When Tom Herman hired Todd Orlando to be his defensive coordinator at the University of Houston, Herman was looking for a coach who could teach the kind of defense that always gave him fits. Herman's offense is a spread system focused on running the ball downhill, primarily with inside zone runs, and he found 3-4 defenses that played quarters coverage like Orlando's to be the toughest schemes to deal with while at Ohio State.
But while Herman's motives started from a simple "What gave me fits as an offensive coach?" perspective, he's found Orlando to be a gem of an assistant for a variety of reasons. Herman brought Orlando along with him to Texas, where a brilliant Year 1 netted the Longhorns defensive coordinator a raise to $1.7 million per year through the 2021 season.
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Orlando's 3-4/quarters defense had to be tweaked and altered to fit the 2017 Texas football roster and the demands of playing against Big 12 offenses, but in the process Orlando simply proved what makes him one of the top defensive coaches in the country: In particular, his effective teaching, aggressive philosophy and high capacity for adaptation.
Teaching Defensive Quarterbacks
It's pretty common for coordinators to double up as position coaches for the most important position on their unit. Orlando is a linebackers coach in a defense that asks the linebackers to be the primary playmakers on the team. The "mac" or middle linebacker helps call the defense and serves as the "first responder" for the defense against the run, looking to plug gaps and spill blocks to the outside linebackers (or nickel and dime defenders as the case may be) and his partner the "rover" linebacker. The rover is the tip of the spear for the Orlando defensive scheme, and he uses that position as a solution to the main problem for the 3-4 defense in the modern era: How to create a multi-pronged pass rush from a nickel package.
With one of the pass-rushing outside linebackers replaced by a nickel DB, the defense is left with only a single edge rusher on the field (the B-backer in Orlando's defense). So in addition to having a blitz package, Orlando teaches his rover how to disguise insert blitzes through the A and B gaps. His defense consequently has two main types of base pass rush, one in which the B-backer works off the edge like in a normal 3-4 defense and another in which the B-backer drops into coverage while the rover blitzes suddenly through the interior. Orlando's rover is typically one of the team leaders in sacks as a result of this strategy.
At Texas, Orlando was inheriting a linebacker crew that was long on talent and exceptionally short on know-how. The 2015 and '16 Texas defenses had been defined by what could be called "youthful" linebacker play from former five-star recruit Malik Jefferson and former four-star Anthony Wheeler. In fact, they often had little to no idea how to defend the run in Texas' exotic defenses, and the Longhorns were regularly trashed by teams with multiple run games that could cause confusion.
The offseason plan was to mold Jefferson into the next star rover for Orlando, but circumstances over the course of the season resulted in Jefferson moving to the "mac" position to make room for fellow speedster and junior college transfer Gary Johnson. Jefferson went on to lead the team with 110 tackles, including 20 run stuffs, while anchoring the interior of the Texas defense in a 3-2-6 dime package that Orlando unveiled to the bewilderment of Texas' spread-oriented Big 12 opponents. Johnson and Wheeler added another 17 run stuffs combined as the linebacker position went from being a major deficit to a team strength.
An Aggressive Philosophy
The name of the game for Orlando is attacking opponents where they are always weakest -- in their ability to handle pressure and confusion with little reaction time. One of the areas in which Orlando has excelled as a teacher is in the art of disguising pressures and dictating to opponents with stop calls.
College football was temporarily revolutionized when hurry-up spread teams began to perfect the art of sending signals from the sideline to the field, allowing coordinators to make audibles and adjustments on behalf of their players. Aggressive DCs like Orlando weren't having that for long, and his response is to teach his players to show a blitz to trigger the sideline glance and check from the offense before bringing another call entirely. One of his favorite ways to do this is with his overload blitzes off the edges. For instance, before the snap he might show a field overload...
...to induce an audible from the offense only to drop those players back and bring the overload from the boundary:
These styles of blitzes can really mess up an offense's protections, option reads, passing progressions or blocking schemes, but they have their own vulnerabilities, in particular the man coverage the defense tends to play behind them. If the offense doesn't even know where the overload is coming from or who's dropping into coverage unless they can figure it out after the snap, they're more likely to have their own weak spots exposed than they are to hammer a favorable matchup with a pinpoint pass or run.
