Texas Longhorns Spring Football 2013: What do we need from the secondary?

Tom Pennington

Mack's best teams have had defenses anchored by excellent play in the secondary, how is the 2013 group shaping out?

As Drew would be happy to recount for you, the golden standard of Mack Brown-Texas Football, the 2005 Championship team, was absolutely loaded in the secondary. When the team wanted to play nickel personnel the defensive backs on the field were:

C/N: Aaron Ross, 6-0, 195: Current starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars

C: Cedric Griffin, 6-1, 205: Longtime starter for the Minnesota Vikings

C: Tarell Brown, 6-0, 200: Starter for the San Francisco Giants

S/N: Michael Huff, 6-0, 205: Longtime starter for the Oakland Raiders

S: Michael Griffin, 6-0, 202: Former Pro-Bowler for the Tennessee Titans

Everyone one of them was big, fast, and physical, and they were all upperclassmen. They could play man coverage up tight, they could play soft coverage and reliably make physical tackles, they could bring extra physicality in the box, and they were rangy in deep coverage.

While that defense had future NFL players on the DL as well, most of what that crew accomplished came from those DBs. Similarly, Muschamp's defense in 2009 was anchored by his nickel lineup that went:

C: Curtis Brown, 6-0, 185: backup for the Pittsburgh Steelers

N/C: Aaron Williams, 6-0, 204: backup for the Buffalo Bills

S/N: Earl Thomas, 5-10, 205: Starter for the Seattle Seahawks and arguably league's best safety

S: Blake Gideon, 6-1, 205: Practice squad member for the Denver Broncos

C: Chykie Brown, 5'11, 190: Starter for the Baltimore Ravens

This crew was not as good as the 2005 bunch, although Earl Thomas might have been the best player in either secondary. The postal service (Brown and Brown) were not as big and physical as their 2005 counterparts and really only Aaron Williams and Earl Thomas provided the same kind of swiss army knife versatility that was true for almost everyone on the 05 group.

Nevertheless, as a unit they were excellent as each player was pretty outstanding in the roles that the scheme required of them.

Many of us had some hope that the 2012 defensive secondary would be another legendary gathering of Akina-fashioned dominators. As a general rule, it seems that Longhorn fans can expect the defense to depend somewhat on the performance of the secondary as Mack teams have been very inconsistent in developing the linebacker corp that serves as the playmakers in most schemes, not least the Diaz system.

However, the 2012 crew disappointed. Opposing teams managed 7.6 yards per pass attempt, after only allowing only 6 per attempt in 2011. Reviewing the tape, you find major inconsistencies both in the team's play and in their approach.

Manny Diaz and Akina deployed a very diverse attack in 2012 that ranged from playing 2-deep based MOFO (middle of field open) coverages against the pass-heavy spread teams on the schedule (Baylor, WV, OSU) with more MOFC (middle of field closed) coverages against teams with running games.

There was disguise in every package and a myriad of different techniques and positions for the different players to play. Clearly, the coaches thought that the 2012 secondary might be a legendary, water-carrying unit as well. They were not.

Adrian Phillips was asked to play 2-deep safety, deep centerfielder, linebacker, and nickel after missing much of the offseason and struggled mightily. His positioning was inconsistent, he frequently lost leverage on ballcarriers, and his tackling was horrendous.

Carrington Byndom had a really inconsistent start to the year as well and didn't always display the physical play that helped him stand out in 2011. Diggs was generally fantastic but torched by Terrance Williams. We've talked at length about what Vaccaro achieved.

Josh Turner and Mykelle Thompson got a lot of meaningful snaps and experience and flashed some of what they offer. Turner is a physical player who seems to excel mostly as a support player in zone. Thompson has the athletic ability to do all the things Akina and Diaz are asking of our safeties but he hasn't done anything on the field yet to put the fear of God into a receiver or runner.

