Last year I spent a considerable chunk of the year covering Manny Diaz and what he got up to over the course of the year. I anticipated a Dick Lebeau-inspired approach from him and was afraid that his defense would prove big-play prone working against the excellent screening and spreading offenses of the Big 12.
You simply cannot play the same defenses against Texas Tech that you used to shut down Georgia.
But then I was won over by Diaz's gameplanning and results, like everyone else, and worked all year to understand how he was achieving those results and what his responses were to the challenges presented by the Air Raid and other spread systems. Lebeau managed to overcome the Patriots' use of these tactics as well.
This is required reading if you want to discuss Diaz defense's X's and O's. This isn't a bad place to investigate either.
If you insist on a basic summary: 2 Read is a combination of Cover-2 and Quarters that adjusts based on route development. TCU uses it heavily and it's designed for nickel defenses or 4-3 teams who's Sam linebacker doesn't look like Bill Romanowski. Oklahoma for instance, or 2010's Mississippi St.
Ideally, the coverage forces the ball to the outside along the sideline while positioning defensive backs to provide good force play against the run. Much like Diaz's Fire Zones, which also encourage less harmful/harder to execute outside throws while presenting an 8-man front against the run.
Whether you are planning to run or throw, Diaz doesn't want you in the middle.
When you have a 6 man front, whether it be 3 DL/3 LB or 4 DL/2 LB, those 6 players are filling all the gaps in the tackle box and spilling runs outside where the 5 DB's will snuff them out. Spill it and kill it, as they say.
Generally, most spread teams are building around running games that attack the interior of that front, since they already have an array of screens and pass-plays to attack the perimeter.
OSU, for instance, has outside zone in their complement of runs but they make their living running inside-zone and pairing it with screens or pass concepts.
You may remember that Texas has a check with the X receiver and QB in which he can throw a quick slant from a running play if he sees a soft coverage.
Or you may remember OSU clearing out our safeties by giving a bubble screen look from the WR's and then running up our gut for enormous gains.
This is where those DT's that Scipio examined the other day come into play. Modern spread tactics isolate DT's against interior OL playing with angles or double teams, albeit often with converted offensive tackles from the burbs who were too unathletic to make it on the edge.
This also makes LB's who pursue with great angles (Knott/Klein) or have fantastic lateral movement (A. Brown, C. Nelson) extremely valuable since they have to fill hard inside while maintaining leverage to handle their responsibilities on outside runs and pass plays.
When you run down the list of great returning Texas defenders, you find guys who play on the edge: Byndom, Diggs, Phillips, Vaccaro, Jeffcoat, Okafor. But, priority 1 for the defense is making sure those A and B gaps aren't a sieve or having All-Conference Ends and DB's will not have the impact that it should.
Some of the things you take for granted, we were hard to beat in the "A" gap and "B" gap right up the middle last year. And boy, if all of a sudden that becomes a problem, then a lot becomes a problem. So that's where everything we do begins. That's the tip of the sphere. We have to be good up the middle. And we were last year. But a lot of the guys that made us good last year up the middle are not here anymore. So that's the immense challenge.
There's the rub in Diaz's own words.
Now, we need our boys to be able to fill those gaps in 2 contexts: When we play base defense, and when we stunt.
By all accounts Steve Edmond has taken to stunting exceptionally well and I think we can trust both ends, the DBs, and Jordan Hicks to make the defense gap sound as dropping defenders when we send Edmond in a Fire Zone. It somewhat limits our ability to mix things up if we can't trust Edmond or Cobbs to make the Hot 2 or Hot 3 drops but this doesn't particularly worry me. You still have to block them.
I think our games (base coverage+DT/LB stunts), Fire Zones, and other blitzes are going to be some of the most devastating that the league has ever seen. I'm hard pressed to remember another team that's featured pass-rushers of this caliber at DT, DE, LB, and S AND made heavy use of stunting or Fire Zones.
The more pressing issue is whether we can be gap and assignment sound in our base defenses: 2-Read, Cover-5, etc.
Again, I feel pretty safe projecting that Hicks can handle most the tricks and tasks asked by hucksters like Holgorsen or Snyder (it helps that Harsin is as demanding as anyone in terms of attacking run/pass responsibilities), although it was not his strong point last season. What about Cobbs and Edmond? What if one of these guys gets hurt and we have to play Tevin Jackson or one of the backups?
