Is Mizzou Switching to a 3-4 Defense Next Season?

Oct 15, 2016; Gainesville, FL, USA; Missouri Tigers head coach Barry Odom looks on against the Florida Gators during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the Missouri Tigers 40-14. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 15, 2016; Gainesville, FL, USA; Missouri Tigers head coach Barry Odom looks on against the Florida Gators during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the Missouri Tigers 40-14. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Could a change on the defensive staff signify that Barry Odom plans to run a different base defense in 2017?

Missouri Tigers Barry Odom announced on Friday that he’s hiring his younger brother, Brian, as the team’s new outside linebackers coach. The biggest storyline around the hiring was that the elder Odom circumvented Missouri anti-nepotism laws at publicly-funded institutions by asserting that his brother’s direct supervisor would be athletic director Jim Sterk rather than himself.

There’s another element to the story that has largely been ignored, though, and that’s the near certainty that the younger Odom’s hiring will trigger the Tigers’ transition to a 3-4 defense–their third major change to the base defense within the last year. While Odom said in December that he’d stick with the same defense next season that the Tigers ended 2016 with, his recent moves indicate that he may be having a change of heart (or was being deceptive the whole time).

With 35-year-old Brian Odom–who served as a strength coach at Arizona and Houston before transitioning to defensive coaching–coaching outside linebackers, that means DeMontie Cross will have his role reduced to coaching inside linebackers. Cross, Odom’s longtime friend and former teammate at Mizzou, retains the title of defensive coordinator heading into the 2017 season, but he retains few of the responsibilities that he held at this time last year. His role as the defensive playcaller was taken away in October, and consequently his ability to lead the installation of the defense during practice was also reduced.

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While he’ll still work with Odom to formulate a gameplan in 2017 and advise him on calls at times, there’s not nearly as much for Cross to do. And since Odom confirmed back in December that Cross would return, it’s difficult to imagine that he’ll be put in charge of coaching just three or four players, especially since Mizzou’s linebackers have tended to shift rather frequently between the inside and outside positions in the past.

If the Tigers were to switch to a 3-4, however, that would leave Cross with responsibility over 10 players who would have totally different skill sets than the pass rushers coached by Brian Odom–who, by the way, has been coaching in a 3-4 scheme for the past two years at Washington State. The elder Odom also has experience in a 3-4 system, having run one while serving as the defensive coordinator at Memphis from 2012-14. And as Dave Matter pointed out in a Friday article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch12 of the 13 power conference teams that employed inside and outside linebackers coaches last season ran 3-4 schemes.

The coach who presumably would have the most difficulty with a transition would be new defensive line coach Brick Haley, who has worked in 4-3 schemes for a long while. Any 3-4 instituted by Odom, however, would likely be more of an attacking scheme than a pure “Steel Curtain” 3-4, so it probably wouldn’t be that drastic of a transition for Haley.

The biggest issue, especially this late in the offseason, would be putting the players through another change. The Mizzou defensive players who have lasted from at least November 2015 until now would be switching defenses for the third time in 16 months.

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After years of running the same attacking 4-3 defense under Gary Pinkel–one that contained prominent 4-2-5 elements by the time Pinkel departed at the conclusion of the 2015 season–the Tigers switched to a pure read-and-react 4-3 under Cross to begin 2016. After injuries took their toll on the Tigers and it became obvious that there were serious issues with the scheme, however, Odom took over playcalling duties in late October and abandoned most of the read-and-react stuff while restoring some elements of the scheme he ran under Pinkel. Keep in mind that this was during the middle of a season, when time to install and rep a totally different defense is rather limited.

Missouri Tigers Football
Missouri Tigers Football /

Missouri Tigers Football

On the other hand, this is probably the best time for the Tigers to make the switch if Odom wants to do so over the long term. With the dismissal of defensive end Walter Brady, the departure of star pass rusher Charles Harris for the NFL Draft, and the expirations of eligibility for defensive tackle Rickey Hatley and linebackers Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom, the Tigers don’t have too many established players remaining with serious ties to the existing scheme.

Defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. is the only player who seems sure to have his value adversely affected by a potential scheme switch, though 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end Marcell Frazier may also struggle with a transition to a stand-up rush linebacker position. Undersized end Nate Howard and new recruit Chris Turner may be pass rushers who actually benefit from a scheme change.

At the linebacker position, the Tigers won’t return any full-time starters, so a potential change shouldn’t be much of an issue. While a player like Eric Beisel might not be as useful in a 3-4, guys like Terez Hall and Brandon Lee might be more useful playing in a scheme with two inside ‘backers.

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Whichever direction Odom decides to take his defense, change will likely be for the best. After giving up 480 yards per game in 2016 and ranking 118th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, there’s basically nowhere for the Tigers to go but up in 2017. That will be key for a program that has largely relied on defense to achieve success since moving to the SEC.