Finally, I've recovered from my trip to Oxford. Adrenaline-fueled from months of anticipation gave me the energy to endure partying from the moment we touched down until the time we left. Apparently, I'm aging and was worthless for a few days after returning. But here are a few quick highlights before I jump into the unit-by-unit breakdown of defense in the Ole Miss game...
The Ole Miss Golf Course was nothing less than stellar. After a Thursday night full of rumple shots, I woke up and grabbed a quick continental breakfast at the Oxford Inn, and made it over to the course for my 9:30 tee time. It was very well groomed and backed up to the Oxford airport. When I wasn't guessing which douchebags were flying in on jets, I enjoyed playing a serviceable round of golf, which kicked the weekend off to a great start.
As I fast forward to Saturday, I must acknowledge that there is no way Lord DeLoss will ever be able to recreate that atmosphere for Horns fans. The Grove was full of adult libations, eyegasms, and married women partying with milfhunters while their truant husbands went "to get more ice". From noon to gametime, we somehow survived a full day's workload of great food, Hotty Toddy hoopla, and endless porta potty lines.
After punching the clock at the Grove, heading over to watch the game was more of a survival task. The atmosphere was more than you could ask for but there were just too many distractions in the stands. Sitting with my Ole Miss friends in the Texas section combined with the ensuing beat down, we took off in the 3rd quarter per their usual routine.
Sunday, after being coerced into bringing back two additional friends in an F-150, the five of us exited the truck eight hours later feeling nothing short of beat. So, in finally watching this week's film early yesterday morning, it felt like a game I hadn't even seen and with that I think I was able to make some objective observations about each unit on defense.
Like most weeks so far this season, I feel great about the way this group performed. I was just as excited to see Brandon Moore push around the Ole Miss lineman as he was to be playing back in Mississippi and closer to home. I thought the combination of Chris Whaley and him flashed the most but I walked away feeling pretty good about our DT rotation as a whole. They've consistently done a good job of both pressuring the pocket on pass rush and keeping the awareness to play screens. There were a few times in the empty set where I wished they would have two-gapped Ole Miss' inferior/interior lineman a bit better and made plays that weren't strictly "theirs" to make. While I know I'm being picky, the group didn't play badly or great enough for me to analyze them individually. At least for me, it feels like the time when this group was a question mark and potential liability was so long ago. Kudos to Bo Davis.
Alex Okafor - AO is a senior who's out there playing the game at an All-American level right now. If the younger guys on the roster play as well as our two seniors on defense are when they reach this point in their careers, we have something fun to look forward to. When Ole Miss attempted to pass block Okafor he usually drove the tackle into the QB's lap. When they unwisely left him unblocked he pressured QB and forced a quick decision. Through two games of watching him play against the option, he's the one guy I'm not sure I've seen miss an assignment. His discipline, relentlessness, and awareness will continue to give this defense chances to grow as he makes plays that bail us out.
Jackson Jeffcoat - He is playing at a level that will force opponents to pick their poison. He was very physical at the point of attack in the run game and too much of at matchup problem when pass rushing. While I still have mixed emotions about him dropping into coverage, he made a play many may not have noticed but was game-changing. After Donte Monte Moncrief's big catch when he stepped out of bounds and Jordan Hicks' penalty (and injury), we were on our heels. On a 2nd and 10 play where Okafor sacked Wallace, Ole Miss had a trick play drawn up.
The play was designed to fake the screen left to the back and hit the receiver over the middle. Because of Jeffcoat's discipline in not jumping the screen route, Wallace had nowhere to go with the ball, and Okafor took him down. Jeffcoat has shown the awareness to cover in space, but I'm still wary about him having his back turned to the LOS when he drops. I'd like to see him sprint into position while looking back at the QB so he knows what's going on up front. I don't expect his dropping into coverage to change, so I just hope he continues to make that a strength.
Reggie Wilson - He flashed here and there in this game so I'm pleased to add him to the discussion. He's a guy I hope continues come along as I know we'll be facing up-tempo offenses throughout the season and we'll need him to fill in where needed. I was impressed with his athletic move to leap over the running back and sack Wallace for a 7-yard loss. But, on the next play he rushes so deep up-field, he compromises the integrity of the pocket which allows Wallace to roll out and extend the play. While the pass was incomplete, this is something I'd like to see him clean up in games to come.
Sigh... I'll just summarize things here. We're young and it shows. Manny Diaz's defense is simply not for the "see ball, hit ball" players. You need to not only know the defense in the classroom, but execute it fast and furious on the field. This group is sharp and talented but needs plenty of reps to learn from and play faster. We're watching them grow up right before our eyes and there's nothing we can do to speed up the learning.
Their issue right now more than anything else is that they are still thinking too much in the heart of plays. That makes them a step or two (sometimes three) late to their place in the defense. Unfortunately, we witnessed how those few steps hurt as they attempted arm tackling instead of getting solid hits on Dexter McCluster's bite-sized clones in this game. On plays when they know where they are going and what their responsibilities are, they show tremendous potential. When they are a step behind, things get ugly. This group needed this extra time to prepare for conference play more than any other.
My other observation is that they need to learn to trust their teammates while in pursuit. They must learn to approach tackles with proper leverage to the point where if they miss a tackle, the ball carrier is forced to cut it back to the rest of the players in pursuit. Too often they approach tackles with the wrong leverage and have collided into their own teammates. They need to chase relentlessly as if they are the last line of defense, but have proper leverage in pursuit as they trust others are chasing with that same mentality.
