one from the Athletic from a couple of weeks ago:
The foundation of Wommack’s defense is the 4-2-5, differing from Saban’s 3-4 base, although that system evolved during Saban’s tenure. Common terms under Saban included Star, Sam, Jack, Mike and Money. Those terms will be replaced with Bandit, Sting, Wolf, Husky and Rover under Wommack. Here’s a description for each term:
Bandit: Defensive end — think Justin Eboigbe. This player can stand up at the line of scrimmage and rush the passer, whether it’s the defensive end or edges such as Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner lining up on opposite sides with two down linemen in between them. (Nose tackle and defensive tackle go by the same names under Wommack.)
Wolf — The strongside linebacker/edge defender that Alabama fans know as Sam, which was Dallas Turner’s role last season.
Husky — The Star position, which was manned by Malachi Moore last season.
Rover — The strong safety or Jaylen Key’s position last year. There are times when the strong or free safety is a single-high safety, but the Rover mostly plays closer to the formation and has more man coverage responsibilities.
In name, the defense is a 4-2-5. In practice, though, the defensive line typically lines up more as a a traditional 3-4 under front, with the two defensive tackles tilted to the weak side (one lined up between the guard and center on the strong side and the other between guard and tackle on the weak side), with the Bandit playing on the edge on the weakside while the Wolf acts as the stand up edge rusher against the TE/T with the Sting ready to back him up.
Often, they’ll line up in more of a pure 3-man even front with the Wolf playing as a wildcard, lining up just behind the line of scrimmage. If the offense puts the TE on that side, they will shift him down to the more 3-4 under look with the other three linemen making a late shift away... but if there is no TE, he may rush the edge or will sometimes freelance and move to hit lanes between the linemen, rather than just from the edge. This is often done just pre-snap, so it’s not really a true “stunt”, but more of a late shift into a B-gap blitz. The Wolf is more than an edge rusher, and has to be adept at many styles of blitzing - think Clay Matthews with the Green Bay Packers for a high-profile example.
Where this differs from a traditional 3-4, though, is the Bandit position. Rather than being a 290-pound defensive tackle, the Bandit is generally built more like a big end in a traditional 4-3 — somewhere in the 265-280 range. While he’s an edge rusher that often rushes from a standup position, he’s intended to be strong enough to handle an edge in the run game on his own, but usually won’t be dealing with any double teams, since they try to keep him on the weakside.
Now, you might be thinking, “doesn’t this overall setup feel a little light?”
Only two true down linemen, and often leaving two linebackers to handle a tackle and TE on one side while leaving a DE hybrid on his own on the other?
Well, that’s where the Rover and Husky come in. In theory, the Rover is essentially a traditional strong safety and the Husky is a slot corner, or Star in Saban terminology.
However, in Saban’s defense, the free safety and strong safety were pretty much interchangeable spots, while the Star was it’s own beast - a corner playing as a linebacker. In Wommack’s defense, though, the Rover and Husky are much more similar, while the free safety is a true centerfield deep safety. While some play calls will have two safety shells, they’ll rarely start a play looking that way. Wommack much prefers a single-high safety while the Rover and Husky both play closer the line of scrimmage. They are a tandem of screen-stopping, RPO-blasting defensive backs who are custom-built for defending the two mesh points that most of college football has gravitated towards attacking as a basis of the offense since 2013.
The downside of this, though, is that the two outside corners and the free safety are now tasked with defending the entirety of the sidelines and deep center of the field on their own. Cover 3 is the staple zone scheme here, and the outside corners need to have exceptional long speed and ball tracking to be able to cover the sideline go-balls with no overhead help. and the free safety has a monumental task of making tough decisions on who to pick up with deep over route combos.
At South Alabama, Wommack also stuck with “field” and “boundary” cornerbacks rather than left and right. The intent is that one corner has to be better with more lateral movement while the other has to be better with vertical routes, since the sideline can somewhat force an offenses hand. Saban also used to do this until the onset of the no-huddle offenses. It was never really talked about, but I assumed he abandoned it because it took too long for corners to swap sides of the field. I’m not convinced Wommack will actually stick with it in the SEC, but I suppose we will see.
