How the nickel became college football's base defense

Back in the late 1990s, a young defensive coordinator named Gary Patterson decided to adjust to offenses with a 4-2-5 base defense, using a fifth defensive back and only two linebackers. His reasoning was not only that it was easier for New Mexico to recruit speed than strength, but that the scheme produced more flexible defenses anyway.

For the rest of the college world, the idea of using extra DBs in situations other than third down was a gimmick, something for underdog schools that couldn’t recruit big guys.

Now? It’s more or less the accepted standard, even on first down in the Big Ten and SEC. The story of how we got here is tied inextricably to the rise of that other style once dismissed as a gimmick, the spread offense.

The nickel stepped into the spotlight against one of the most lethal modern offenses, 2000 Florida State.

The Seminoles were led by Heisman QB Chris Weinke, the 28-year-old who’d amazed everyone with a 4,000-yard season in Mark Richt’s pro-style offense.

Their fame is diminished by the fact that they were crushed by the Sooners in the BCS Championship. Oklahoma held Florida State’s offense scoreless, and Weinke managed only 5.3 yards per attempt on 52 passes, throwing two interceptions.

A crucial component was star safety Roy Williams. The Sooners moved Williams to a nickel position, where the 6’, 220-pounder brought open-field tackling and range, erasing the Noles’ space.

The following season, Williams found himself in that nickel role more often and responded with a Nagurski Trophy, Thorpe Award, 101 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 22 pass break-ups, and five interceptions.

Today, 4,000-yard passers and nickels are both commonplace, but it took another decade for either to catch on as the new standard.

About a decade ago, offenses found a clear advantage.

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There’s a reason so many of the NCAA’s scoring records occurred around 2007.

There are dozens of events along the way to the spread offense taking root as the dominant style, but it’s hard to do better than the back-to-back championships by Texas and Florida in 2005 and 2006.

The Longhorns, using a pro-style spread with dual-threat Vince Young, stopped one of the more hyped programs in history, Pete Carroll’s traditionally pro-style USC Trojans. The Trojans had seemed to be the pinnacle of offense, yet they were outscored in a thriller.

The Gators were strong on offense and better on defense, but out-smashmouthing their SEC rivals and Jim Tressel’s Ohio State established that the spread offense could win with different types of dual-threat QBs.

Those more or less ended the debate over whether you could win with spread offenses. More and more big programs have since used three-receiver, shotgun formations as base sets.

The significance is evident when you look back at those two games.

The Trojans tried to match Texas’ spread with a traditional, 4-3 defense, with outside linebackers Keith Rivers and true freshman Brian Cushing attempting to corral Young and Co. Beyond the obvious problems, that also left them vulnerable to Texas’ tight end, David Thomas, who had 88 yards on 10 catches, mostly against Rivers.

Thomas converted three third downs, also gaining another three first downs against the overstressed linebackers. Eventually, the Trojans used solid nickel Ryan Ting, a 5’10, 180-pound former three-star. During key drives, the Trojans had some of their more talented players on the bench, because of the Longhorn spread.

The same problems emerged the following year. Florida opened against Ohio State in a four-wide formation, and the Buckeyes responded with 5’9, 195-pound, former walk-on Antonio Smith as the nickel. The Gators went after him from the start. Here you can see Smith (No. 14) getting pushed around before stars James Laurinaitis and Jamario O’Neal clean things up.

That’s only a five-yard gain, but that’s a successful play. Florida ran for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 43 carries, hardly explosive, but productive.

The issue was plain from the beginning: Ohio State was featuring one of its lightest (and lightest-recruited) players in a role that was being redefined on the spot. The Ohio State nickel in 2006 was essentially a situational, passing-downs defense that was poorly equipped to stop a spread run game. That was evident in their earlier contests with Texas (well-defended, but ran for 172 yards) and Michigan, which was about to learn a spread lesson of its own, but had used three-receiver sets to attack OSU’s nickel.

Could USC have been three points better against Texas if it’d signed one more four-star defensive back at the cost of a four-star linebacker? How much closer would Ohio State have finished against Florida if it’d had to prepare its nickel for this type of offense for months, rather than days?

It wasn’t just that defensive tactics were still adjusting to the spread. Roster composition was, too.

