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Texas Longhorns Defense: Ready for the Big 12?

There are few strains more difficult for a collegiate defense to bear than attempting to survive the round robin B12 conference slate of explosive offenses. Bears and land thieves lie in wait for our cattle drive, will we be ready?

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Robinson's job didn't get any easier this week.

Jordan Hicks was one of the best linebackers in the Big 12 in 2013. Having watched most of the 2012 Big 12 season, I feel confident stating that his combination of range, awareness, and physicality firmly had him in the top echelon of inside linebackers heading into the year with Eddie Lackey of Baylor and Corey Nelson of OU.

It's hard to overstate just how valuable great inside linebackers are in the game today. If you want to play some kind of 2-deep safety coverage your linebackers are going to have to cover a great deal of ground from sideline to sideline. Even if you drop a safety down into the box to give them a hand you are still looking at guys who will spend one play taking on a guard in the hole and the next play trying to hang with a sharp route break from Josh Stewart.

Jordan Hicks could do these things, now he's gone. Who's next?

Against KSU when Hicks went out, Jinkens came in as the weakside linebacker. He'd already been in the game as a Sam linebacker when KSU would use obvious run formations and played well and he acquitted himself well in Hicks' absence.

Here's the kind of role that Jinkens excels at:

Part of Greg Robinson's approach to fixing the Longhorn defense has been choosing a main base defense for every game, and then having a small, select package of blitzes to accompany that base defense specifically chosen for the particular opponent. One of his blitzes for KSU was to fire linebackers off the edge and stunt Jeffcoat inside.

Texas ran this blitz on the previous down and KSU anticipated it this time with a speed option. Ideally for the Wildcats, they'd pitch the ball outside the blitz and the Texas defensive backs in man coverage would be poorly aligned to stop Hubert from charging through them.

Waters doesn't really play the option particularly well but Jinkens absolutely anticipated and baited the pitch and then had the change of direction and explosion to chase Hubert down deep in the backfield. You put Jinkens out in space and good things happen. That's invaluable in this conference.

The bigger question is whether he can handle the more physical tasks of a Will linebacker. What will happen when he has to handle something like this?

By the time Jinkens entered the game, KSU had been forced to make their run game secondary to getting Tyler Lockett the ball as often as possible so Jinkens wasn't asked to beat blocks very often. He did get a chance to fill in for Hicks against the Power-Read play which has been devastating to Texas this season.

Probably due to the way Ole Miss ravaged our Cover-2 and the lack of pursuit it offered against the run, Robinson chose Diaz's Cover-3 in this game instead to get an eight man box.

We have two primary errors on this play that lead to it being yet another fiasco in our sad history against the concept. Edmond's main problems are playing in space and handling cut blocks. The former is due to his occasionally slow recognition and lack of range and speed, the latter confuses me because someone with arms that long and powerful should be hard to block at all.

At any rate, this time Edmond figures out what's going on quickly and actually is in good position to force Hubert back into pursuit. That's where the problems occur. Jinkens is also in position to force Hubert back into the teeth of the defense but he goes for the jab step inside and allows Hubert to get back outside on him. Additionally, Reed drifts in a little too far and allows the guard's pathetic attempt to cut him actually result in him being impeded from chasing in pursuit.

Still, you can see progress being made, and both Edmond and Jinken's handling of blocks in space is a positive. Edmond's play in the trenches is more of a positive and there you can see how he accumulated 11 tackles in the game and earned the start.

There's the dreaded QB Power-O play, in which the RB becomes another pulling blocker and the offense can outnumber the defense. Edmond takes on a lead block perfectly, keeping his playside arm free while driving the block backwards to shrink the cutback crease, and then his long arms envelope Waters like an Octopus choking out a seagull.

The Cover-3, eight man front that Robinson used to handle the KSU run game is going to be one that gets a lot of play this season and it's obviously a scheme that the players have a great deal of comfort in. Mykkele Thompson in particular has a strange affinity for playing the role of eighth man in the box. Despite his ability to cover tremendous amounts of ground and inability to make violent impact that would suggest a role as the deep safety, Thompson plays with much better leverage in the box than deep.

Another of Robinson's blitzes for this game was to shift Reed into a 3-tech before the snap and then fire Thompson off the edge. We tended to telegraph these blitzes too early in a way reminiscent of 2007 but nevertheless, this one proved successful.

Thompson comes off the edge and then chases the option play down from behind before standing up and celebrating wildly. If and when he was later picked up on these blitzes in the game by Hubert, he was pretty easily neutralized, but he is good fitting the run and could potentially become more confident and violent with further repetitions and some more weight room work.

