Players adjust to hybrid position in 3-4

Texas A&M's Von Miller led the country with 17 sacks in 2009.

But even with the country's premier pass-rush specialist, the Aggies finished 105th in total defense (426.3 yards per game), 105th in scoring defense (33.5 points) and 106th in pass defense (254.6 yards).

What was Texas A&M's worst statistic from 2009? It finished with a 6-7 record after losing to Georgia 44-20 in the Independence Bowl.

"I had 17 sacks last year, and we won only six games," Miller said. "Maybe it's time for me to do something else."

Miller, a senior from DeSoto, Texas, will get his wish this coming season. He's moving to a hybrid "joker" position in new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defense. Miller, 6 feet 3 and 243 pounds, will play outside linebacker. On certain plays, he will be asked to be a stand-up end and rush the quarterback like he has always done. On other plays, he'll be asked to drop into space and cover tight ends and running backs on pass routes.

Miller is a hybrid player lining up at a hybrid position.
"Right now, it's just about [learning] to turn on the off switch," Miller said. "In the past, I had the mentality where I was just rushing the quarterback every play. Now, I rush the quarterback when I'm supposed to be dropping into coverage and I blow assignments. This scheme is more about being disciplined and working with the guys around you."

Any college football coach will tell you the key component to a spread offense is an effective quarterback. Without a trigger man who can distribute the ball quickly and accurately, a spread offense has no chance of succeeding.

The key component to a 3-4 defense, which is gaining popularity in college football, is a player who is big enough and strong enough to play defensive end and, at the same time, fast enough and athletic enough to play outside linebacker.

"It's really important because you generate your pass rush from the outside linebacker," said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who spent the past two seasons coaching the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line. "For the defense to work, you have to have pressure off the edge. In Dallas, we had Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware. You can get those guys on backs, and they have to run through the tight ends and tackles. It's really critical that you have edge pressure when you play a 3-4."

Grantham is hoping Bulldogs linebacker Justin Houston can emerge as his pass-rushing specialist this coming season. Houston, a 6-3, 260-pound junior from Statesboro, Ga., had 39 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 7½ sacks while playing defensive end in a 4-3 defense in 2009. He's moving to the hybrid position as Georgia's starting weakside linebacker this season.

Houston said he spent nearly every night this summer watching video of Ware, a four-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, who had 64½ sacks in his first five pro seasons. Houston said he studied Ware's pass-rush techniques, from his stance to his first step to his hand placement on blockers.

"My stance as a stand-up end is a big difference," Houston said. "It's the main thing I have to work on because it's a lot easier rushing the quarterback from a three-point stance. The main thing in pass rushing is you've got to have a good [first step]. I think my [first step] is better out of a three-point stance."

Other players, such as Notre Dame's Brian Smith, Texas Tech's Brian Duncan, Georgia Tech's Anthony Egbuniwe and Stanford's Thomas Keiser, are facing similar adjustments in preseason camp as their teams shift to 3-4 defenses.

"I've always wanted to drop into coverage," Miller said. "It's a big change. I think this defense is about dictating what offenses can do and putting them in tight positions where they have to do things they don't want to do."

Houston said he has adapted well to pass coverage and is excited about Georgia's new philosophy on defense.
"We're going to be more of an attacking defense," Houston said. "In the past, we were more of a react defense. This defense is going to create a whole lot more turnovers and confusion. We're trying to keep the offense guessing as to what we're doing. If we can keep offenses guessing and can create chaos, we'll create turnovers."

Grantham said Houston is tailor-made for the hybrid position in his 3-4.
"I think he is made to be an outside linebacker in the 3-4," Grantham said. "I think it's natural for him. He has great burst off the ball and can get pressure off the edge. He's good in run support. He can drop into coverage and cover backs and tight ends. I'm expecting a big year out of him."

Like Houston, Miller might have to adjust to having fewer sacks and impact plays than he did while playing in a 4-3.
"I think it's very realistic to say that Von may very easily have diminished statistics from last year in relationship to sacks, but be a more capable player," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "My whole objective with him is that he distracts an offense, that he causes concern for a quarterback. He takes him out of his rhythm. If he does that, he does his job."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book will be available in bookstores Aug. 24 and can be preordered here. You can contact Mark at schlabachma@yahoo.com.