As a growing number of teams began to adopt spread offenses in the 2000s, the staying power of the scheme became a point of debate in the college football world. Critics charged that the Air Raid and other flavors of the spread favored by teams like the Oklahoma Sooners produced attention-grabbing stats, but you couldn’t win national championships running anything other than “pro-style” offenses.
You don’t really hear that argument raised these days. If anything, spread concepts have become so common in playbooks on all levels that the pro-style distinction is a misnomer.
So many college powerhouses are running the spread that it’s easy to forget the system took hold as a way to help outgunned programs overcome competitive disadvantages. We’ve actually reached a point where innovative coaches can gain notoriety by coming up with defensive strategies for combating the high-powered offenses. Think Mike Leach, but the inverse.
Hence all the talk lately about the Iowa State Cyclones, who spent years down in the dumps of the Big 12. The Clones have won eight games in each of the last two seasons under head coach Matt Campbell thanks in no small part to their sturdier D. The dime-like “3-3-3” devised by defensive coordinator Jon Heacock in the cradle of the spread has become the scheme du jour for how to stop modern offenses.
The Texas Longhorns have also deployed a funky version of the dime in the last two seasons, and we’ll see even more teams latching on to the scheme in the upcoming season. But is it a gimmick for upstarts, or can the dime be a sustainable strategy for national championship contenders?
The basics of the dime
Truth be told, numerous people writing about the new-wave dime these days can break this down far better than I can: Cody Alexander, Ian Boyd, Seth Galina and Mark Schofield have all done insightful work on the scheme that I recommend checking out. For our purposes here, though, I can try to offer a high-level look. (Note: I’m just going to use the term “dime” as a catch-all for this trend/scheme from here on out.)
Different defensive coordinators have their own unique takes on the dime, but they share a few common features. The scheme builds off the so-called tite front on the defensive line. In this three-man front, the nose tackle lines up over the center, with the defensive ends setting up shop at 4i across from the inside eye of the offensive tackle.
Two linebackers play behind the front, a MIKE and a WILL, and they fit the mold of traditional LBs. The MIKE is generally a better run defender and typically lines up inside the run box between the tackles. The WILL sometimes lines up outside the box and should be the stronger coverage player of the two.
The secondary generally consists of two cornerbacks, a nickelback and the equivalent of three safeties. The nickelback aligns to the strength of the formation. Three safeties start on the back end, with the middle one playing a significant role in run support. (It should come as no surprise that Heacock also coaches ISU’s safeties.)
Why the dime is appealing
Broadly speaking, the benefits include:
*More coverage players
- The dime offers obvious benefits for teams in the Big 12, a conference whose members are generally on the cutting edge of the spread. Putting extra coverage players on the field fortifies a team’s ability to defend against the pass, which is a must in a league where the Air Raid still figures so prominently in offensive schemes.
- Aside from the three down linemen and two cornerbacks, coordinators can work with a mix of really up to six hybrid safety-linebackers. As such, they can more easily tailor the scheme to fit their own personnel and what their opponents want to do.
- The dime allows for all kinds of pre- and post-snap movement, enabling defenders to both disguise their intentions and come at the offense from unexpected angles. Naturally, that opens up blitzing opportunities for the defense. Additionally, the unpredictability can create headaches for offensive players when it comes to run-blocking assignments.
So what’s the problem?
Quite simply, a lack of beef.
The dime certainly offers some effective strategies for stopping the run. However, by taking bigger players off the field, you’re exposing your defense to power ground games. That’s just a matter of physics.
Looking back at the past two seasons, for example, ISU has played well against the run on the whole. The Clones finished 16th nationally in Defensive Rushing S&P+ in 2017 and 35th in 2018.
ISU got pushed around, though, by a relatively pedestrian Kansas State team last season. Led by rugged running back Alex Barnes, the Wildcats produced nearly six yards per carry and enjoyed a rushing success rate of 51% for the game, well above the national average. Similarly, the Oklahoma State Cowboys ran for about five yards per attempt with a success rate of 50%. (ISU fared well against OU’s vaunted rushing attack last year, although you could argue Heacock’s game plan left his D vulnerable to getting scorched by Kyler Murray’s arm in the Heisman Trophy winner’s coming out party.)
What does this mean for OU?
If we’re taking the last couple years as a trial run, the dime defense boasts some promising early results. In particular, it seems like a solid plan of attack for taking on the prolific offenses in a spread-heavy conference such as the Big 12.
But put yourself in OU head coach Lincoln Riley’s Js for a moment. He wants to do more than just win a lot of games in the Big 12.
The dime may be great for your conference schedule, but what about a non-conference game against the Alabama Crimson Tide or a tilt in the College Football Playoff against the Ohio State Buckeyes? Could the coaching staff tailor the scheme to stop a supremely talented team with the ability to batter undersized defenses? If not, what are your other options for those matchups? What would your roster need to look like to pursue them?
Personally, I’d be hesitant at this point in time to go all-in on a dime defense if I were in charge of a program with national championship aspirations. It’s still early days, though. A few years from now, the dime defense may be just as prevalent when power programs square off as the spread is on the other side of the ball.