While it's difficult to assess this team over the totality of the season - a task complicated by a change at Defensive Coordinator, injuries at LB, an ongoing refresher course in defensive fundamentals, and wild deviations in team effort and understanding of scheme - that's just what I'll be doing in handing out team and unit grades.
Here's Ahmad Brooks taking a crack at it. If you don't want to watch the video, he has it: DL - A+, LBs - B-, DBs - B.
I love Ahmad Brooks - he's smart, he's one of my favorite Longhorn players ever, and he played the safety position as a senior like an absolute monster at 5-8, 180 pounds, but Ahmad is either a member of the self-esteem generation or he knows where his Longhorn bread is buttered. In any event, my grades incorporate actual standards.
These reports cards are what we were. OU showed us what we can be. The rest of the season will demonstrate what we are. If you're still riding an OU high, pop in some BYU and Ole Miss tape for a sobering reminder. Or you can watch James Sims run all over the same OU front (without KU's best player Tony Pierson) while the broken Jayhawk passing game supported him with 16 yards through the air.
Conversely, if you've long ago decided that the defense stinks and is unsalvageable, you're missing out on some good individual performances that might still be bonded together into something coherent.
It's difficult to delineate ability and deployment - some of these players have more potential than what schemes and development have allowed - so be careful not to confuse baseline ability with utilization.
Defense - Overall C-
A talented, but fundamentally and often schematically horrific unit with a bunch of players on islands and no interconnectedness to a broader shared concept. The OU performance actually kicked them up a notch from a smooth D+. Greg Robinson has improved fundamental play and tackling since his hasty installation as DC after the BYU game. And now he has a convenient post-OU bye week to retrench and build upon the defensive learning base. They're getting better.
Still, there's no getting past some ugly film and uglier numbers: we're not stopping the run, we don't get offenses off of the field on key downs, we're giving up big plays and too many points to some pretty average offenses. The lowlights include:
- 114th of 123 FBS teams in rushing defense. 5.0 yards per carry allowed (remove sack yardage and it gets real ugly per carry)
- 86th of 123 FBS teams in 3rd down % defense.
- 27.0 points per game allowed against a slate of offenses that average out to combined mediocrity. 4 out of our 6 opponents have scored more than 30 points.
- Total defense is 86th out of 123 FBS teams.
But there are some positive numbers that we can build on: namely pass defense efficiency and the ability to force turnovers:
- Passing efficiency defense is 35th of 123 FBS schools. Not great, but confirms what our eyes tell us - individual coverage is pretty solid overall.
- Turnovers gained is 28th of 123. Again, not great, but forcing turnovers covers up a multitude of sins.
The above are all raw numbers and if our opponents had been world beaters, I'd have offered adjusted stats, but that's not necessary. The Longhorns were about what the numbers said.
It's easy to see glimpses of what this defense might be to close out the back half of the season. They're unlikely to be a shutdown unit against versatile offenses (read: Baylor) - but can they be a turnover-forcing physical bunch that competes with pride for four quarters and holds down one dimensional offenses. A solid B backstretch would be nice progress from a F level low against BYU.
DL - Overall B+
These guys actually have an A upside if we can get them on the same page, get more consistent play out of Jackson Jeffcoat, have a consistent #2 DT emerge, and have a team that works in concert at every level against the run game instead of in loose confederation.
Cedric Reed - A. Our best, most consistent DL. My mid-season Defensive and Team MVP. If you watch the games, this doesn't require much explanation.
Malcom Brown - B+. He's a decimal point from an A-, but I'm a mean grader when it comes to honoring rush lanes. 31 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and has largely held down the middle of the defense with opponents modifying their game plan to avoid him. Brown has lacked discipline at times, but I think that's more attributable to our early season free range coaching than anything immutable. He impacts games - the challenge for him down the stretch is to dominate them within our scheme and create consistently for others. An obvious NFL talent.
Jackson Jeffcoat - B-. Without his ability to consistently get pressure in clear passing situations, I'd actually have him at a gentleman's C. Jeffcoat hasn't shown consistent effort against the run in pursuit or in squeezing down interior gaps when the play is run inside of him and he rarely makes himself a problem for opposing offenses when it's not 3rd and 9. These are attributes that really irritate me in a DE - it's very Mark Gastineau. The backstretch of this season is worth a zero on the end of his NFL paycheck.
Chris Whaley - C+. The Longhorns are still seeking consistency from a #2 DT. Whaley flashes beautifully in spots in ways that are often friendly to the television viewer (3 TFL, pick 6 TD against OU), but he fades and gives in over extended snaps in the more mundane responsibilities of the job. We can't have feast or famine from an interior DL backed by this LB corps.
Desmond Jackson - C-. Maxed out as an 18 year old.
Hassan Ridgeway - B+. Wow. Ridge is a problem for any OL unlucky enough to be across from him. When he learns to consistently do something after he rag dolls the blocker in front of him, we'll have a monster. He's a promising bull rusher and he plays 80% of his run snaps two yards in the opponent backfield. His snaps have been limited, as he's not experienced enough to produce for seventy snaps instead of twenty.
