If you’ve followed college football for the last few seasons, you know about the “3 Safety” defense that’s en vogue. No, that’s not just “Big Nickel” personnel—that’s a whole new defensive structure. Known best for pushing Matt Campbell’s Iowa State program into BIg 12 relevance, a similar three-down, three-high structure was featured by Brett Venables’ Clemson defense in last season’s playoff. Baylor, like most of the Big 12, copied Iowa State’s three-down, 3 Safety approach to handle dynamic Air Raid offenses—and Phil Snow did it so well, Matt Rhule brought him along to Carolina, where Snow began installing that defense in the NFL.
There are differences in all of these approaches. Clemson, Baylor, and Iowa State would change the number of their down linemen, the depth of their safeties, and their pre-snap disguises to fit their particular needs and their particular athletes. That’s what good defensive coordinators do.
But there remains a family resemblance, if not evident in the structure, then evident in the philosophy behind the approaches. No matter the details, the fundamental value of three-high structures remained: Low box counts encouraged quarterbacks to hand the ball off, but two-gapping defensive linemen and aggressive linebackers forced running backs to take wide, time-consuming paths outside of the box—where those safeties were ready to close downhill and make tackles in space. Common throwing windows in three-receiver sets or isolated backside receivers suddenly fell to number disadvantages, as the outside safeties on the hashes denied slants and glances. Drop 8 coverages suffocated the space in which the Air Raid offensive thrives, creating tight window throws ripe for PBUs and interceptions.
This defense represented the cutting edge of college football X’s and O’s and will continue to remain at the forefront of innovation. But the next wave started in Cincinnati, Ohio and is coming to South Bend, Indiana, where Bearcat defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was just hired for the same job at Notre Dame.
Freeman’s defense has been a revelation for the Bearcats. They were second in EPA/play allowed this season (only behind Wisconsin) and fourth in success rate, all while playing a full AAC schedule and Georgia in the Peach Bowl. They did it all without a 4-star on the defensive depth chart, let alone a 5-star.
And they did it with three safeties on the field.
Well, wait. Not like that. Like this.
Even though the Iowa State defense isn’t putting numbers where we expect them to, the levels of the defense are still distinct. There are clearly down defensive linemen, linebackers, and then defensive backs.
Cincinnati’s defensive levels are all out of whack. This is the point.
There’s the mug linebacker in the B-gap, not on the line of scrimmage, but not off of it either. There’s a traditional linebacker, then a deeper linebacker/overhang player in no man’s land. There’s a boundary safety playing low at the sticks and a deep safety skewed toward the two-receiver side.
That these players are in these weird spots isn’t even the best part. Who they are is even more exciting. The Bearcats had a 5-foot-10, 205-pound Jarell White at the overhang; a 6-foot-1, 210-pound Bryan Cook as the low safety; and a 6-foot, 200-pound Darrick Forest at deep safety. Those are safety body types—and there are three of them on the field.
And at the snap, they fly.
Freeman’s defense contests everything. They blitz, they spin, they rush gaps, they twist and stunt. They don’t want to limit big plays by dropping their three safeties deep—they want to use them to create TFLs, hurry throws, hit quarterbacks, and generate turnovers.
We can see the immediate difference in how Cincinnati defends the run. Unlike the three-down approaches from Iowa State and Baylor, which want to use two-gapping defensive linemen to dominate the A- and B-gaps and force running backs outside of the tackle box, Cincinnati wants to use their undersized and speedy defenders to punish runners that try to get outside of the tackle box.
These overhang defenders play on the fringe of the box to serve as outside contain, while playing with depth to potentially rotate to deep coverage at any time. Meanwhile, the Bearcats typically play with at least one linebacker mugged into the line of scrimmage, changing their front from a three-man to a four-man surface, but obscuring from the offensive line the identity of their fourth defensive lineman until the final second. The Bearcats rarely two-gap, as you must do in the traditional 3 Safety approach—instead they slant with their interior defensive line to penetrate against pullers and generate confusion against zone.
With a mug linebacker stepping into the line, the Bearcats’ overhang comes free right up the gut against zone flow.
The threat of the mug linebacker creates the opportunities for run blitzes from the overhang defenders. Freeman loves to bring the weak overhang defender because he isn’t too worried about routes from the isolated X receiver when he has a man coverage specialist like Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner to eliminate opponents in press coverage. The Bearcats can then work their linebackers and overhangs back to the weak side to account for the lost number, as the strongside defensive end now has outside contain.
Notre Dame fans will immediately see how players like Kyle Hamilton can be utilized in this approach. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Hamilton’s ability to fill intermediate zones, play with speed into the boundary, and wreak havoc on blitzes will be unlike anything we’ve seen in a Freeman defense.
