In the sniper role of the 3-3-5 defense, Nick Martin is thriving by rushing the passer. So is Collin Oliver, by virtue of his move back to a traditional linebacker role.
STILLWATER — Bryan Nardo made a mistake last year at Gannon he didn’t want to repeat.
At Gannon University, a Division II school in Erie, Pennsylvania, Nardo coached a linebacker named Keith Thompson. Nardo said he regretted waiting until week five to move Thompson into a “sniper” role.
The sniper, Nardo explained, is a linebacker who is the last line of defense in a pass rush. The sniper doesn’t have a specific area to run to but is expected to see where the hole in the offensive line opens and sprint through the gap — and finish forcefully. After Nardo moved Thompson, who hadn’t sacked a quarterback in three seasons, to sniper, Thompson recorded six sacks in his final seven games.
When Nardo got to OSU in January, he got to know Cowboy linebacker Nick Martin, who Nardo called the “Power Five version” of Thompson. Nardo had a do-over.
“Nick just got better and better and better so you feel better about rushing three when that kid is your sniper,” Nardo said.
The sniper is part of the 3-3-5 (three linemen, three linebackers and five in the secondary) defense OSU coach Mike Gundy hired Nardo to install. Previously, OSU had played a 4-2-5, but before this season started, Gundy said he liked the flexibility and simplicity of Nardo’s scheme.
“In basic four-down, a lot of shifts and motions and movements and bunch (formations) really affect the back end guys and the linebackers,” Gundy said. “With these guys, we don’t have a fourth guy on the line, he’s standing up so (offensive movement doesn’t affect him as much).”
In the sniper role of the 3-3-5 defense, Martin is thriving rushing the passer. So is Collin Oliver, who is back in his traditional linebacker role. They lead OSU in sacks, each with six. For the first time since the abbreviated 2020 season, the OSU’s sack leader isn’t a defensive lineman.
It is a consequence Gundy anticipated.
“There’s more contribution in that area than there would be in a traditional even front (four linemen) team.”
Last season, Oliver played primarily on or around the defensive line as a pass-rusher. This year, in Nardo’s new scheme, Oliver has played just 43% of his snaps on the defensive line.
Through 11 games this season, OSU has 24 sacks. Through 11 games last season, OSU had 23. The scheme hasn’t changed how often OSU is getting to quarterbacks, it just changed where the sacks are coming from. Nardo’s 3-3-5 doesn’t work without a commitment from the defensive linemen who are now primarily charged with soaking up multiple offensive linemen and opening holes for the linebackers behind them.
“Three people taking up five, six players is huge,” OSU defensive end Nathan Latu said. “So we just got to do our assignment and they’re going to be racking up tackles.”
Last season, Latu had four sacks. This season, he has just two. He knew the new scheme would change his role. As it was installed in the offseason, Latu said he kept an open mind as he had to bulk up and learn how to play in the middle of a defensive front.
“You got to be a selfless player,” Latu said. “But I wouldn’t discredit (Martin and Oliver). If we were in a four-down they’d still be going off, but it just makes it that much easier being in a three-down to let them shine.”