We still have a bit of growing to do here and these guys will continue to take their licks like any other young players. But I honestly believe we have the talent around them to compensate for the growing pains.
Vaccaro - Kenny had a solid performance per usual. He and Okafor have been the most solid players on this defense and it's been fun to watch. All my notes on watching his film say "strong hit", "urgent", "great awareness", and "solid coverage".
The one play where I was a bit disturbed was when Moncrief catches the ball over Diggs and Vaccaro assumed the tackle was already made. Fortunately, Moncrief stepped out of bounds. But, that's a habit this team must get out of immediately. That's been an issue with the team since the long pass and catch against Wyoming when Byndom and Phillips hit each other and missed the tackle. Vaccaro is a leader on this defense and he needs to be the first to clean that up on film and demand the same from everyone else.
Adrian Phillips - I'm enjoying watching him play more and more. He makes statements with his physicality and filling in on the run. He is all over this film with some strong hits and it will not go unnoticed when future opponents turn it on to take a look.
Where I'd like to see him grow is on his coverage when he's playing free safety. On the 75 yard touchdown pass to Moncrief, I felt he not only should have taken a better angle to secure the tackle, but he also could have had a better chance to interrupt the pass play overall. Byndom is taking the criticism for the coverage on that play, but he wasn't the only culprit. Byndom played outside leverage on Moncrief knowing he had inside help from Phillips. Moncrief did a great job of leaning into (aka slightly pushing) Byndom to create separation before making his cut inside. With that separation, Byndom desperately needed Phillips to have a great jump on the throw along with the proper angle to make the play. Phillips was in no position to help. Touchdown Moncrief. This is yet another experience they'll learn from. I expect Phillips to keep bringing his physical play and sharpen up his anticipation on these deep throws when he's playing free in coverage.
Quandre Diggs - Quandre was in his usual form as far as I noticed. Yes, he gave up a huge play to a receiver who'd start on our roster. But other than that I thought his play was solid.
Both of his picks came on plays where he was disguising man coverage and baited the quarterback into making the throw he wanted. On his first pick he fell into cover 3 for the easy play on the ill-advised throw from Moncrief. On his second interception he played hard on the route underneath knowing he had help from Josh Turner over the top. While some have mixed feelings about disguising our coverages, most of the big plays we make aren't because we're just so damn good and have superior athletes. It's because we have guys sharp enough to disguise coverages and bait the quarterback into turning the ball over. Diggs has learned to take great advantage of that.
Carrington Byndom - Because of what people expect from Byndom, his margin for error is slim these days. Yes, there a plays where I thought he should have brought his feet on tackles, been more physical on blocks, and much more sound in coverage but he also had plays where he was doing just that.
There are a couple plays where Byndom was deep in cover 3 and the LB playing underneath was late to his drop. On one play in particular, Wallace sprints out and completes a 9-yard throw to Moncrief. If you weren't paying attention, it looks like Byndom is responsible for the reception but what we really needed on that play was for the LB to recognize sprint out and push his coverage wider towards the sideline.
While I'll grant Byndom hasn't shined as much as many expect him to, he's not a player I'm concerned about. He's performed well for this team and I believe he'll put out solid performances soon. He has a long way to go before he reaches the "spilled blood for the school" zone.
Josh Turner - Round of applause for Josh for no other reason than the way he disguised his coverage on the Digg's second pick. In Wallace's presnap read Josh turns his back to the sideline and begins to lean towards the middle of the field. When the ball is snapped, Turner opens up towards the sideline and falls into cover two. Wallace has already locked in to what he saw presnap and forces the ball to his receiver who running a sticks route assuming Diggs was in man. Interception Diggs. Great disguise by Turner working with him to make that play happen.
My Thoughts Moving Forward
- At the end of the day we're not the only folks who watched the game film. Everything we saw, the coaches and players captured as well. That being said, I can safely assume the defense's focus this week were: proper angles/leverage on tackling, urgency in getting aligned against up-tempo offenses, run fits against the option, effort tracking the ball carrier when the play is away from you.
- Despite the discontent from Horns fans as it pertains to the defense's performance this past week, these guys executed the defense and made big plays in a hostile road environment on the majority of their snaps. A combination of high expectations for our defense and mild lack of respect for opponents sometimes leaves us shocked when our guys don't make plays we expect them to. I'll exchange giving up 31 points last week if it means we're going to address fixable problems before heading into conference play. This game and these mistakes couldn't have come at a better time. Let's just hope it shows.
- I don't expect Manny Diaz to change anything he's doing on defense. He's an expert at disguising and confusing QBs. For the few times it hurts us, I'll take the interceptions, pressures, and coverage sacks. If we simplify what we're doing, players won't continue to progress, the defense will be predictable, and we'll eventually get holes stomped in our ass. There's no turning back now and I know the entire staff is committed to growth on a weekly basis.
- Lastly, wins are hard to come by. Very hard. The offense's job is to go out and score as many points as possible. The defense's job is to make sure the opponent scores one point less. I wish games went as expected so I could quit my day job, move to Vegas, and drink cocktails at the sportsbook in the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino. But what we should expect is for these guys to show up each week with respect for their opponents, play their asses off, and have fun executing the defense. I think if we've learned nothing else in the past three weeks, other teams will makes plays on us and we will experience moments where we want to drive our heads through the wall showing folks how it's supposed to be done. Other than being crazy Longhorn fans who love our school, the experience of growth and overall ride is what makes this shit fun.
I'm anxious for next week. Okie State can't get here fast enough.