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A Breakdown of Zach Arnett and Syracuse’s New 3-3-5 Defense

After an underperforming 5-7 year, ranking in the bottom half in the FBS in terms of scoring defense, and firing its defensive coordinator mid-season, Syracuse finally has its man. SU announced on Saturday the signing of Zach Arnett to be the next DC. Arnett comes from San Diego State where he held many different coaching positions since 2011. He is a young, creative mind that will bring life to the Orange defense.

Arnett runs a 3-3-5 defense, otherwise known as a “Fire Ant” defense. It includes three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. Here is how the positioning look:

On the front line, there is a nose tackle lined up across from the center. Then two ends on the outside. The three-man front jams up the A-gaps, but depending on the rush by the ends it leaves either the B- or C-gaps open. If the ends rush on the outside in a containment effort, that stuffs the C-gap but leaves the B-gaps open. If they cut inside and block up the B-gaps, then the outside C-gaps are vulnerable. Only having a 3-man front, asks a lot more of the linemen. It demands them to be more athletic, be sure-tacklers, and limits their chances to get sacks.

But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean Syracuse won’t get any sacks next year because Arnett likes to use his linebackers in different ways. There is a lot of movement with his linemen and linebackers pre-snap to confuse the offense. Sometimes a linebacker will come down to be another lineman on the front. Other times they will spread out and leave the box open. The one thing about the linebackers in a 3-3-5 defense is that they need to be able to make tackles, which was an issue with Syracuse in 2019. Since there are only three linemen, the linebackers will have more responsibility to stop the run and fill the gaps that are left open.

The strength of Arnett’s Fire Ant defense is the secondary. With five defensive backs, opposing offenses will have a difficult time throwing the ball. The five DBs also allows Arnett to be creative. The extra man is a rover, sometimes lining up in the box like an extra linebacker, sometimes deep as a safety to protect the deep ball, and sometimes on the strong side to help double a receiver if needed.

When you think about Syracuse and what the defense will look like in 2020, a 3-3-5 defense is perfect. The strength of the defense is the secondary and the strength of the Orange is their secondary. Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Trill Williams are all returning for SU. The Orange D-line is a little weaker after the losses of Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson, but they still have McKinley Williams, who is so athletic he can do a back handspring. That is what SU needs on the front line. The one weakness that Syracuse will have to figure out is the linebacker position. The Fire Ant defense demands sure-tackling, smart linebackers and the Orange don’t have a great history in terms of those two needs. But other than that, the defense plays right into Syracuse’s strengths.

After an underwhelming and disappointing 2019 campaign, the future looks bright for Syracuse. The hire of Zach Arnett and his new 3-3-5 defense will, hopefully, breathe life into the Orange and maximize their talents.

The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.


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