As a child watching the NBA in the 80s, every team had a similar mold. Most had a pass-first point guard, a mid-range shooting guard, an athletic small forward, a banger power forward to sit on the low block, and a rim-protecting center.
Growing up, I assumed the Cotton Fitzsimmons’ Spurs were the greatest team assembled by man or beast. A ten-year-old thinks such things. The Spurs with Johnny Moore at the point, the Iceman George Gervin at the two, Mike Mitchell at the three, Marc Iavaroni setting picks, and Artis Gilmore in the post were equal to any NBA roster in my mind. Then the Lakers came to town in 1986 for a first-round matchup, swept the Spurs, and proved me wrong.
Each team followed the same recipe. As the game evolved, the center position devalued. Then the idea of a point forward came into vogue; followed by smaller lineups, until today we have position-less basketball. Distributor point guards are gone, static big men are a liability, everyone shoots the three, everyone runs, and you have to defend multiple positions to play regular minutes.
Those were two paragraphs of reading you’ll never get back and all to illustrate a point - college football defenses are evolving as well. The days of Ronnie Lott safeties and Chris Spielman safeties are gone. Spread teams forced an evolution of flexibility from defenses. Now defenses must send out as many athletes as possible. Defenses have to cover more ground, close more, ground, tackle in space, and run fit.
I’ve watched Texas, LSU, and Oklahoma this season; they’re taking that trend to a different level - eliminating the true safety and linebacker positions in favor of flexible athletes who play all over the field. Tempo and field dynamics demand that this trend continue.
Texas features and eight DB package that reminds me of Tang and Dippin' Dots, because it looks like the future. Quarterbacks cannot quickly dissect who’s who and where they’re heading.
Watching Kevin Kane’s SMU defense is another excellent example of college football’s move to a position-less defense. Kane started by moving former safety Patrick Nelson down to a force linebacking position to team with Richard Moore, and Delano Robinson. They can all run, are comfortable playing in space, and they can cover.
When Auburn transfer Richard McBryde showed up Kane must have said that famous Tom Cruise line from Jerry McGuire, “you complete me.” McBryde has that rare SEC bred combination of speed and size.
Moore, McBryde, and Robinson make it possible to move Nelson around the field to bolster coverage, bring pressure, or run fit. The Ponies can jump into what I’d call a dirty nickel with Nelson as a quasi-safety but with linebacker tackling skills. Rodney Clemons can flex into man coverage or play center field.
The returns are promising for Nelson and his chaos numbers. He leads the team in tackles, and sacks (5.0). He’s also got a pick and a pass breakup.
The Ponies can afford the luxury of Nelson thanks to a physical front led by Delontae Scott, Demerick Gary, Pono Davis, and Rice grad transfer Zach Abercrumbia. SMU is deep and talented, and, most importantly, their interior can hold up against the run. We’ll see how that front holds up against TCU Saturday, but thru three games SMU is top 40 against the run, a fifty spot improvement from 2018.
The past two weeks, against spread teams - North Texas, and Texas State - allowed 60% completion percentage, and most importantly with a 5.2 yards per attempt average, a two-yard improvement from last season. That’s a 3.7 per attempt decrease from 2017. Overall that places the Ponies in the top 30 among FBS teams.
Maybe you can attribute that to the second season in Kane’s scheme, but speed and flexibility come into play as well. SMU travels to TCU for the annual Iron Skillet game on Saturday with a defense that could give TCU’s struggling offense a new challenge