Last year Scipio wrote an insightful pair of columns on matchups in the Big 12 "on the edge". There was a big gap between edge rushers and good offensive tackles and another gap between the have's and have nots in Cornerback quality.
At first glance it appeared that Texas held all the cards, at least on defense, as we fielded 3 of the better pass-rushers (in preseason estimation at least) and 2 of the top 3 corners. All that wealth in the defensive backfield led me to believe that running the ball against Texas was something to be avoided as Muschamp would have the quality outside necessary to load the box with 7 or 8 man fronts.
The problem was that our 8th man was essentially worthless. Creases in the front 6 against a zone play if Keenan and Acho took the wrong gap or a DT got sealed off became explosive runs with Scott and Gideon providing next to nothing in run support. Vaccaro was better and I'm not sure why he didn't start all season at safety but he was hardly an adequate sieve for the bleeding wound that was our safety play.
Kyle Hix, apart from his routine false starts and constant assistance from tight ends, actually played pretty well but Britt Mitchell was a cessation of 2 sacks against any team with the wherewithal and quality to place a good end on his side. Additionally, none of the receivers offered any kind of true mismatch on the edge down the field, but we'll troubleshoot the offensive personnel in another post.
In another excellent preseason piece Scipio described Muschamp's defense of packages, which will be a useful tool for understanding what exactly we need in the Diaz defense, a scheme n0t at all different than Muschamp's when it comes to building defenses out of assignments and packages.
Job 1: Control the middle
Defensive tackles in the zone-blitz defense need to be able to stunt into adjacent gaps and engage OL, and in fire-zones, which Diaz loves, be able to engage and pile-up linemen against the grain of the blitz. Overall you want guys with a quick first step and rip move, like Acho or incoming Desmond Jackson. You really need at least one space eater although you may not necessarily shade him over the center. Randall can hold that down well enough and even split a double team. Between Okafor, Dorsey, Bible, Daniels, and the incoming freshmen we have enough guys who can handle stunting and ripping against slower lineman.
Job 2: Attack
Whereas the flanking advantages offered by the pressure packages require only 1 or 2 guys who can be counted on to cause pile-ups by virtue of their skill, you can never have too many 230-260 pound DE/LB players. As it happens, we still have a fair few left on campus and I'm not sure why so many fans seem to be fretting Okafor's move inside. His strength and quickness is still needed there, whereas we have multiple figures who can be counted on to perform the 2 basic tasks of this position, 1). fly upfield and destroy what you find there and 2). drop into a short zone and destroy what you find there.
Jeffcoat, Wilson, Dravannti Johnson, Emmanuel Acho, Jordan Hicks, and Tevin Jackson, in no particular order are all well suited to the stunting and coverage required of this scheme.
Job 3: Diagnostics
Best to have a couple of lighter guys amongst the 3-under defenders who can cover Big 12 receivers in the short areas and be able to move across the field quickly to help clean up the mess if a screen or run breaks past the first frantic wave of aggression. Weakside linebacker and Strong Safety are the 2 most likely candidates and the latter in particular should be a rover type who can clean up plays spilled outside. As it happens I have confidence in both Acho and Robinson to handle the short zone drops and believe Hicks will be able to handle this as well. Vaccaro is my first choice for Strong Safety and I would say actually possesses the coverage skills and tackling range to be a strength in this role.
For Diaz's defenses our front 7 is actually a great strength for the team. I foresee freqent use of 7 DL/LB packages that rely on our linebackers' coverage dropping abilities over trying to man-up and lock-down as we have the last 3 years unless this spring turns up another defensive back who can blitz and play the run like a safety and cover a slot receiver like a corner. Aaron Williams' don't grow on trees.
Job 4: Last Wave of defense
Versatility is really the calling card for the Diaz-aggressive style defense and it's the price you pay for no longer needing 3 or 4 dominant defensive lineman to control the line of scrimmage while the rest of the team reacts. Confusion is the other weapon, thus no one is always going to play the role for which they are most suited. Randall may drop into coverage at times and Vaccaro may play deep in order to bring Gideon or whomever where they are not expected. In times like this when the offense correctly identifies what's happening, it can get ugly.
That said, this scheme is designed to help the corners play with good leverage deep and very often you will find them 15 yards off the receiver to insure that guys don't just run free. Obviously then, they need to be reliable tacklers. If you are going to play off receivers and goad the quarterback into making quick dump-off passes that won't hurt you, a frequent design of the zone-blitz, you need to make damn sure those dump-offs don't hurt you.
I can't really say much for our starting corners because I don't know who they will be but I'm going to throw out some names and you tell me how comfortable you are with them making the tackle that determines a score. Blake Gideon, Christian Scott, Nolan Brewster, Adrian Phillips, DeMarco Cobbs.
Since we've already used Vaccaro at strong safety or in the nickel I've just named your free safety candidates in order of experience. Gideon has been at his best in this role, but he was either protected from having to target moving receivers by Earl Thomas and Aaron Williams or facing high schoolers. Who trusts him to perform as well when 8 of our defenders are going to be encouraged to look into the backfield and the other 2 hanging back have less than 5 starts between them?
I'm betting on him as the starter so start hoping that whomever replaces Jerry Gray can teach these guys quick.
Nickel's useless defensive depth chart projection for pressure packages:
Group 1: Randall, Okafor, Howell, Dorsey, Bible, Daniels, Cotton, Jackson, Russell
(guys that will keep their hands in the dirt)
Group 2: Jeffcoat, Wilson, Acho, Johnson, Jackson, Reed, Edmond, Thompson (we're talking about guys who will usually play 5-tech or 9-tech standing or with their hands in the dirt. Edge players.)
Group 3: Robinson, Acho, Vaccaro, Hicks, Scott, Brewster, unknown savior at Nickel (short zone defenders off the LOS)
Group 4: Gideon, Byndom, White, Scott, Brewster, Phillips, Barnett, Diggs
All that to say, we need help in group 4.