So what are the prospects for 2013? Let's cover how these guys will be asked to cover for everyone else:

Nickel: What Texas does here will line up much of what the rest of the secondary is doing. The nickel doesn't need to be as fast as a corner in terms of recovery speed, but rather a guy that is quick in a small area, has the physicality to guide receivers to the linebackers or safeties located conveniently nearby, length and anticipation to wall off passing routes, and the physicality to play in the box as a run-stopper and blitzer.

Adrian Phillips has already played here a lot and is a natural fit although Diggs is apparently getting a lot of action here as well. Very likely, without a six foot swiss army knife here, they may go back to "big nickel" "little nickel" and play both of them here depending on what they want. Diggs is fantastic covering and tackling in an area like this and would be great for the MOFC defenses but Phllips is the better option when the position is taking on a more linebacker-like function in the MOFO defenses.

Corner: Against Baylor, Diaz hoped to play soft/off coverage and simply tackle well in order to minimize Baylor drives and get off the field. With West Virginia or Oregon State these guys would often play press coverage and mirror their opponent down the field. No one in their right mind would depend on their DB's reliably tackling Tavon Austin after the catch.

In any event, the nature of the spread offense generally asks that Corners handle the sideline and don't allow guys to run past them. Texas is probably as well off here as any other team in the conference, pending how they utilize Diggs. Quandre excels more in off coverage where he can explode to the ball when it's released from the QB's hand. Byndom is better at simply locking down guys in press coverage, although he has the ability to make tackles in off coverage as well.

If the coaches use Diggs extensively as the Nickel that opens the door for Duke Thomas, presumably, to handle duties on the outside. If I'm right about Diggs being more of a man-coverage nickel, this will require Thomas to be trusted not to get beat deep down the sideline. I believe he has the catch-up speed and long arms to be trusted here but the proof's in the pudding, as they say.

Safety: It was stunning how much Akina and Diaz asked of the safeties in 2012, although I'm quite sure a good deal of it was unintentional. Against Baylor, they started the game as deep as 15 yards off the ball, with Akina having learned the lesson in 2011 of trying to maintain deep leverage on Baylor's inside receivers while playing run-force.

This proved very tricky when teams like WV and Baylor could command the deep alignment of the safeties but then run through the middle of the defense regardless of how tight Vaccaro packed in or how many stunts Diaz called. Similarly, the MOFC defenses didn't enable the linebackers well enough to save the safeties from having to make tackles in run support from centerfield or man-coverage, which is more difficult than in 2-read defenses.

Josh Turner is the best enforcer and tackler of the returning bunch although Phillips has excelled there in the past. Thompson is a very difficult player to get past, either in coverage or as a runner, but he doesn't yet deliver big blows in run support. He racked up a large number of tackles against Oregon State simply by doing a good job as "last man" and jumping on piles.

It's anyone's guess if and when Thompson might make the leap that players like Cedric Griffin and Michael Huff made before him into aggressive and confident tacklers.

In the meantime, the talent back there is miscast for all of the schematic diversity that Akina and Diaz want to employ. In MOFC defenses, it's optimal if both safeties can either defend the seam from the inside receiver, or play centerfield. Phillips should be able to handle either of those tasks and Thompson has the ability to do so as well. In these defenses, the linebackers are protected from rangy coverage roles and can stay in the box.

In the MOFO defenses you want safeties who can stay on top of receivers and make lots of open field tackles. Again, Phillips has shown he can do this and Turner looks like a potential stud in this role.

Finally there are the Fire Zones which are basically a 3rd style of base defense for the 'horns. In these, safeties may blitz, play centerfield, or play in the "hot zones" which requires anticipation, leverage, quicks, and open field tackling.

Barring Thompson or Turner making a leap and without knowing if Phillips can recover the versatility and form that made him so promising in 2011, it's hard to project this secondary as being dominant enough to carry the defense and swarm everything the offense attempts from their eryries in the backfield.

Truly in this defense, it's incumbent on the linebackers to anchor the defense as playmakers in creating pressure and stopping the run. We'll examine them next.

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