This defense is maximized by savvy athletes at linebacker who can blitz but first and foremost you need guys to be in the right spots because there's only 6 men between the back and a de-leveraged secondary. TCU likes having guys like Kenny Cain here but they've made their living with guys like Tank Carder.
At defensive tackle we find a similar situation. Diaz has to be pretty excited about everyone on the 2-deep in terms of using loops, twists, or stunts. However, in terms of beating blocks in basic over/under fronts, there's less certainty.
Ultimately though, with Dorsey and a warm body in the right place we're better off then many of the other teams in the league and I'm confident that Jackson and Moore can find themselves in the right gap more often than not. As Scipio covered, most of these guys have some breakthrough potential that could turn up as soon as October. The pieces are here to resume Texas' role as a pipeline of pro DT talent.
However, if you see Texas struggle to fill gaps early in the year, you can expect most fans to be reticent to blame Diaz's charges Edmond or Cobbs because of their pass rush exploits and blame our "inexperience" at defensive tackle instead.
You should know better. Playing linebacker in the Big 12 is mentally challenging and some of the stouter run defenses last year (ISU, KSU) got there by simply having dudes who knew how to get in the way. Against the finesse offenses in this league, Woody Allen's metric for success tends to hold up pretty well.
To compound your collective stress levels regarding our ability to plug the middle with our deeply talented but somewhat inexperienced frontline, I present what the rest of the league is returning to their backfields and OL's.
OU: Returning Whaley and Finch at RB, all 3 interior OL positions, and 4/5 of the line. They also have do-it-all back Trey Millard returning to plow the road for the Belldozer and other runs.
OSU: Return 2 experienced guards, Randle and Smith at RB, and 3/5 of the OL. Their 2-deep is fairly experienced as well.
TT: Only 1 member of the interior OL coming back, 2/5 of the OL overall, but RB Eric Stephens is back.
KSU: They bring back their center and a guard on the OL and the rest are fresh starters with a smattering of game experience. Hubert and Pease are back at RB, more importantly so is Klein.
ISU: 3 returning starters on the OL, including 2 in the interior, to pave the way for some backs that you've mostly never heard of. They'll need one of those to be a gamechanger in order to climb out of the cellar. They've had a good program for producing linemen (and defenses) there without finding anyone special to capitalize on it.
WVU: 3/5 of the OL is back and 2 of those are on the interior. Tavon Austin is back, and he's basically a part-time running back and the one we actually need to worry about. With that in mind, it would have been better if they were returning more at tackle.
TCU: They lose both of their tackles and a guard from last year's group. They have 2 of their 3 "700 yard rushers" back from last year but when you see that kind of success from 3 backs it's a good bet that it's more about the OL.
Kansas: Hahahaha. They return a tackle and a guard to lead the way in attempting to utilize Weis' pro-style schemes against the rest of the league.
You'll notice that most of the teams who are returning experience at QB are lacking it on the OL, while some of the stronger lines will be anchoring unproven QB's like Barnett, Lunt, and Ash.
OSU's running game looks rock solid for 2012, until you consider that it was stonewalled by ISU last year and made it's name against Dime fronts.
Iowa St. and Baylor have frisky looking running games as well but are both missing gamechangers, at least as far as we know.
KSU and TCU are good bets to successfully retool their lines because of their program strength so keep an eye on how they develop over the season because we catch them both late.
West Virginia is going to have to prove both in their 2012 tape AND on the field against us that their interior attack deserves any respect in the form of wide splits from our safeties and LB's or fewer than 6 DBs in our packages.
Oklahoma has an alarming combination of quality backs, experienced offensive linemen, downfield receiving threats, and talent at QB. If they can run the ball on us, I'm not sure if anyone in the conference will be able to bring them down. The Belldozer is just a frustrating irritant that makes them more efficient in situations that already tend to go well for competent offenses, if they can get 2nd and 3rd and short after running Inside Zone they will be more than irritating.
You can hope for stalled development at other programs and powderpuff trench play from the Sooners or Diaz treating his positional coaching duties as an audition for a HC gig. All are likely ;)