I've gotten a bunch of emails over the years about the 5 spoke secondary, or what is more popularly known as TCU's 4-2-5 secondary. Most of these questions involve how to set the defense, how to train the safeties and how to remain sound vs. the myriad of offensive formations that any one coach may see throughout the season. I'm going to break this down into several parts to keep it quite simple.
Before getting started on alignments and checks, I'm going to discuss the chess pieces of the defense. Obviously having three safeties on the field is not terribly unique, but the way TCU plays these players does present itself quite interesting. To a casual observer, many would think these three players are interchangeable. In fact, TCU does not cross train all their safeties. The Free Safety (FS) and Weak Safety (WS) will get a lot of cross training and are required to do very similar things, especially against 10, 11 and Empty personnel groupings. The WS and the Strong Safety (SS) will be cross trained against more run heavy sets.
This is not to say that TCU's way is the best way or the only way. I've talked with several coaches that run their 4-2's with three identical players at these positions, and ask them to do everything from playing down in the box to being a deep half player. If that works for you and you can defend what you're seeing, great. The point of my post, is to answer a lot of the guys that ask TCU specific questions. Now, let's look at the different pieces in the three safety look.
The Free Safety
The FS in many defenses is the fulcrum to which the secondary is built around. In TCU's scheme, this really isn't the case. Yes, the FS is the quarterback (QB), but not of the entire secondary. Remember, TCU not only divorces the front from the coverage, but it also splits the coverage in half. This means that now, instead of aligning four or five guys, the FS in the TCU scheme only has to line up two to three guys. This is important, because he only has to effect one-half of the coverage.
The FS, ability-wise, is your prototypical deep half, type safety. He needs to have the size, speed and range to be able to fit down in the box against two and three back run oriented offenses. He needs to be able to cover, man-to-man as well as play pattern read coverage. Being a solid tackler, and having a knack for distinguishing what it is the offense is doing are the two main characteristics of what needs to be looked at in the FS. Depending on the level of play, this guy doesn't have to be the smartest guy in your secondary. As long as he knows where to align, he will generally be playing a very similar coverage (Robber, Quarters) to where he aligns. The biggest trick with the FS is getting him to understand where to go when blitzing so that nobody is left uncovered.
When looking for your guy, at this position, choose athleticism over intelligence. Physical over mental ability. This guy needs to be a ball hawk type player, but not so much like many are used to in the days of one-high FS's. Without a doubt a good athlete needs to be at this position.
The Weak Safety
The WS is very similar to the FS, but does not need to be as much of an "in space" player. He can be a lesser athlete than the FS, but needs to be able to do many of the same things as the FS. The main difference between the two is mental capacity. Because the away side coverage is so important in TCU's 4-2, the WS needs to be a very intelligent ball player. Many coverages are tagged with a "check" or "choice" call to give the WS freedom to be the defensive coordinator (DC) on the field. The WS has to have the intelligence to also understand where he is on the field and what coverage works best against what formations and whether or not we are on or off the hash.
The WS does need to have some athleticism, but not as much as the FS. The WS can be hidden over to the boundary if not as good of a run defender as the FS or SS. Sacrifice physicality for speed, intelligence and coverage ability. Even though against certain sets this player will be down in the box, or may even be called on to blitz, these items are secondary to his ability to put the away side of the coverage in the right call, and cover receivers either as deep zone player, or an underneath zone player.
The Strong Safety
The SS is really only a safety in name. This player is really a LB that is very good at playing in space. This guy should be one of the best "football players" on the field. He needs to be able to cover, tackle in space and blitz. The nice thing about the SS is he is not asked to make coverage calls. The SS really only needs to be able to listen and communicate, instead of think. As long as he can remember his assignment, then he'll be fine in terms of how he fits in the defense.
The SS is NOT a deep zone player in the TCU scheme. This player is, as said earlier, a very athletic LB. The SS reminds me a lot of the old "Monster" position in the 50 Monster defense. The Monster was always the defenses "plus one" player. They could put this guy wherever they wanted him to help them defend whatever they were seeing. The SS in the 4-2-5 isn't much different.
When looking for this player, choose a good, sure tackler. Find guys that always seem to be around the football. For the most part, this has always been a converted LB for me. He needs to be able to do some man coverage, and do some pattern reading at times, but the most important thing for the SS to do is help defend the run and set the edge of the defense.
The Overall Philosophy of the Five Spoke Secondary
The overall philosophy of having three safeties, is not to have three interchangeable parts, but yet to have the ability to dictate to the offense where YOU, the DC, are going to align certain players. I remember years ago, running my old 4-3 defense and using the Will LB as the nickel, how a guy, by my own doing formationed my best player into the boundary and ran or threw the ball away from him all night. Even if we blitzed him, he was able to know exactly where we were going to put him and could slide protection over there to help. Well, needless to say, TCU's 4-2 doesn't have this issue. The idea is that the SS can be aligned in one of three ways, as well as the coverage being set in one of three ways.
The other part of the philosophy of the Five Spoke Secondary is the ability for the defense to eliminate the inside run gaps with defensive linemen (DL) and LB's and spill these plays to the safeties who act as a "net", corralling the ball back in to pursuit. This is very important to the success of the defense, as the players inside the "box", are rarely asked to play outside of it. This allows these players to be physical and aggressive with their attack on the football.
In the next post, I will discuss just how this philosophy is executed and how it can be adapted to the high school game. One thing to remember in all of this, you don't have to run the TCU defense verbatim to get the benefits. Many of the things they do, don't fit well into high school football, simply because high school coaches don't see some of the things that TCU does on a week-in, week-out basis. The philosophy of the Five Spoke Secondary is tremendously beneficial to coaches at any level because it gives your defense the flexibility that it needs to gain an advantage. Stay tuned for the next post, as I'll go into great detail on alignments and how they play a factor in what you are looking to accomplish with your defense.