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A primer on Zach Arnett’s defense and how it fits Syracuse

Out of the Rocky Long coaching tree, Arnett has a distinct take on defense.

NCAA Football: Wagner at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

It seems that the Syracuse Orange finally have their new defensive coordinator in Zach Arnett, formerly of the San Diego State Aztecs. As noted, Arnett is directly out of the Rocky Long coaching tree, climbing the ranks from grad assistant in 2011 to defensive coordinator under Long in 2018. His success was consistent with that seen in Long’s system, and ranked near the top nationally in numerous categories.

If past is precedent, Arnett will continue to utilize Coach Long’s modern 3-3-5 defense. The beauty of this relatively hybrid defense is how well it fits the Orange recruiting base and roster. While it would certainly benefit from having five-

star talent at all positions, the 3-3-5 is more of an athletic, speed based system and has been used over the years to benefit a team in situations where they may not have the cream of the crop, but they have some fine athletes and solid team speed.

The 3-3-5 scheme in general can be traced back through the years to the old eagle and double eagle fronts, as well as to the old Arizona “Desert Swarm” defenses that featured Teddy Bruschi at linebacker. Apparently Long took many of the concepts of his defense from Dick Tomey and expanded on them. He utilized the defense during his stops at Oregon State and UCLA as a defensive coordiantor, then fully implemented the system as the head coach of New Mexico, where Brian Urlacher played Long’s hybrid safety/linebacker role to much success.

The basic tenets of the 3-3-5, as it’s implemented by Long, are the presence of three down linemen, ideally a two-gap tackle at the nose, as you would with a 4-3 Under formation, likely shaded on the center and usually stunting or slanting. This lineman controlling the A-gaps allows the other down tackles, which are closer to defensive ends, in size, to maintain any where from the B-gap to the C-gap or shade on the tackles, depending on the defense called. The lineman versatility also adds to the creativity that can be dialed up when bringing any sort of pressure.

In doing this sort of variable three-man front, you gain some of that flexibility with the outside linebackers. The Will is able to play a true sort of hybrid role, sometimes lining up as an additional lineman, sometimes as a traditional linebacker. It adds the ability to zone blitz without as much of a mismatch as it would against spread offenses. This role screams Tyrell Richards’s name and should have him penned in from before the start of camp. The other two linebackers are more traditional, with a stay-at-home inside backer and the other, non-hybrid outside linebacker in a standard mold.

In the secondary, you have two corners, two safeties and the nickel, which becomes more of a hybrid safety/linebacker. The SDSU staff referred to it as the “Aztec” and I’m sure there will be some fancy name that Babers and Co. come up with for it here, but it’s the role that Trill Williams was born to play. Essentially it’s a second strong safety that’s slightly more run oriented and athletic enough to respond to where he needs to be. He’s the wild card in the defense. If an OLB is out in flats coverage, he’ll pound the guy trying to catch something in that soft bubble between the LBs. He may line up in the box, or blitz from behind the linebackers.

Effectively, you’ll see a three-man front, and a ton of other looks from the linebackers and defensive backfield. There will be heavy amounts of stunting, there will be disguised pressure, there will be zone blitzes, it’s going to be an entertaining defense, and it has shown that some of the wrinkles that can be implemented allow it to attack modern offenses, which comes in handy.

I’m sure there will be other changes that Arnett implements and the defense will be tailored to the personnel he finds on the Syracuse roster, but it seems at the surface to be a good fit for the program.