Since I've primarily focused on Diaz and the defense this year I thought I would review the year, what we accomplished, and how. I've broken down the review into pieces: the stats of our play, our strategy, and individual performances.
We finished first in conference in yards per play allowed at 4.8, the Oklahoma's tied for 2nd with 5.3 yards per play. This was largely on the back of our defense allowing only 6 yards per pass (it was much lower before RGIII) and we also only gave up 3.3 per play on the ground.
Huckleberry's adjusted stats tell a similar story of a Texas defense that finished 8th in the nation in adjusted yards per play. We only managed to finish 70th in sacks per play and 52nd in turnovers per play.
In summary, we were immensely difficult to move the ball against but we didn't take it away very often. I have two explanations for this result that I'll explain in strategy.
There wasn't much good on the Baylor game tape but we performed better than most against the Oklahoma offenses and were absolutely dominant against the rest of the league. This was definitely a defense that would have carried us to a BCS game had we been the proud owners of an offense that could take care of the ball and score touchdowns in the red zone.
Our base defense was 3-under. Many teams in the league are defined by what their safeties do, or their alignments and fronts. We didn't have a consistent front or even deep coverage that defined who we were. What defined us was 3 underneath defenders with the other 8 men deployed either in pressure or in deep coverage.
Cover 3 is obviously the base defense of Diaz's choice and it's the one that most closely resembles the Fire Zone coverage that we used so often this year of 3 under, 3 deep. However, our dearth of lateral range or hip-turning abilities in the Middle Of Field Safety position combined with our weaknesses in leveraging receivers underneath with team execution meant that when we wanted to play coverage we were often in Quarters, 4 deep defenders, 3 underneath, 4 rushers, or Cover 5 with man underneath and 2 deep defenders, and kept receivers in front of us.
Most teams in the league play Cover 2. It's not hard (unless you are Mack Brown) to find spread QB's who can learn the West-coast/spread quick game and execute short passes all day long and pile up yardage and points. Cover 2 floods the short zones with 5 pass-defenders and it's weak spots involve throwing passes like the deep out or deep post and playing good pass protection. That's where the average college QB and OL break down.
The only difficulty with Cover 2 is in coordinating the pattern reads and leveraging underneath as well as the deep safeties' ability to defend lots of grass, two areas where we clearly don't excel. So we went the other direction and told teams to execute their quick games against only 3 underneath defenders or man coverage assisted by deep support and frequent blitzes.
Diaz also teaches the 3 underneath defenders in Fire Zones to jump the common or more likely short routes and force the QB to hold onto the ball against our blitz, or attempt to throw deep where our corners and safeties are. Until we mastered this process it wasn't as difficult for offenses to find receivers open short which prevented interceptions and sacks from piling up.
We move guys into all kinds of assignments but for the most part these three heroes were Kenny Vaccaro, Emmanuel Acho, and Keenan Robinson.
Everyone who is longing to improve our adjusted 2.9 rushing yards allowed per game with a starting lineup that features Steve Edmond would would be wise to consider that we were able to give up only 6 yards per pass by putting a lot of responsibility in the hands of three guys who won't be here next season.
How we adjust next year is for another post but what I'd like to note here is that our schemes required a ton out of the linebackers/nickel and they held up in that role brilliantly until RGIII came and destroyed our pressure, deep coverage, and our linebackers' ability to defend the short field.
Diaz was able to employ his philosophy of getting pressure while not giving up big plays AND successfully protected our weaknesses in the secondary by giving them numbers and leverage.
Corners: These guys played very well very quickly. We were able to challenge receivers outside with press coverage from Byndom, Diggs, and Phillips despite the fact that they had deep sideline responsibilities in most of our coverages (cover-5,4,3,1).
OU caught our guys a few times and after that they pretty much locked down the sideline from the fade or go routes that will bring down a defense fast.
Safeties: Adrian Phillips was a playmaker who picked off 2 passes and forced 2 fumbles while splitting time between corner and safety. He was kept off the field at times by virtue of being the 3rd best cover corner and the 4th youngest safety, as well as injuries.
Gideon gave us intelligence, leadership, and consistency. You can see in his play an understanding of where and how to make plays but he just doesn't get there in time. He played well against UCLA and OSU, poorly against OU and Baylor. It is what it is. Scott played some nickel and safety in our "platinum" dime defense. Physically he's a minor upgrade over Gideon, mentally he's definitely a downgrade.
We were average here at both positions unless Vaccaro or Phillips were back there and even AP didn't put it all together consistently. By next season he should be an All-Conference performer.
Linebacker: I've talked a lot about what Vaccaro did for us this year. Robinson and Acho mastered the run defense by the end of the year, both were effective blitzers, and were great in coverage. Hicks lagged behind in schematic understanding and the need for nickel kept him off the field except as an alternate or in some of our platinum personnel looks. He has the potential to be better than either Robinson or Acho but mentally he's not there yet.
Defensive End: The early schedule was fantastic for training our ends in a variety of roles. They got to play against spread-to-run teams, the pistol, power and by the end of the year were great against everything. We need more depth but Okafor managed an All-American season and Jeffcoat might join him next year. Our sack numbers increased over the course of the year as our coverage tightened up and these guys' sack totals increased.
Defensive Tackle: Randall didn't quite catch hold of the Diaz defense early in the year and didn't really take to the attacking and stunting like he did to Muschamp's gap-control schemes. He finished pretty well but his inability to get to the QB or make as many tackles behind the line might have cost him a round or two in where he gets drafted.
Our recruitment of Brandon Moore is interesting as he's basically another Randall who's been coached to control interior gaps. I'm assuming we want him for short-yardage situations and situational play.
The rest of our tackles combined to be one pretty great player and they match Diaz's plan for the position. We got pass rush and eventually good run defense when these young guys learned the run fits. Diaz needs kids here that can use speed to fill gaps and cross up the blocking assignments of the OL. The intensity of effort to accomplish that necessitates that we rotate players and we're loaded with ideal prospects to accomplish this. Losing Randall will sting but we may be looking at a LSU-level interior DL next season with everyone else back and acclimated to the scheme.
All in all we took advantage of our excellence at linebacker/nickel to protect everyone else in the defense as they gradually caught on to the scheme and system. Next year we'll get a massive upgrade in athleticism at safety, return both corners, and feature a loaded DL with 2 defensive ends playing for NFL contracts. Bowl practice, game and another year (hopefully), and then we'll see what adjustments Diaz has up his sleeve next.