When Tim DeRuyter arrived at Texas A&M as the Aggies’ new defensive coordinator in 2010, he had an unusual idea. He wanted his pass-rusher, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, to have a bit of an edge to him out there on, well, the edge. He looked to Batman for inspiration.
“I think it ought to be called the Joker, but I don’t know,” DeRuyter told his staff. “You know, just somebody who’s got a little bit of a wild hair to him that can drive people nuts.”
The problem was that he wasn’t sure how a linebacker would take to essentially being labeled a clown. Charles McMillian, a holdover member of the defensive coaching staff who knew the star player destined for the position, quickly assuaged such concerns.
“Oh, it’s Von Miller,” DeRuyter recalled him saying. “It’s got to be the Joker.”
Sure enough, Miller embraced it on his way to winning the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, and he became the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. After a decade in which he became one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers and an eight-time Pro Bowler, Miller suffered a season-ending ankle injury last year that required surgery. He turned his scar into a Joker tattoo.
Ten years later, college football has more weird position names than ever, thanks to the need for so many new defensive packages to counter pass-happy offenses. Last season, there were more than 75,000 defensive snaps in college football games, according to Sports Info Solutions. Of those, there were five or more defensive backs on the field 92% of the time. Gone are the days of three or four linemen, three or four linebackers, two corners and two safeties. Browse depth charts now and you’ll find those staples, in addition to studs and stars, vipers and bandits, or snipers, strikers and flashes. Even a Bubo.
Terminology has always been subject to change or the whim of a coach. At Penn State in the 1950s, coach Rip Engle ran the 52 Monster defense with five defensive linemen and a strong safety known as a monster back. But Engle felt that was a derogatory term, so he opted to rename it the hero back, a tradition that lasted for decades.
But for the more technical types, the terminology was pretty standard. In a 4-3, the middle linebacker is the Mike. Will is on the weak side, Sam on the strong side. In a 3-4, there’s another linebacker, often called a Jack, and used as an edge pass-rusher.
In the early 1990s, the addition of a fifth defensive back, or nickel back, provided an opening for new names. Nick Saban, then an assistant to Bill Belichick in Cleveland, called his a star. Once a sixth defensive back was incorporated (a dime package), they called it the money back, sticking with the theme.
“The star really is the Sam, so he wanted an S-word for that position,” Saban explained in 2012. “When you put six guys in the game, whether it’s a sub linebacker or a sixth defensive back, we had nickel, dime, dollar. Different money terms. So we just started calling that the money position.”
There are stars everywhere now: Browsing every available FBS spring depth chart shows 14 teams that label it as a defined position, the most of any of the newfangled hybrid names. A few others are frequently used: bandit and buck are both rush linebacker names listed by 10 different teams, while rover is usually more of a linebacker/safety mix that’s just as common. But there is lots of mixing and matching going on, too. Navy lists a raider, a striker and a bandit. Florida State has a fox, a stud and a buck. BYU plays a cinco, a flash and a rover.
BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki attempted to explain how we got here.
“So really, the flash, nickel and cinco are all pretty much in the same spot on the field with different bodies,” he said, noting it’s a way to categorize players for different packages.
But this is how it happened: Dave Aranda, now head coach at Baylor, used cinco at Wisconsin when he was defensive coordinator. Chad Kauha’aha’a, who was the Badgers’ defensive line coach, brought it to Oregon State when Tuiaki worked there, and Tuiaki brought the name with him to BYU. Assistant head coach/safeties coach Ed Lamb called one of his safeties a flash when he was at Southern Utah. So head coach Kalani Sitake and Tuiaki took a position known as the stud that they used when they worked for Kyle Whittingham at Utah and renamed it the flash at BYU. Does all that make sense?
“We sit here and we scheme as coaches, and just talk ’round and ’round and finally make a decision and then we’re finally waiting to name it,” Tuiaki said. “That seems to be the hardest thing.”
Graduate assistants often help with the exhaustive research.
“If someone ever wrote a thesaurus that had words that start with S or W [for strong or weak] or R or L for right or left, you could make a bazillion dollars selling those to every football coach everywhere,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “You’d be amazed sometimes by the brainstorming sessions to come up with something that starts with one of those letters.”
In BYU’s case, there’s even a bit of a competitive element to it.
“Everybody’s fighting for the right to name something,” Tuiaki said. “I was an English major, Coach Lamb was an English major and Kalani is an English major, so we’re sitting in there really geeking out about what things should be called and why. I think it takes the way that we made things to a different level.”
Some take a more direct route and lean into school spirit. Starting in 1998 when he was head coach at New Mexico, Rocky Long played Brian Urlacher at a position called Lobo back, and the Lobos (Long returned as defensive coordinator last year) still use the name. One of Long’s former players and assistants, Zach Arnett, now the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, applied that technique in naming his version the Bulldog.