The biggest breakthrough of the spread offense was in creating a clearer pre-snap picture for the offense and the QB in particular so that he had a narrower menu of options and threats to scan through after the snap. A simplified picture combined with an athletic QB who could improvise if things got hairy made the spread offense absolutely deadly. It took defenses a while to catch up, but Orlando is at the cutting edge with his defensive packages that can disrupt the process and even the playing field.
A High Capacity for Adaptation
Before heading to Utah State and learning the art of disguised zone blitzes and modern 3-4 defense from the Kyle Whittingham coaching tree in the early 2010s, Orlando was a traditional 4-3 coach. It was during his time at Utah that he learned to assemble the 3-4 pressure package that made him an attractive hire for Herman and then a successful coach at Houston.
Once at Texas, though, Orlando was inheriting a defense with great athletes but disparate pieces that hadn't been put together into a cohesive unit. He was also inheriting a schedule that included Sam Darnold and USC, Jesse Ertz and Kansas State, Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State, Kenny Hill and TCU, Will Grier and West Virginia and ultimately Drew Lock and Missouri -- essentially, some of the cream of the crop in terms of modern spread offense and spread quarterbacking.
Against the more run-heavy approaches from USC, Oklahoma and Kansas State, Orlando utilized his traditional blend of nickel defense, moving quarters coverages and zone blitzes. Then, facing the ultra-explosive Oklahoma State offense, he made a big change to his defensive structure that probably revolutionized his own philosophy and perhaps changed prevailing best practices across the college game from here on out.
In an effort to get more speed and versatility on the field, Orlando moved Jefferson to mac linebacker, inserted Johnson, a sprinter, at rover and replaced senior B-backer Naashon Hughes with a sixth defensive back. Up front, the Longhorns moved third-down specialist Breckyn Hager into one of the 4i-technique DE positions, where his scrappy playing style allowed him to battle bigger offensive linemen despite his smaller stature (6'2" 240). From this ultra-quick 3-2-6 package, the Longhorns then unleashed a small part of Orlando's third-down package with such tremendous force that they started calling it every play against Oklahoma State and then expanded it over the rest of the season into a new base defense.
This "lightning" package was built off a "robber coverage" and an alignment that looked like this:
Basically, the Longhorns traded a man up front for the ability to play Cover 2 to either side of the formation with a "robber" in the middle who could read the play and then serve either as inside help against the dreaded double-post combinations that Oklahoma State liked to run or as an extra man coming just a touch late in the run game.
The modern spread offense is defined largely by quick-hitting pass plays, run/pass options and finally play-action shots that often feature six- or seven-man protections. Having a base, four-man pass-rush is less valuable for attacking any of those schemes, so Orlando determined that it was a worthy trade to give up a pass rusher up front in exchange for more coverage and blitz flexibility and disguise potential while also gaining a "free hitter" in the form of the robber. Most offensive schemes in the Big 12 didn't have many built-in answers for a versatile safety floating in the middle of the field and thwarting their route combos or coming unblocked against the run game.
After holding Oklahoma State to 10 points in regulation, Orlando set about tweaking and retooling the base defense around the 3-2-6 lightning package and the robber coverage. The Longhorns tried a few different alignments in the secondary, ultimately reverting back to their standard starting group while inserting tweener senior Jason Hall, a 6'2", 220-pounder with physicality and some coverage ability, into the dime role and then expanding that role beyond the robber alignment based off his particular skill set. They also began to move Hager into different alignments that made the most of his ability to drop into coverage or work around the edge in conjunction with his ability and willingness to crash into tackles from an inside alignment.
Over the course of 2017, Orlando gained a full mastery of his own roster and unleashed it in a variety of fashions against a loaded slate of Big 12 opponents. With his ability to teach fundamentals to raw athletes, train and equip defenders to attack offenses with disguise and pressure and adapt his tactics around the strengths of his roster, Orlando is proving to be a cutting-edge coordinator.
Written by Ian Boyd (@Ian_A_Boyd) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 Big 12 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.