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An examination of the Texas Longhorns defense and what can reasonably be expected of Manny Diaz and his troops.
I admit I enjoy uproar and chaos in the sports world. Between the ratings-craved media and fans who "deserve" answers, there's always drama and, subsequently, heads on the chopping block. Every week there have been questions raised concerning who are the right guys we need on the field, what the hell the coaches are doing, and what the solutions are to our fundamental problems. After a series of games where several of us haven't been impressed with what's on film defensively, there have been mild rumblings about whether or not Manny Diaz is the right guy for the job. I want to be the first to pump the brakes on that. While I am always pushing for self-development, frequent evaluation, and tweaking things to become better, wholesale changes can set us back before they propel us forward. But in the heat of the moment, we sometimes lose sight of that.
Change is inevitable when it comes to college football. There are only so many parts of a program any head coach or Athletics Director have control over. Productive coaches leaving to take on bigger roles is one of them. It's not far-fetched to assume anyone reading this wants a Texas program that has an ever-lasting presence in the national title conversation. With that in mind I can't help but believe that stability, not change, is what will make the difference.
It is with utter pain that I use a program like Alabama as an example when discussing how they've been relevant in the national title conversation year after year. It's not like they've had any Heisman-caliber quarterbacks who've thrown for an ungodly amount of yards. What they have done, is load up on talented backs, backfilled with beef on both lines, and maintained a consistent defensive scheme year after year. With a strong offensive line and a great stock of backs, I'd argue most quality offensive coordinators could find yards with that foundation, especially since it takes pressure off quarterbacks. But being great defensively is a different animal, especially moving into the Big XII as it stands today.
Coaches must adjust to offenses that run uptempo, spread you out, and challenge you to be sound in the open field against talented athletes. Sharp minds have come into the conference and made teams we used to write off not only relevant, but legitimate threats year after year. I'm waiting on the day I see a defense have one (1) week to prepare for West Virginia's offense under Holgorsen and hold them under 20 points. Times have changed in the conference and defensive coordinators are still playing catch up. With that being said, I take a look at what made previous defensive coordinators at Texas successful and put Manny Diaz's defense's production (or lack thereof) into context in his second year in this league.
After his lone 2004 season, Greg Robinson struck what he considered gold and took off for the head coaching job in Syracuse. After finishing the 2005 season with a 1-10 record (0-7 Big East), I'm sure the days where he allowed 18 points per game the previous year feel like decades ago. Coach Robinson just so happened to come to Texas at a time where we had an All-world player at linebacker in DJ Johnson, young all-conference DBs in Michael Huff and Cedric Griffin, and All-American Rodrique Wright anchoring the defensive line. From the front of the defense to the back, he had experienced talent in place that was capable of quickly picking up his concepts and making the most of them on the field.
Next in line was Coach Gene Chizik, who we snatched from an Auburn team that lead the country in scoring defense and got hosed out of the championship game after going 13-0. Coach Chizik took over a defense in 2005 full of experienced upper classmen (Michael Huff, Cedric Griffin, Michael Griffin, Rodrique Wright, Aaron Harris, Aaron Ross, Terrell Brown, and... you get the picture). These guys were seasoned enough to handle the change and I can't overstate the fact that we had the safety net of an offense that year that was the best in Texas football history. This was all during a time when games like Baylor and Okie State were walkthroughs in addition to the usual suspects (or victims, rather). We all looked like superstar players and coaches that year. Luckily, we beat the Greatest Team in College Football History that year. If we hadn't, the conference would have lost all credibility. All in all, it was a perfect storm and we finished the season giving up 16.4 points per game on defense and winning the national championship.
Although we lost a few key guys on defense that next year, we still had enough of a foundation amongst the defensive line (Brian Robison, Tim Crowder, Frank Okam, Roy Miller) and defensive backfield (Michael Griffin, Aaron Ross, Terrell Brown), to be productive from a points per game standpoint. In Coach Chizik's final season at Texas we gave up 18 points per game, and he sailed off into the Iowa State sunset.
In 2007, I say with disgust, we gave up 25 points per game under the two headed monster of Akina-MacDuff. That tenure was short-lived, as we all know. But those guys didn't have much to work with as we were playing with talented youth and average upperclassmen throughout the defense.
In 2008 Coach Muschamp came over at a time where the offense hit its stride in Colt McCoy's 3rd year and averaged 42 points per game. With a healthy mixture of multi-year starters (Brian Orakpo, Roy Miller, Lamarr Houston, Sergio Kindle, Henry Melton, Rashad Bobino, and Ryan Palmer) and talented underclassmen (Earl Thomas, Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown), he took on a team where he had the protection of a potent offense and experienced depth on defense to get things back to a standard we grew to appreciate, giving up 18.8 points per game.
In 2009, he back-filled that talent with young guys playing beyond their years in Aaron Williams and Earl Thomas. Even a young Kheeston Randall was pulling his weight next to Sergio Kindle, Lamarr Houston, Sam Acho and Roddrick Muckelroy. The defense actually improved that season only allowing 16.7 points per game and this group put up a valiant performance against Alabama in the national title game against Alabama. At the time Coach Muschamp was the head coach-in-waiting and we all knew we'd enjoy this embarrassment of riches until the end of time.
