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Spring Clinging: Part 2

This week we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball to look at linebacking from the Spring Game

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Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

If you’re just joining us, we’re going over the Spring game with a fine tooth comb to extract any meaning we can about the 2013 Texas Longhorns( Primer & Part 1). This week we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

One thing to note about the Spring game is that the disparity of play between the first and second team offensive and defensive linemen clouds a lot of the evaluation. When the second team defensive tackles are getting displaced 3 yards off their gap or the walk-on offensive guard is moon-walking after every snap, everything else that happens on that play is affected. That being said, the defense ran the same call on about 90% of the snaps in the Spring game, our Palms defense, and that does give a consistent baseline to compare performances and look at habits.

The 2-Read (or Palms) defense is a base defense for Manny Diaz which complements his fire zone looks. I’ve written extensively about it before and although there are some details I would write differently today, the heart of the explanations remains accurate (here & here). Palms is a defense designed to keep numbers in the box and give the defense an answer to vertical threats. By design it should limit inside runs, take away passes between the hashes, as well as denying the deep ball. The overall philosophy is simple, make the offense throw long passes to achieve short gains. Last year, our Palms defense was much weaker than in 2011 because we couldn’t stop the inside running game (despite having numbers against it) and we didn’t tackle well after the pass (many times giving up inside leverage before and after the catch). We were vulnerable in the middle and so every defense we ran was also bad up the middle. And yes, a lot of that was linebacker play. So what can we expect from the 2013 linebackers and how will that affect our base defense?

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A Thing that Encourages Me: Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks was a shining beacon of recognition, response, and leverage in the Spring Game. The film tells the story fine on it’s own:

You’ll notice some things in those clips that are good indicators of linebacker play. Against the run they have to understand their gap responsibility and they have to play with leverage on the running back after the ball is snapped. Against the pass, they have to have eye awareness of the backfield and inside breaking routes. You can’t hide good habits and Jordan Hicks is playing football at a very high level. There’s no question that his presence on the field immediately upgrades the integrity and responsiveness of the defense.

It’s worth noting that Peter Jinkens is also an encouraging player on film. His field awareness is ahead of the rest of the linebackers despite the small number of snaps that he has played. He is also very adept at quick leverage changes and blockers have a hard time keeping him out of the play.

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A Thing that Concerns Me: The Rest of the Linebacking Core

Last season the program had the wind knocked out of it at linebacker and spent most of the year trying to take a breath. So obviously it’s an area of concern. On my first watch of the Spring game, I came away nonplussed about where we were at. However, after taking more time with the film and watching some games from late in the season last year, I think that we are making strides at linebacker.

Timothy Cole got a lot of reps in the Spring game and he is still very early in his development: his struggles in the Spring game definitely colored my initial impressions of the LB corp on the whole. There are still a number of plays where our linebackers are struggling with recognition, aggression, and leverage. However, you also are seeing plays where we are getting recognition and response in ways we just didn’t last year.

The first question that Diaz must answer is who is ready to be the Mike linebacker when we want to put 3 linebackers on the field.

Steve Edmond is a guy who is getting closer. He almost always understands where he should be on a play but doesn’t always arrive in control or with enough aggression. When you watch Hicks on film, you’ll notice how much information he passively gathers with his habits. He is able to recognize what’s happening and stay ahead of the offense: which feeds his aggression and athleticism. Edmond has some of that recognition and he is forming the habits but it still looks like a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Dalton Santos almost always arrives on the play with physical presence and he reacts quickly to the snap. However, his recognition and positioning is still behind what you’d like to see from a guy who is going to take starting snaps.

The second major question about linebacker is the depth behind Hicks and Jinkens. To be blunt, I think we have a shot to be one of the best defenses in the conference with them on the field. Without them on the field, it will be much harder to exert the primary pressures of our base defenses, namely taking away the middle of the field in the short passing game and limiting inside runs. This preseason, it would be great to see a player like Kendall Thompson or Tevin Jackson take significant steps forward.