For years Penn State's defenses had an identity that changed as imperceptibly as their head coach. They played 4-3 defense and based out of Cover-3. They had nicknames for their linebackers, calling them "Fritz," "Backer," and "Sam." This tradition lasted for decades.
Their Cover-3 was so steady and unchanging that you could virtually always count on the strong safety being an underneath defender while the free safety played the deep 1/3 of the field. The Nittany Lions' division of labor meant that their straightforward schemes were always executed with precision.
That strong safety position was called the "Hero." By the time Paterno was on his way out of the football world the Hero was basically the field side safety and would play run force on the edge, handle and attack the bubble screens, and be an underneath pass defender.
The last Hero, Drew Astorino, was 5-10 207 pounds and made 85 tackles with five behind the line of scrimmage in his senior campaign. The skillset of the position basically involved great awareness of keys to know whether to play the run or pass, short area quickness in order to be able to cover more ground than the other underneath defenders, and toughness to beat blocks and make tackles around the line of scrimmage.
In the B12 today, everyone needs heroes.
The demands of the spread-option offenses taking hold of the conference call for defenders who can make quick reads of their assignments, cover ground in a hurry, and then beat blocks and make tackles when they arrive. Most B12 defenses are designed to feature at least two such players on the roster. The nickel/strongside linebacker and the strong safety.
Currently the top ranked defenses in the B12 by S&P are Baylor (9th), OSU (15th), TCU (16th), OU (32nd), and KSU (39th). Everyone is too lowly ranked to mention including the Longhorns (79th).
Because of the Stoops' brothers fascination with disguise and multiplicity the Sooners ask both safeties and the nickel to play a "Hero" type role in one scheme or another and of course have a list of guys around 6-0, 200 pounds to perform the role. TCU's entire back seven are basically heroes.
Finding difference makers at this position is not unpossible, since the share of the US young male population that can attain that size is considerably larger than the pool for defensive line, but the really special ones are a true prize in today's league.
When choosing players for defense in this league, your scheme matters a great deal of course, but speed and the ability to play in space has to be a unifying trait.
Texas is currently releasing a weekly depth chart of extremes at most positions in the back seven. Steve Edmond and Dalton Santos are essentially 3-4 inside linebackers playing in a 4-2 nickel defense. Meanwhile on the edges, Texas is undersized with cornerback Quandre Diggs routinely finding himself in physical encounters he cannot win.
Adrian Phillips is the only player on the entire defensive 2-deep with a hero's skillset but the defense calls for at least two such players on the field at all times.
Outside on the perimeter and at deep safety in Texas' Cover-1/Cover-3 schemes the range and quickness is actually ideal. Thompson continues to struggle with his positioning on deep balls (though he turned his hips and made a great interception on Chelf the other week) and isn't a big time hitter with his wiry 6-2, 183 pound frame. However, you have to wonder if his struggles in offering run support from the deep safety position are largely a result of his impossibly difficult task of projecting angles and pathways of runners with so many options.
Most good 4-3 defenses will look to keep the ball "inside and in front" of the defenders with the heroes on the edge forcing screens and runs inside to the linebackers and the rest of the team. Every opposing ball carrier should receive the ball and find his pathways and options quickly condensing all around him.
Not so with Texas. Watch the interplay between Diggs' force play and Thompson's pursuit on this run:
In his defense, here Diggs seems to be trying to 2-gap the WR's block and play the wrong kind of hero. He commits the cardinal sin of losing leverage and allowing the ball to cross his face.
Thompson begins by coming downhill inside of Diggs where the ball should be funneled. You can argue that he should have read Diggs' block better and replaced him as the force player but the multiple options afforded to Chelf by our lousy initial play don't make his job any easier.
Earlier in the year Texas played Thompson closer to the line more and he demonstrated an understanding of the angles and leverage but his lack of size meant that he was useless as a blitzer if picked up and not likely to beat many blocks. If allowed to take an offseason to focus more on playing the deep safety roles it's possible his great athleticism could finally translate into a great campaign as a senior.
Meanwhile here are how things stand in relation to Texas' stocking up the nickel and strong safety positions with the kind of physical menaces like Huff or Vaccaro that used to define this team. Part of the problem has been the schemes and scouting of the last several years.
Diaz and Akina's harebrained scheme wanted safeties who could blitz, play man coverage, play single deep safety, play 2-deep safety, and fulfill the innumerable range of roles required in a Fire Zone blitz. In particular, the combination of learning different zone coverages along with techniques for playing man required an impossible range of skills from the Texas safeties.
Consequently, on the recruiting trail they were mostly looking for man-cover corners and freakish athletes that could be spun down to safety if they didn't make the cut at corner. And so, Texas undervalued a position that is now defining B12 defenses.
The current depth chart lists three players who could potentially play this needed role.
First there's Adrian Phillips, he's had a solid season and he's a senior. We're already using him up to capacityfor this role so there's no help coming from here this season. Next year our best solution is gone.