But then reality set in.
In 2010, after losing several pieces to the puzzle, Muschamp's defense gave up 23.7 points a game while our offense, under the direction of Greg Davis, scored 23.8 points per game. In short, shit got ugly, change ensued, and we revamped the entire staff.
This brings us to Manny Diaz. After taking a look back at what made previous coaches wildly successful on defense in their short tenures at Texas, there are a few themes. There seemed to be a balance of accomplished upper classmen, talented youngsters, and healthy amount of on-field leadership in each level of the defense. Last year, the defense gave up 22 points per game which included giving up 55 to OU, 38 to Okie State, and 48 points to Baylor. They put up pretty good fights against Missouri and Kansas State as our offense became hampered by injuries and held on tight to help anchor a win against the Aggies. After finishing with a strong outing against Cal, the stage was set for improvement this year. Or so we thought.
This year we've been faced with challenges that have caused me to revisit what my expectations should have been for this defense at the onset of the season. Taking into context the potency of offenses in the conference as well as acknowledging the lack of experience in the heart of our defense, I look at three main areas I'll be evaluating moving forward. While some of my expectations are the same, others I've completely adjusted.
Tackling (or lack thereof)
I'm not sure how or when this became an issue. I expected guys to make some adjustments getting back into live action as the season began. But who knew it would haunt us in such a major way when it came to big plays. This is one area where we couldn't have predicted the drastic influence it would have on the season. But it's also one of the main areas where I believe we should be unwavering on our expectations. We need solid tackling with no leaking yardage. While I feel we were a bit better last week, there is a bigger issue we must address in my opinion.
We can't make tackles if there's no one in position to make them. This has been more frustrating for me than missed tackles because this is the one area of which we have full control. While you can get beat physically by a talented athlete from time to time, there's nothing that should be able to alter your capacity to be mentally in tune with what's going on.
There were certain periods in games where appeared to ask for confirmation on where to lineup for multiple plays in the same formations. There are only two ways that's even possible. Either the offense has come out in a formation you haven't seen all week in practice OR you've simply lost focus in that moment and forgotten. Either way, it leaves gaping holes in the defense. Up-tempo offenses are designed to limit substitutions and tire out the personnel along the defensive line. When you combine a fatigued defensive line with players lined up behind them that aren't certain where to lineup, our defense transforms into the autobahn.
This is something, even if ONLY this, I'd love to see cleaned up this week. Oklahoma doesn't run many exotics on offense. If we can simply get guys aligned correctly, I think they'll be in position to play fast and have a positive influence on this week's game. I simply can't find any reason not to expect this coming into this week.
Every special defense needs its fair share of playmakers to create opportunities for the offense. Coming into the season I expected our defensive ends to wreak havoc on QBs. I was a bit uncertain about our DTs. But, I can say I've been pleased with the defensive line's production overall this year in the play-making department and expect this to continue.
As far as the linebackers go, I was excited about the pure talent at the position but had no clue what these guys would offer when it came to creating opportunities. Other than Steve Edmond's big interception against Ole Miss, I can't find times where I saw these guys creating opportunities for the offense. I've been impressed with Dalton Santos on special teams, but it stops there.
This week, I'd simply love to see them get aligned properly and be in position to make plays when the time comes. Beyond that, I have no expectations of plays being made. These guys are the youngest on this defense when it comes to experience and I think we've all realized it's going to take time. How much remains to be seen.
I expected the most out of our DBs this year, as this was the group I felt the strongest about. My expectations for them haven't shifted a bit. I fully expect them to continue to find ways to influence the game more and more this year. We've seen Kenny Vaccaro and Quandre Diggs come up with plays throughout the year that have created opportunities for the offense. But we absolutely need Carrington Byndom to get back to his form from a year ago and for guys like Mykkele Thompson to come up with interceptions when those rare chances are within reach.
Let's sum all of this up.
With an offense that's proven it can score points, a special teams group that's had better days than last week, and a few defensive players who find a way to create opportunities, I'm expecting our first strong defensive performance of the season (against a reputable opponent). OU doesn't run some of the unorthodox offensive formations or schemes we've seen from others this season. This is the first game of the season we're not facing a mobile quarterback and facing an offense that actually uses a more traditional, two-back set from time to time. A neutral site doesn't weed out the fan influence, but both teams can actually have their cake and can eat it too, if they play well.
After the game in 2011 this is not only a grudge match but a time for Manny Diaz and the defense to make a statement that they've truly learned from ALL the things they've put on film. Our season and Diaz's tenure at Texas will be under full examination from here on out. I'm not anywhere close to making a decision on whether he's the guy or not. I truly enjoy his energy and how he has fun coaching this defense. And with my sentiments on establishing stability in our program, I'm absolutely rooting for him to come up big in this one. While he still doesn't have the perfect assortment of players that some before him enjoyed, my putting that into context will not subdue the scrutiny if things don't shape up soon.
The ball must get rolling at some point. All things considered, I can't find any excuses why this week can't be the week.
Damn, I can't wait to watch these guys play.