Grantland: Charlie Strong, Joe Lee Dunn, and the Birth of the 3-3-5 Defense — An excerpt from The Essential Smart Football

An excerpt from my new book, The Essential Smart Football, is now up over at Grantland:

Even with his success, Dunn’s career can also be a warning about the 3-3-5. He’s held down jobs with good schools, but he never was able to break out beyond schools like Memphis, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. While at their best, his defenses were suffocating and hard to plan for; when the talent dropped off, the aggressiveness once viewed as a virtue seemed to bleed over into a lack of discipline and a penchant for giving up big plays. Since then, he has coached at Ridgeway High School, New Mexico State, and now Division III McMurry. In football, pragmatism rules, and inflexibility — even if it’s with a great idea — leads to the rest of the landscape passing you by.

His legacy is nevertheless secure. Dunn is essentially the father of the 3-3-5, and the coaches that now use it, even if only in certain situations, are his descendants. The original “30 stack” 3-3-5 is no longer the defense of the future. As with most schemes, age has exposed many of its weaknesses, and many of its leading practitioners, like Charlie Strong, have moved on to other fronts and use it as only a subpackage. But in the age of pass-first and spread offenses, the principles underlying it — movement, disguise, aggressiveness, and an extreme focus on speed — are more important than ever.

Read the whole thing, and the book can be purchased here.

  • I’m sure Charlie Strong is a fine D-coordinator, but you if you wanted to tell the more complete (and less popular non-BCS) story about the birth or popularization of the 3-3-5 you’d have to mention the scheme Rocky Long and his defensive staff designed at Oregon State in the mid-90s and refined at New Mexico for the better part of the 2000s. Long’s staff at OSU included three eventual FBS defensive coordinators in Bronco Mendenhall, Osia Lewis – both of whom remained 3-3-5 disciples as DCs – and Brady Hoke.  

    As an assistant coach at New Mexico in the early ’80s under DC Joe Lee Dunn, Long learned the concepts of the scheme that Dunn later unveiled at Memphis. (Here’s a pretty good feature on the birth of Long’s 3-3-5:

    At New Mexico, Long (with DCs Mendenhall and, later, Lewis) refined the scheme and turned the undermanned Lobos into one of the premier defensive teams in the country. UNM was one of only three schools to rank in the top-30 in total defense every season between 2000-04, along with Oklahoma and Texas.  (

  • stan brown

    Joe Lee Dunn’s defense created a bunch of problems for a great Nebraska offense back in the late 80s.  I remember watching the game on tv.  USC’s defense was very small (I think I remember the announcer saying one of the DTs was 240?) and very fast.  My memory is that he just brought blitzers from everywhere.  It was the first time I ever heard his name.  Had a nose and 2 guys head up on the tackles.  The rest of the defense was jumping around, crowding the line, and generally seemed in a hurry to get in the backfield.  If I recall correctly, Osborne finally came from behind to win by lining up in goal line with everyone tight every play and using his monster O-line to just smash the ball straight at them, down their throats and down the field.

    I don’t know what he called it back then, but every time I saw his defenses over the years it sure looked similar to the way he attacked all the time that day vs. Neb.

  • smartfootball

    Long is a great coach. Joe Lee Dunn was one of Long’s mentors. Not every article or piece is going to touch on every person who did something; in football, necessarily, each scheme or idea has many fathers. The purpose of talking about Charlie Strong was to show a coach who came to the 3-3-5 later, adapted it for a need, and successfully used it. To tell the roots of the scheme I turn to Dunn. In the book, where a fuller version of the chapter appears, I also talk about the guys at Georgia Military College and their spin. Tulsa under Todd Graham was another 3-3-5 team but they’ve gone more hybrid. It is possible to have an article on the passing game without mentioning Bill Walsh (or Weeb Ewbank, or Paul Brown, or even Sid Gillman), without denigrating their legacies or contributions, and similarly it is possible to discuss the 3-3-5 without discussing Rocky Long, without taking anything away from the wonderful work and wonderful defenses he has done over his many years.

    While everyone has their own personal lenses and hobbyhorses, football is a very in depth game. A book could be written about any of these subjects. I try to touch on a few at a time, limited always by time, depth, and the reader’s attention.

  • Understandable. Thanks for the reply. 

  • Dunn was always a fun view on any given mid south sideline, doing hand signals, often calling the same fronts or plays repeatedly. If he twisted a blitz enough times it would get you, just by variable law. Come from each side of the line so the protection can’t cover since it slides only one way.

  • Found an interesting item on a Rawlings NCAA team logo football, purchased it to review here. They have the numbered route tree assignments drawn up, for righty or lefty side receivers. Pretty certain that it doesn’t entirely match standard nomeclature but it is a way to show a player what to do when he hears a tag/call, directly on a football. May try a similar stencil using paint pens on a practice football, to match routes to a particular system.!/photo.php?fbid=10151823228845724&set=a.10150215239615724.446715.802155723&type=1&theater

  • Alborn

    The first time Dunn used the 3-3-5 scheme was in the early 80s when he was defensive coordinator at New Mexico. If my memory serves me right it was against BYU and McMahon was the quarterback. He perfected later and others built on it. Being a small guy playing the sport he knew you had to get on the offensive to beat other teams that were bigger and stronger than you.

  • samparnell

    Joe Lee Dunn invented the 3-3-5 defense at the University of New Mexico in 1980 when he was Defensive Coordinator and his DB Coach was Rocky Long.

  • samparnell

    Right. Joe Lee Dunn was DC at UNM 1980-82 and Head Coach at UNM 1983-86. He invented the 3-3-5 in 1980 when he was DC and his DB Coach was Rocky Long. One of his players, Kelly Wilson, went on to become a HS Head Coach at Rio Grande HS and at Carlsbad HS.
    When Rocky Long became HC at UNM in 1998, his best Lobo Back was Brian Urlacher from Lovington HS.