What USC and Ohio State found was that the nickel had become one of the key pieces in the middle of the chessboard.

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Defenses now needed their nickels to be starter-quality players, rather than just No. 3 cornerbacks or No. 3 safeties.

2011 LSU was loaded with great defensive backs, including a 5’9, 176-pound sophomore named Tyrann Mathieu. In 2010, he’d played heavily as a true freshman, and in 2011, was set to replace Patrick Peterson out wide. However, against an early schedule that included the Chip Kelly/Darron Thomas Oregon Ducks and Dana Holgorsen/Geno Smith West Virginia Mountaineers, Mathieu spent most of his time in the nickel.

As it turned out, the Tigers’ 4-2-5 nickel, not their 4-3 base defense, got LSU’s best players on the field. Eventual NFL corner Tharold Simon came off the bench in this set, while Mathieu would slide inside, much like Smith did for the 2006 Buckeyes. The difference: the ferocious Mathieu wasn’t just a savvy coverage player who could handle the quicker reads that come from playing closer to the line. He was an effective tackler, run stopper, and playmaker.

Mathieu made opponents worry about where he might be, reminiscent of Williams. And they never seemed to be sure.

These early LSU victims included slot weapons like D’Anthony Thomas and Tavon Austin, but the Tigers tore them apart, thanks in large part to their little nickelback.

Mathieu led the team with 76 tackles, made 7.5 behind the line, picked off a pair of passes, broke up nine passes, forced six fumbles and recovered five, scored two defensive touchdowns, and also scored on two punt returns. He was a Heisman finalist in a nearly perfect LSU season.

This had an effect similar to Florida winning the SEC with a spread offense. The nickel package was no longer a tool for select opponents. Teams were building nickel packages that were designed to be the strongest parts of their defenses. Williams’ Nagurski was finally permeating the nation, 10 years later.

The nickel defender became a weapon for attacking offenses, rather than a situational defender.

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By deploying better players in the nickel, teams could not only counter the offense, but turn the tables on the spread.

A quicker player who can tackle and cover in space like Mathieu or Williams becomes more dangerous in the nickel position, rather than back at safety or out wide, because he’s freed up to make himself a nuisance in a variety of places.

Using so much nickel can be tricky, and many bigger programs follow the model of the 2011 Tigers and have a player who starts at safety or cornerback also learn how to play inside.

Since that player already has such an important role, other teams recruit/develop the nickel as part of the starting 11. An obvious recent example is the "viper" position in Don Brown’s Michigan defense, played by 6’1, 205-pound Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers in 2016.

If you know you’re usually going to have at least five defensive backs on the field, you’ll develop your nickel package to be as versatile as possible, with the nickel defined as a starting role. Even Alabama’s depth chart includes a 12th position known as the "star" (current starter: 6’, 198-pound five-star Tony Brown).

The term "nickel" came about because, in the old days, that player was the fifth-best DB on the field. Nickel = five. As a result, the term carried a pejorative connotation. So when Nick Saban calls this position "the star," Brown calls it "the viper," and Patterson calls this DB "the strong safety," that demonstrates the respect the role has earned.

Many of the offensive developments in the 2010s, such as the rise of run/pass options, are designed to avoid the nickel.

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Offenses include options that allow the QB to throw or hand off based on the play of the nickel, in order to "always make him wrong," much like old triple-option plays did with troublesome defensive lines.

The four Playoff teams in 2017 featured the following players who weren’t tied to traditional cornerback, safety, or linebacker roles, after all.

  • Washington used former four-star Budda Baker, who was then drafted in the second round.
  • Alabama used former five-stars Brown and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who will be draft-eligible in 2018.
  • Clemson featured Dorian O’Daniel, a former four-star linebacker who was only 201 pounds when recruited. He’s considered something of a nickel/sam.
  • Ohio State often used Chris Worley, a speedy linebacker who’s shaped more like Williams than Mathieu and has since moved to middle linebacker.

Worley’s move this spring reflects how spread offenses have adjusted, always looking for fresh victims. They’re attacking inside linebackers in coverage, isolating traditional defensive backs, and using tight ends who mean matchup problems for even the best nickel backs. Now we’ll see how defenses respond, and so on.