Put all of that together, and you have a defense that is phenomenal against the run, is dedicated to stopping screens and other horizontal quasi-run plays, protects against giving up first downs with any yards after catch, and is highly opportunistic at taking the ball away. With the downside being that it requires exceptional talent and a high level of cohesion/trust in the back end to keep from being prone to giving up big passes on busts down the field.
In terms of success rate and explosive rate defensive stats, South Alabama was nearly identical to the Saban/Steele defense last year - one of the best in the country on a play-to-play basis and preventing successful plays, but liable to big busts when it happened. South’s run defense outperformed Alabama’s at every level, and they were one of the absolute best in the entire country at preventing rushing yardage past the first 3 three yards (and still one of the better teams in those first 3 yards, too).
It follows that they also had the 6th ranked defense at preventing points once opponents crossed the 40 yard line. As the field gets smaller, the defense scheme gets better.
In short: if you hated the idea of a bend-but-don’t-break defense, you’re in luck, because this defense is pretty much the opposite of that in a more modern form.
So, how will Alabama’s current roster fit this scheme? Obviously, Kalen DeBoer may have his own desired tweaks, and Wommack could always adjust his scheme around to fit the players on his roster. We’ll get a taste at A-Day, but won’t really know until September. However, here’s my best early guess at fitting players to a depth chart:
Jaheim Oatis and Tim Keenan should be the starters here, with Tim Smith, James Smith, and Daron Payne all rotating with them regularly. 5 players for two spots at a time should be more than plenty.
The assumption should be that LT Overton is the guy here. Funny enough, I questioned his fit in Alabama’s scheme when Saban took his commitment to transfer, and wondered if the plan was for him to slim down or bulk up... But now, Overton is pretty much custom-built for the Bandit spot. His primary backup will probably be Jah-Marien Latham, and I’m sure there will be flexibility with him subbing out for one of the DTs if the Tide needs to get bigger for a play or two, and the spot could go to one of the pure edge rushers like Keon Keeley on passing downs.
I also wonder if Jeremiah Alexander moves back from inside linebacker to become a Bandit. It might be an even better fit for him than any of the positions in Saban’s defense.
Deontae Lawson. Obviously.
Jihaad Campbell.. Even more obviously. Seriously, Wommack loves using the Sting as a movement blitzer that can sometimes swap roles with the Wolf to confuse an offense, and Campbell’s experience as an edge rusher is perfect for this.
Quandarrius Robinson is the veteran here that will probably get the first nod, but there’s going to be significant competition with Keanu Koht, Keon Keeley, Yhonzae Pierre, and Qua Russaw all flexing their 5-star pass rushing pedigrees and gunning for that spot. Again, even if one or two of these guys don’t get the main role, they’ll likely still get significant playing time in pass-rush packages opposite the Wolf in a more traditional edge rushing strategy.
You have to think Domani Jackson will be one corner as a player with high level P5 experience and elite speed. I think Jahlil Hurley will likely get the first crack at the other spot. His year of college experience is important and the 6’2” frame is important in a single-high defense. However, don’t count out a couple of freshmen - Zabien Brown’s polish playing on the West coast is big, and Jalen Mbakwe has borderline Olympic speed, which could overcome a whole lot of freshman mistakes, especially in a defense where his primary job will be preventing go-balls.
I think this will be Malachi Moore. He’s got years of experience as a Star and a safety, so this is perfect for him.
I like Tony Mitchell here. He’s a defensive back that is built more like a linebacker, and as such has the perfect size for the position. If he’s not ready, though, freshman Zay Mincey is another lengthy hybrid DB who could push for the spot.
This will most likely be Devonta Smith. The junior was expected to have a good bit of playing time last year before injury derailed him, and he made a late push at playing time against Michigan after he finally got healthy. Smith is a smaller, more ball-hawky kind of player, and I think he takes this role by the horns. Freshman Peyton Woodyard will likely be his primary backup.
If you can’t tell, I’m 100% on board with this hire, and I think giving Wommack the level of athletic talent that Alabama has can very quickly get the Tide into a place that has the fanbase quite excited. This scheme is built for stopping the most common modern offensive concepts, and it will be one that, at least early on, opponents will have trouble game-planning for.
This could very well give Alabama a better defense than they saw in the 2018-2022 seasons, and at the very least be the equal to Kevin Steele’s 2023 unit.
A-Day can’t get here fast enough. Roll Tide!