Imagine you’re Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley and you’re putting together your game plan for this week’s matchup with the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Which area of OSU’s defense worries you most?
There are no holes here. The Cowboys boast a veteran-laden unit that ranks eighth in the country in ESPN’s SP+ metric for defensive efficiency. The Pokes are averaging almost four sacks per game thanks in large part to an active defensive front. They also have three productive senior linebackers in Amen Ogbongbemiga, Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper stuffing the stat sheet. The defensive backfield is one of the best in the entire country.
The JACK linebacker stands out as the one position in the OSU defense that could become a potential Bedlam wild card, though. While most defenses expect the JACK to be a pure disrupter coming off the edge, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles asks him to play a host of roles in different spots around the field.
Knowles’ scheme probably fits best in the 4-2-5 bucket. The Cowboys’ standard personnel includes three down linemen, the JACK, two interior linebackers and five defensive backs. The defensive linemen shift between different looks. Sometimes they’re playing a 4-3 Under front (pictured above), with the JACK moving up to the line of scrimmage on the edge aligned to the boundary.
In other cases, the Pokes run a three-man Tite front (above) – a nose tackle directly over the center and the defensive ends set to the insider shoulders of both offensive tackles. OSU also uses a 3-4 Okie front with both defensive ends playing off the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles. Here’s an example from OSU’s game against West Virginia earlier this year:
Note the positioning of the JACK, which is circled in the image above. The strength of the offensive formation is set to the boundary, and the inside linebackers shift to match what they’re seeing. MIKE LB Ogbongbemiga (No. 7) stays lined up towards the field. The Pokes put the WILL LB, Rodriguez (No. 20), in space to the boundary. Meanwhile, JACK LB Brock Martin (No. 40) shifts inside to the bubble over the left guard.
What purpose does it serve to flip-flop the WILL and JACK? Shifting Martin inside gets a sturdier run defender in place to take on an offensive lineman in case WVU runs the ball. On top of that, the converted safety Rodriguez is in position to play the pass or support against the outside run.
Knowles has an especially dangerous weapon at his disposal in the JACK spot with in-state product Trace Ford. At 6-4, 248 pounds, Ford possesses the size to avoid getting wiped out by offensive linemen, while his speed makes him a handful coming off the edge. Even though he only has three sacks through six games this season, his presence still creates headaches for opposing offenses.
Ford’s athleticism also enables him to drop and play in coverage, which never hurts when a defense is trying to mess with the head of a young quarterback like Spencer Rattler. Given how much the JACK moves around in OSU’s scheme, keep an eye on how the Sooners account for Ford before the snap when they have the ball on Saturday night. That is one player they can’t afford to lose track of, especially on money downs.