The names don’t even necessarily mean the same spot on the field. Even at the same school. West Virginia‘s bandits in the early 2000s were safeties. Under current coach Neal Brown, bandits are more of a linebacker/defensive end mix.
Then there’s Temple, which has a linebacker known as the Bubo. To help explain, the Owls listed this asterisked notation in a recent media guide: “BUBO is a type of owl, considered as the biggest, strongest and most ferocious.”
And who wouldn’t want to be the most ferocious owl of them all?
Or perhaps you’d rather be named for a deadly serpent. Under former defensive coordinator Don Brown, Michigan employed a viper, played most notably by Jabrill Peppers, who became a Heisman finalist. When defensive line coach Greg Mattison left to become Ohio State‘s defensive coordinator, he instituted a similar position known as a bullet, a nod to the Buckeyes’ “Silver Bullet” nickname for their defense. It would be unseemly to have the same name at those two schools, after all.
Those are two examples of the more aggressive-sounding terminology, which seems to be the way things are trending. Troy and West Virginia have a position called the spear. Under Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia has occasionally played someone at sabre (named for the swords on its logo). Former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast called his edge rusher a predator.
We’ll hear plenty about the Joker this year. In his first season at Oregon, DeRuyter again has his perfect fit at the position in Kayvon Thibodeaux, the country’s No. 1 overall recruit in 2019, who said he wants to win the Heisman this season. Being seen as a specialized defender in Miller’s old role sure won’t hurt.
And really, why pitch a recruit on being a linebacker when you can pitch them on being a striker instead?
“You want to act like you’ve got a cool job,” Diaz said. “No one wants to be the poodle.”
So that must have been why he went with strikers a few years ago for his hybrid linebacker/safeties, right?
“It was actually funny, [in spring 2018] we had been debating a bunch of names and striker had come about,” he said. “They interviewed one of the kids who was playing that position. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, they’ve got me playing the striker position now.’
“So we said, ‘Well, I guess we have to call it the striker now.’ Once it had kind of seen the light of day, there was no going back.”
Tom Bradley, who played the hero back position at Penn State and later coached it as a longtime assistant there, called Takkarist McKinley, who went on to be a first-round pick, a razor when he was UCLA’s defensive coordinator. Must be a cool story there.
“I don’t remember why,” Bradley said. “It was just a name somebody came up with and I said, ‘OK, that’s good.'”
No matter how all these names arrived, every coach agreed they’re here to stay, with possibly even more personalization. But all of this is happening by the defensive coaches. Offenses still have wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. The one spot where customization is starting to creep in is at H-back, the hybrid tight end/fullback spot. Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern labeled his superbacks. At Oklahoma State, they’re known as Cowboy backs.
Lincoln Riley notes that Oklahoma is “probably the most normal team in America,” keeping things pretty standard by calling their rush linebacker “the rush linebacker.” But he has heard appeals from his own players and said maybe a time will come when he’ll trick up the name for his H-backs as well, a position he utilizes quite a bit.
“You know what, they actually suggested that,” he said. “It’s been brought up every now and then. And maybe we can have a cooler name than the H-backs. If we were going to change one offensively, that would be the one. After they read this, I gotta come up with something.”
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, who certainly has gotten plenty of mileage out of branding his offense the Air Raid back at Iowa Wesleyan, understands the appeal of a catchy label.
“Let’s get everybody excited,” Leach said. “By God, we got a thingamajig out here, so how are they gonna possibly survive that? It does kind of keep it exciting.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to start rethinking names for his inside and outside receivers.
“We’ve either got to do a cool name or just recognize the fact that those defensive guys have more time on their hands, and certainly amuse themselves in a wholesome activity like changing names,” he said.
Tuiaki laughed when asked what the difference was between a nickel and a cinco, if they both were merely synonyms for the number five.
“I never even thought about the play on nickel and cinco until you just said it now,” he said. “We probably need to get a little bit more aggressive with our words so that you go, ‘Hey listen, you are going to be a Terminator!'”
At Coastal Carolina, defensive coordinator Chad Staggs can see why creative names could appeal to recruits, but he isn’t sure it’s worth all the trouble.
“I think people will start labeling things to fire people up in the recruiting process,” he said. “But if you sit here and say I’m gonna change this to call it this name and we’re gonna revamp every letter in the playbook and redo everything and learn to call it that … it’ll probably help us but that’s a lot of work for coolness.“
But he might be open to reinterpreting his current terminology.
“We need something with an M,” he said, thinking of how to showcase his middle linebacker with the old-school flow, Teddy Gallagher. “You could call the Mike the mullets. Our Mike does have a mullet.”
Staggs’ muse is already on board.
“It’d be cool,” Gallagher said. “All the Mikes on the team would have to start going with the mullet. Because you can’t go on the field as the mullet and not have a mullet, you know?”