The aggressive slanting of the defensive line on these rotations can solve the problem altogether by freeing up the defensive line. The Bearcats have a tremendous “Big End” in Elijah Ponder, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive lineman who can leap across multiple gaps at the snap and fight power with power in the trenches. Ponder and potential top-50 pick in 2022 Myjai Sanders dominate interior gaps when they catch offensive linemen by surprise, creating immediate TFL opportunities.
Against different offenses, Cincinnati will bounce that defensive front from the base Tite front to a bear front, a 2-4-5 look, and a true over front—whatever it takes to get heads in gaps and players in the backfield.
The Bearcats play with three down linemen, but they end up with four line-of-scrimmage defenders against most rushing attacks—and with at least one off-ball linebacker free to chase flow and aggressive overhangs crashing down against QB keeps or quick stretch action, there was no more effective “funnel” than the one that belonged to Marcus Freeman’s Bearcats this season. They rarely got outflanked, and if they were beaten, they were simply outmuscled—and even that was a tough task, despite the smaller athletes they fielded. The team obsessed over tackling and lionized rallying effort—they had to in order to survive as such an undersized run defense, and survive they did. They were 41st in rushing EPA allowed, 40th in success rate allowed, and ninth in rushing explosive rate.
Against the pass? First in EPA allowed. Second in success rate. Twelfth in explosive rate.
Now that’s the goods.
With an extra coverage body on the field at all times and only three hand-in-dirt defensive linemen as their base structure, Freeman’s defense enjoys the same luxury that the 3 Safety defense does: at any time they can run Drop 8 and flummox Air Raid approaches. Freeman’s defense also has plenty of two-high coverages in his playbook that he can use to match routes, help support his outside corners, and keep numbers over both sides of the formation. All similar advantages to the 3 Safety approach.
But that’s not what Freeman wants to do; it’s not what he wants to be. He doesn’t want to offer free releases to outside receivers with corners lined up off the ball. He doesn’t want to lose a potential box defender by putting him on a deep zone drop or letting him play in conflicting run/pass reads. He wants to attack.
So he does. The Bearcats run single-high coverages a stunning 68% of the time—that’s an NFL-like number. Even more impressive is how little they disguise their intentions: more than 50% of their total snaps showed a single-high safety and then played a single-high coverage: Cover 1 or Cover 3.
This is an NFL-like approach because it requires NFL-caliber play from your outside cornerbacks. They must line up in press coverage and win on vertical routes without much safety help—especially so under Freeman, who lets his deep safety play aggressively downhill to support his overhangs. There are no sneaky scheme shenanigans or clever numbers manipulations here. Freeman needs players who win.
In Cincinnati, he got them into the building and he developed them. Key players on 2020’s defense are still holdovers from the Tommy Tuberville recruiting era: 2-star Elijah Ponder, star safety James Wiggins (3-star), and 3-star linebacker Joel Dublanko all play key roles on Freeman’s defense, and Ponder and Wiggins have both evolved into NFL-caliber players under his eye. To the existing roster, Fickell and Freeman prioritized “Hometown Heroes” and attacked the Cincinnati area over the last four years, delivering the highest-ranked recruiting class in Bearcat history in 2020—then doing it again in 2021. Only 31 years old when he took the Cincinnati job and 10 years removed from his own recruiting process, Freeman’s ability to connect with players is the difference. When 4-star linebacker and Florida native Melvin Jordan flipped from Florida State to Cincinnati earlier this year, he cited Freeman’s passion and understanding as the reason why he switched.
Freeman will cast his recruiting net wider at Notre Dame and have more opportunities to flip top Florida, Alabama, and California products—but staying in the Midwest mattered to him, and the recruiting foothold Freeman has there remains a key part of his identity and approach.
No scheme solves every problem, so no rising star of a coach can be just a chalkboard guy. Freeman’s success at Notre Dame, if it can be boiled down to one tipping point, will ride on his ability to recruit and develop cornerbacks who can win on the outside in isolated man coverage; safeties who can do the same in the slot. While Notre Dame certainly has the pedigree of a blue-chip school, the recruiting disparity of recent season glares when the Irish face off against perennial contenders such as Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan. Since 2016, the Irish’s recruiting classes have ranked 10th, 10th, 15th, 18th, and ninth in the nation. But those are rookie numbers in this championship-contending racket, and Freeman’s arrival in South Bend comes with the belief that he can pump those numbers up.
There is perhaps no more promising and exciting young coach in college football than Freeman—both for the players he brings to your program and the way he gets them on the field. The demand for Freeman reflects that, but the patience he showed in waiting for the right job reflects his understanding of his situation. If he does this right, he has a chance to be the head coach of a Power 5 program—maybe even the one in Notre Dame—before he turns 40 years old. It would be an astounding achievement, but an appropriate one for a coach and person of his caliber.