Texas Longhorns Orange White 2014 Spring Game Breakdown: Defense

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Some improvements and some old concerns rear their head.

Scheme

While straightforward schematically for most of the game, Bedford demonstrated that he's no fan of zero coverage, isn't shy about bringing LBs, prefers soundness and simplicity to wizardry and isn't particularly pleased with our DB's understanding of how to defense a Hail Mary throw.

The 1st team defense started poorly allowing a first drive 11 play, 65 yard touchdown highlighted by a nice catch by Montrel Meander and a slick Jalen Overstreet cutback run.  After that, they dominated, getting pressure on the QB at will and inflicting negative plays in the running game.  The DL is the clear strength of this team, but I also saw some promising developments in the secondary.  Unfortunately, some other old habits will die hard and this defense didn't get to experience what a good offense looks like.

Defensive Line

Malcom Brown and Cedric Reed showed dominance for long stretches of game play, with Brown waking up from a slow early start with the aid of some sideline feedback.  Desmond Jackson played well at nose racking up six tackles, occasionally lining up in the offset to force a double team and allowing him to shoot the center gap.  We're a true single gap defense and it's going to afford Brown and Jackson a lot more opportunity to impact games.  Hassan Ridgeway flashed tremendous power and speed on a few plays, but also got lost in the wash.  He's at his best taking a gap or rushing the passer - when he has to diagnose it makes him hesitant and he loses his technique.  If he can put it together, look out.  Alex Norman flashed nicely on a beautiful backside strip and fumble recovery. His motor looked like it was turned up several notches from the lethargic player I saw last year.

Cedric Reed is a known quantity (for me, last year's defensive MVP) and I was very pleased with the play of our young DEs.  Shiro Davis put on weight (he now looks a legit 6-3, 260+) without losing a step and he showed ability as a pure pass rusher and pursuer of the ball.  On the negative side, he can be run on and will lose assignment focus in the running game.

Caleb Blueitt also filled out his body and was extremely impressive as a pass rusher and against the running game.   Blueitt covers a ton of ground and he looks for work on every play.  Exciting player.  Whether we start Davis or Blueitt, the 3rd DE is going to see a lot of snaps in this defense.  We need to find a fourth.

I didn't follow Bryce Cottrell enough to get a read on his play, but I don't think raw ability is a problem.

Linebacker

Shades of last year early on from the 1s.  Hesitant, a step slow, getting ahead of the runner and allowing a cutback, failing to use their hands to disengage and pursue.  It got better and guys started to do their jobs.  Nerves? Bad muscle memory?  Is the base talent level just not there?

I saw good things from Dalton Santos - he covers ground better than is perceived and he's capable of playing zone effectively with deep drops.  Belying his physicality, he's actually much better covered up or taking a gap than playing through garbage or shedding OL.

We clearly intend to use Jinkens as a blitzer and he seemed to respond to a more instinctive approach to LBing where he's covered up and allowed to react.   He's spent a fair amount of his career just running around randomly, so it'll be interesting to see how he responds to the freedom of better structure.

Steve Edmond didn't really show me the improvement from last year (obviously he was much better down the stretch than early) that the coaches saw in the Spring.  Eager to see his Fall camp.

Naashon Hughes looks great on the hoof and he moves well for a big guy, but he's really raw.

Tim Cole was also spoken of favorably by the coaches and earned playing time last year, but didn't register a tackle.

Most interestingly, Demarco Cobbs had his best performance before a Longhorn crowd in years and may even be positioning himself for Gaskamp consideration.  He covered a ton of ground, ran down everything to his side of the field and tackled reliably.  Was that real or another will-o-wisp?

This unit is still a tremendous question mark for me.  I went in hoping to see vast improvement, but instead saw a continuation of the modest progress that we first saw when Greg Robinson took over.  If Texas wants to be a great defense in 2014, the Texas DL needs this LBing unit to step up and feast on the opportunities they'll create for them.

Defensive Back

The most exciting development was at safety.  Mykkele Thompson showed great quickness on his Pick 6 TD and demonstrated much improved overall physicality in coverage and more reliable tackling.  Could he be on the Michael Huff developmental plan?  As skilled, slightly built athletic guys get stronger and grow into their bodies, sometimes they realize that hitting is fun when you can actually be the winner.  And that their athletic ability allows them to deliver the blow first.

Similarly, Josh Turner, though undersized, demonstrated good presence in coverage, was a willing tackler in run support and played with a lot more focus and abandon.  I didn't see the Thompson leap, but he looked solid.

I'm not going to pronounce our safety play healed, but it's clearly improved under simpler structures and paired with better physical development.  The backups were less impressive.  Adrian Colbert looks great on the hoof, but doesn't understand what he's doing yet.  Dylan Gaines was effective (Swoopes gift interception) but impressed me more in run support and shading his coverage when he had deep middle.  He's a decent athlete and I think he's legitimately under depth chart consideration.  Whether you think that's inspiring or scary is your call.

Quandre Diggs has been praised as a stabilizing force by this staff and he has demonstrated playmaking ability, but the Montrel Meander out-and-up also reminded us that putting him in man coverage on an outside receiver is still a bad idea without reliable safety help.  Other than that, the O avoided him.  I didn't see enough of Antuan Davis against viable offense to have an opinion, but he has zero fear of contact and has a lot of explosive athletic ability.

Overall, I thought Duke Thomas played the best game of the cornerbacks.  I expect him to draw the opponent's #1 WR.  Bryson Echols got a painful education from Shipley, but he didn't stop competing and he's a little chippy, which I like.

Overall

I expected to see dominance from Brown and Reed.  They delivered.  Des Jackson was solid as the 1 technique. The play of Mykkele Thompson was a very pleasant surprise and the DL is deeper with quality than I anticipated.  The linebackers are still a question mark and I'm very concerned about depth and the talent ceiling at some positions in the secondary.

This can be a good defense, but it's going to require significant improvements in the back 7 for it to hold up against the conference elite.

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