Next there's Quandre Diggs. While he's reportedly battled injuries this year there's little reason to believe that Diggs' senior year should be spent playing near the line of scrimmage. Some have suggested he move back to corner but I'm not entirely sure he's much better than Duke Thomas or Sheroid Evans now and is less likely to be better next season. Some have suggested he move out to deep safety where he could compete with Mykkele Thompson. Assuming Texas runs a similar scheme next year that might not be a bad fit. At any rate, his coverage skills can make him a valuable contributor next season either at corner or deep, but not at the nickel.
Peter Jinkens is a fascinating case. Gerg has narrowly defined him as a Sam linebacker who only plays when the offense has pro-set personnel (only two WR's). His limited use suggests that he struggles with processing plays and making decisions, which would limit him at nickel or either linebacker position.
Josh Turner, Mykkele Thompson, Kevin Vaccaro, Sheroid Evans, Antwuan Davis, Chevoski Collins, Leroy Scott, Duke Thomas, Bryson Echols, and Carrington Byndom all lack the ideal size to fill these roles. Our 4-corners philosophy of recruiting has come back to bite us in a bad way now that Akina has been unable to transform any of these guys into Michael Huff. I've seen a degree of physical tackling from Scott and Vaccaro to suggest that with some weight room work they might fit here. They have the mindset, at least.
Demarco Cobbs, like Jinkens, has the ideal physical skill set but is out for the year and has a very uncertain future on the team. Again, like Jinkens, he also struggled with the decision-making process of playing on the edge in this league.
That leaves us with two freshmen and the incoming recruiting class.
Erik Huhn seems to have been selected precisely out of an awareness of this void on the roster. He seems to lack the speed to play press man coverage on a receiver as Akina seems intent on asking of all Texas DB's but he may be able to provide the kinds of services that the league's top defenses ask of their safeties. If not, he might be a good candidate to spin down to outside linebacker.
Adrian Colbert is the great hope for the position and the Texas defense will probably need him to have a pretty big year next season. Naturally he's scarcely been seen this year. I have no idea what's been holding him back but I hope he'll get a chance in the dime coverages against Tech and Baylor. Texas was forced to work another freshman into the mix more and more late in the 2008 season and it paid off with a phenomenal nickel player in 2009 named Aaron Williams.
In the next recruiting class Texas has curiously taken another big, mike linebacker in Andrew Beck along with two other players that look more like B12 linebackers in Otaro Alaka and Cameron Hampton. I don't foresee either of them fitting into the nickel or strong safety positions Texas currently has two candidates on the commitment list for those spots:
John Bonney, a 6-1 185 pound three star recruit and Jason Hall, a 6-2 190 pound three star recruit.
Both of these guys look more like the kind of player Texas should be stocking up on. Bonney might be able to play man coverage on inside receivers but his competitiveness on balls in the air, physical handling of receivers, and larger frame are what catch my eye. Hall looks like a more classic safety prospect, which is exactly the kind of player Texas can't seem to find on the roster. They hold offers from schools like Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Michigan St which suggests their potential to play safety the way a more reasonable DB Coach would call for.
These aren't no-brainer future contributors but they at least possess the size and skills that Texas should be looking for in order to develop safeties.
Then there's Jamal Adams. He's already 6-0, 204 with no need to grow into the role, physically.
A typical trait of five star kids is that they already possess the size and speed that scouts are hoping kids will have by the time they are contributing at college. Such is the case with Adams, who combines his solid frame with 4.4 speed. At Hebron HS he was playing 5A DFW competition, which is about as close as you can get to the B12 at the high school level.
He was thought to be a Texas lean when we brought him in to witness how badly our secondary could use someone with his talents against Oklahoma St. I have no idea whether that experience impressed upon him the opportunities at Texas or the pitiful way we've been developing the position. You'd hope that he'd combine the rumors of the end of Mack's tenure and possibility of improved coaching with the sad state of our projected 2-deep at safety and nickel in 2014.
When Mack Brown announces his retirement after the bowl game and the Alpaca takes the helm his first priority should be to scour the JUCO QB talent pool so that Texas' will have options if Ash retires or is injured again. His second priority should be to maintain the semi-decent class Mack Brown has left him for 2014. His third priority should be to land Adams or other prospects who could be ready to see the field soon, perhaps in the JUCO ranks.
The 2014 crop of Texas DB's is considered to be one of the best harvests in recent memory. In Rivals "Lonestar top 100" there are 23 DB's listed, including three in the top 10. Texas has landed only one of them (Bonney). While CB is reasonably well stocked, Texas has handled the combination of a dearth of good safeties on the roster and rich in-state DB class with total incompetence.
If Texas' three star prospects don't pan out at safety keep an eye out for the possibility that this may prove to be the greatest handicap Mack leaves for the next head coach.
The Texas defense needs heroes and won't re-emerge amongst the top of the league until that need has been met.