Football is often described as art in motion.
If that is true, then Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is an artist.
Year after year, the veteran coach has sculpted dominant defenses at MSU. With the help of his assistants, Narduzzi has combined his great recruiting skills with his brilliant football mind to build a defensive powerhouse in East Lansing.
Narduzzi and the defensive staff are ready to enhance their latest masterpiece, with a special twist – Shilique Calhoun in the VIPER package. Something used last year, but enhanced this year.
The Spartan coaching staff couldn’t be more excited about Calhoun at this hybrid defensive line/outside linebacker spot. After unselfishly turning down a big NFL contract to stay at Michigan State, Calhoun is set to benefit from the new position when the Spartans go to their feared VIPER package as part of a rabid MSU defense.
Linebackers coach Mike Tressel recently spoke to Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr. about the move, which will keep Big Ten offensive coordinators up at night.
There are few original ideas in football. As nearly every football coach will tell you, every “new” idea is a mix of old concepts taken from other coaches from varying levels. For example, the “Wildcat” is a new take on Pop Warner’s single wing formation. Another example is Narduzzi’s famous “double A-gap blitz,” which sends two linebackers into the gaps between the center and guards. The play comes from former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who used old concepts to invent the dangerous blitz.
In the same way, using Shilique Calhoun in the VIPER package is not a brand-new tactic. Clay Matthews III sat behind better, more traditional linebackers for four years at USC before then-head coach Pete Carroll placed the undersized Matthews at the “leo” position as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker during his redshirt senior season.
Matthews enjoyed much more success in his final year at USC, recording 57 tackles, 4.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. The Green Bay Packers used a first round pick on Matthews in 2009 and soon turned him into a star. Matthews helped the Packers defeat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, 31-25. Calhoun however is not undersized!
Since then, other teams have utilized players in the same position. Carroll has used Chris Clemons at the spot in Seattle, while Ohio State employed Noah Spence at the position last year.
So why does the idea work? There are a number of reasons, with the most important being its unpredictability.
In a 4-3 scheme, four defensive linemen set up in a three-point stance at the line of scrimmage, while three linebackers roam behind them. (Michigan State utilizes this type of traditional 4-3 over scheme.) When the quarterback approaches the line of scrimmage, he can easily read where the defensive linemen are positioned and adjust the protection scheme accordingly.
However, when a defense utilizes a player at the viper position, only three defensive linemen take up three-point stances on the line of scrimmage. With one less down lineman, the quarterback has less concrete information readily available. The quarterback’s initial read becomes more difficult as a result. Just like the other linebackers, the viper is free to move around behind the defensive linemen before the play.
As Tressel explained, “When your hand is in the dirt, the [defense] can identify [him]: there’s #89. Period. When you’re in the two-point [stance], you can bounce all over and end up somewhere at the last second right before the snap. They’ll have a harder time identifying him. We’ll be able to do a better job of picking specific matchups.”
“It’s a little bit easier to rush with your hand in the dirt because you can focus in, settle in and all you’re worried about is the ball. But we can build some matchups when he can move around.”
No matter how clever the idea is, without a player to implement it correctly, the scheme is worthless. Countless coaches with brilliant ideas have been fired because they couldn’t find the right players to make their strategy work. Narduzzi does not lack for playmakers.
First of all, a player at the OLB spot in the VIPER package must be long and athletic just like a backside (or “Will”) linebacker. The viper must also have pass rushing skills, as the position requires the player to attack the quarterback often. At the same time, the defender also has to have the quickness to occasionally drop back into coverage. In this particular case, the player must have the ability to sometimes cover the flat in Narduzzi’s Cover 4 scheme.
This is where Shilique Calhoun comes in.
Often called “Shilique the Freak,” Calhoun has been blessed with outstanding athletic ability. As a sophomore, the New Jersey native terrorized opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers last season. Calhoun notched an outstanding 37 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. His efforts earned him several major awards, including Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and second team All-America honors.
Not to mention during the NFL draft his name was repeatedly brought up by the hosts on numerous networks as a first round pick who stayed in East Lansing. Something Calhoun told Carpenter this spring, “Was an easy decision. I have unfinished business in Beast Lansing and I was raised to take care of your business.”
Standing at 6’5, 260 pounds, Calhoun possesses the size of a defensive end, but the speed and quickness of a linebacker. As Big Ten offensive linemen and quarterbacks can attest, Calhoun is also a handful as a pass rusher.
Calhoun’s frame and skillset makes him perfect for the VIPER package. As Tressel said, “This is the best way to utilize Calhoun’s talents.”
“We just have to do whatever we can to get the best pass rusher on the field because pass rush is the key to pass defense. It really is.”
In this role, Calhoun will have plenty of opportunities to attack the quarterback. While Calhoun will have other responsibilities, on most pass plays, his primary job will be to sack the quarterback.
The move not only benefits Calhoun, but the team as a whole. Having Calhoun on the weakside will speed up the development of “star” linebacker Darien Harris, who played primarily on special teams last season. Calhoun will also be able to help the 6’0, 231 pound Harris on running plays, strengthening the MSU defense. This allows the cornerbacks to play on an island, freeing up the safeties to creep closer to the line of scrimmage on run plays. Calhoun allows the MSU defense to do much more than it could without him.
With Calhoun on display in the VIPER package, the Michigan State defense is about to become even more unpredictable. That’s not good news for opposing offenses. If you thought the 2013 MSU defense was great last year, just imagine how deadly the Spartan defense will be this year with Shilique Calhoun in the VIPER.
The Spartans aren’t undergoing a major shift. They are still primarily a 4-3 defense, but watch out. When THE FREAK takes his hand out of the dirt there is not a “No Fly Zone” in operation. Bodies of opponents should be preparing to take off.
There is a FREAK loose in Beast Lansing and he is on the hunt. The hunt to take care of his, “Unfinished business.” Opposing offensive coordinators Shilique has a message for you: CLICK HERE TO WATCH!