Reggie Wilson - B-. He has offered nice snaps in DE relief, particularly in pursuit and against the run. His weakness is an inability to pressure the passer on clear passing downs.
Shiro Davis - C. He has flashed more athleticism than technique thus far. When the latter rises to the level of the former, we've got something.
LB - D+.
Harsh? I don't know. They're so consistently disappointing that I almost feel that I now over-credit them for making even the most basic plays. If Robinson can turn this group into a competent unit by year end, it's a triumph of position coaching. They actually play worse in aggregate than as individuals - for big chunks of the year it's not clear to me that they have any idea where their help is or what an opponent formation or blocking scheme suggests.
Steve Edmond - D. He elevated his game to a solid C against OU. If that trend holds, it will be a colossal improvement. No Longhorn defender has missed more important open field tackles.
Dalton Santos - C. His trajectory is a positive one. His tendency to overrun plays and get cut is his greatest weakness, but there are real LB instincts there and he has the ability to play fast when he's dialed in - see his snuffing out of the OU HB pass to the flat in the RRR. I favor him as the eventual starter inside.
Peter Jinkens - C-. He had several moments against Kansas State and was solid against OU in limited snaps, but the rest of the season has been riddled with mental errors. I honestly thought he'd be a major team strength - a poor man's Jesse Armstead. I'm so disappointed. I'd love to pair Jinkens and Santos down the backstretch in a base nickel, but Peter isn't seizing the opportunity.
Jordan Hicks - B+/INC. Hicks played in less than four games. He still leads the LBs corps in tackles. 'Nuff said.
Tim Cole - D. Not there yet.
Kendall Thompson - D+. I'd like to see him take a shot at DE. How is it that he has actually gotten less athletic since high school?
DB - B+ coverage/C run support. B- overall.
Last year, the Longhorn internets graced us with the awesome notion that Kenny Vaccaro was overrated because he couldn't singlehandedly turn our defense around and had the enviable task of trying to tackle RBs and slot WRs surrounded by thirty yards of empty green space on 1 out of every 4 plays. Luckily, the New Orleans Saints aren't idiots and the Longhorn rookie is the greatest single factor in turning around one of the worst defenses in NFL history from a year ago.
No unit suffers - or benefits more- from the support mechanisms around them than safeties. Bad defense inevitably makes them look like assholes. But they need to help their own cause.
Reliable tackling has been wanting from the safety position, though Adrian Phillips has strung together consecutive excellent games playing near the LOS striking ball carriers who are running through narrow cracks instead of gaping caverns. That suggests that his issues had little to do with physicality, but a lack of understanding of where to put his eyes and or how to deal with angles and space from deep. All of our safeties have had real issues with understanding depth, angles, and space - a sure sign of a team that didn't know what full speed looked like until Provo. That's on Mack Brown - not just Manny Diaz.
We'll be playing a lot of man coverage from here on out. While I'm largely supportive of that, our inability to mix it up will be problem when we play offenses that can make us pay for telegraphing our coverages. Blake Bell can't punish us for it, Jake Waters could. Will we see any QBs down the stretch as good as Jake Waters? Yeah. We will.
Quandre Diggs - B
The book is pretty much written on Quandre - disruptive in small spaces, instinctive, physical. Put him out on the edge 1 on 1 against a quality big WR with no support behind him and you're going to hear the opponent fight song.
Our best pure cover guy, Byndom actually sees very little meaningful action if you chart opponent pass attempts, but seems to suffer from a weird fan perception that he's constantly getting worked over. I honestly wonder what people are watching sometimes. He can be too satisfied with his narrow definition of duties out there and can lose focus - there's extra work out there for him if he's interested in finding it.
Duke Thomas - B-
This will be challenged, but we ask much more of him in coverage than we do of Quandre Diggs, for instance. We're asking a lot of the sophomore, frequently putting him 1 on 1 on the best opponent WR, which against modern spread offenses guarantees that you'll spend as much time as toast than receiving toasts of appreciation. He received an education from the 14th Lockett brother against KSU, but he dominated a talented Sooner WR corps in the RRR. He actually has hands, which is refreshing for a Texas CB. I love this kid.
Sheroid Evans - B-/INC
A real shame. NFL talent. Can't stay on the field.
Mykkele Thompson - C-
His coverage has been largely OK, but his support in the run game..dear Lord. Let's move on.
Josh Turner - C-
Has been phased out a bit after some early run support struggles, but we'll need him down the backstretch.
Adrian Phillips - B-
That grade would have been a D+ without his last two games, where he dialed in A efforts. Turns out that Adrian Phillips is a pretty solid player. Greg Robinson is going to allow him to show that.
I'm interested in your thoughts too. Where do I have it wrong? Am I being too tough? Too lenient? What will our season ending report card look like? Are happier days ahead? Or are we too optimstic about our performance against a flawed OU team?