If Todd’s Grantham’s scheme brought one bit of vernacular to the Georgia program, it was the “star” position – a kind of hybrid linebacker/safety/cornerback popular in 3-4 systems who most often roamed the field as a fifth member of the secondary. Traditionally this was a nickelback – a third cornerback who came on the field to provide pass coverage help in obvious passing situations. As we saw with Grantham’s star position, this role is evolving as the spread offense demands a different response from modern defenses. Georgia used everyone from an outside linebacker (Floyd) to a safety (Harvey-Clemons) to a cornerback (Swann) in that role.
Football Study Hall has a piece up today about the rise of the nickelback (the position – thankfully not the band) as a full-time position which explores this versatility and the difference between what’s asked of a nickelback in college vs. one in the NFL. Since college teams are playing a lot more nickel personnel (even Grantham’s 3-4 was often a variant of a 4-2-5, 3-3-5, or even a 2-4-5), a lot is being asked of players at this position.
Jeremy Pruitt uses this type of player in his defense, but there’s one big difference: “We’re gonna play with DBs at that spot,” Pruitt said. “We’re not gonna play with linebackers.” So, yes, hopefully no more Leonard Floyd out in space asked to defend a much faster receiver. That opens the door for players like converted tailback J.J. Green and incoming freshman Malkom Parrish. These two, at 5’9″ and 5’10”, are far cries from someone like Floyd or Harvey-Clemons, both of whom towered at least 6’4″.
Using a third corner in this role is common. As Football Study Hall notes,
The main way teams are finding to be option sound against today’s option is to embrace man coverage, so every position in the defensive backfield typically needs to be able to man up with at least some offensive skill players. The more good man coverage players you can put on the field, the better things will be for everyone else on the field in your defense.
At the same time, they warn that “it’s impossible to protect the nickel from all run responsibilities.” That becomes an especially important point when you go smaller at the position. If Pruitt is going to use a third cornerback, they will be involved against the run, especially against option teams. Green and Parrish, two guys who have never played a college snap yet as part of a college defense, will have a big job right away against some very good offensive schemes.