One addendum that will have to be made in these defenses is how we handle the outside receivers. Early in the game we were attempting to play some press coverage to take away the quick game for the Wildcats. And things like this happened:

Lockett is plainly one of the better receivers in the B12 this year, but as good as Thomas and Evans have been so far this year Texas can't really play press coverage across the line with a single deep safety against teams like Baylor or we'll get shredded. That said, playing single deep safety coverage will be essential to defending B12 teams and it's becoming more and more common.

After playing tons of dime coverage and 2-deep safeties all year in 2012, OU is now dropping safeties into the box routinely:

If you can trust your corners alone on the sidelines, it's simply the best way to control the middle of the field and handle spread-option concepts. If we can't trust our corners on the sidelines with a cushion to work with then what are we paying Akina for?

Texas has a chance to build an identity as a defense under Robinson which is exceptionally fast and aggressive in the back seven. A Cover-3 defense with Diggs and Thompson/Phillips as the outside run force players combined with some pairing of Santos, Edmond, and Jinkens is a lightning quick group. They can become pretty difficult for teams to run on or throw quick routes against with time as they continue Robinson's practice of simplicity and execution-based football.

Against the pass game in particular, Byndom's ability to play press coverage and lock down a number one threat combined with Texas' overall speed in the defensive backfield presents a lot of options and variety for bracketing dangerous slot receivers or outnumbering the run.

The key will be the defensive line, which is the team's real strength. The DL needs to protect the small backfield from blockers and it needs to keep teams from having time to find openings downfield or look off a single high safety. Against KSU, Greg Robinson demonstrated three plans for achieving this end.

First was the abandonment of our complicated Fire Zone schemes in favor of select man-blitzes like the ones I've demonstrated above. He made use of Diaz's 46 front against KSU but only by shifting into it as a blitz. Expect to see more of that and pray that teams which have film of Robinson to gameplan with don't lure out our blitzes and then make play calls that destroy them as KSU attempted late in the game.

Secondly, the defensive line is now playing techniques which will protect our diminutive backfield.

First watch the play of our defensive tackles, Ridgeway is the 3-tech and he just drives the guard straight back, freeing him to play both the B and C gaps. The 1-tech, Jackson, is engaging the center and looking to turn the A gap into either a space that he occupies, or one that is filled with bodies and unfit for usage by a runner. He actually ends up standing his ground and getting pushed into the opposite A gap while the A gap he originally defended is clogged with KSU OL. Saban teaches his nose tackles to do this by design, I'm not sure if Bo Davis borrowed that technique here or it happened accidentally because Jackson stood his ground.

They both do a great job, but none of that is particularly different from what Diaz was already doing.

Next watch Reed. Because it's a zone read play, he is left unblocked. However, rather than exalting in his freedom and running wildly looking to make a play, Reed gets his hands on the OT who is trying to fly past him to reach a linebacker. He doesn't land a great hit in this instance but this technique by our DE's in obstructing blockers is enormously important for freeing up a player like Jinkens to run to the ball unimpeded.

Then, because he is awesome, Reed is still able to lend help in pursuit. Jeffcoat often demonstrated the same approach with even greater lateral speed:

That'd have been a nice 2nd and 1 stand were it not for Thompson's unnecessary use of Waters' collar to drag him down drawing a face mask call. Unlike what the Texas DT's are doing, this approach is indeed a bit different from what Diaz did. In 2012 in particular, the DE's would often fly upfield and allow offenses to stretch wide the B-gaps and shoot runners through them against Texas' overmatched linebackers.

This year, by turning the middle of the field into a mud pit of bodies and waving arms, the Longhorns are finally drawing some benefit from having the most athletically gifted DL in the conference.

Texas' wealth of options along the DL make them a group that can carry a lot of water for the Texas defense. Robinson didn't just send them to the well though, he also took advantage of the eight man fronts to set up Jeffcoat for success as a pass-rushing weapon.

Here Jinkens aligns as the Sam linebacker inside the TE while Jeffcoat is in a "wide-9" technique. You can't do this from a Cover-2 defense because Jeffcoat takes the outside gap that would normally go to a DB and the secondary player then has to fill a gap in the box. However, the eight man front allows this to occur.

The result is Jeffcoat matched up with a TE or turning the corner on a set OT who has to be ready to handle a speed to power move.

We used this several times in the game, including at the very end:

In this instance, Jeffcoat blows around both the TE and OT before doing a Lawrence Taylor impression on Waters.

Between this alignment and the way he'll continue to be used in Robinson's blitz schemes, teams are going to have to prepare for Jeffcoat or risk him making game changing plays at inopportune times. Jeffcoat's emergence as a pass-rushing terror on par with a Jarvis Jones is essential in Texas reaching their potential as a defense this season.

So what is that potential exactly? Texas looked vastly improved (mostly) against KSU...does that mean that this can be a good defense? Maybe. There are some good things happening with the defense on the 40 Acres, not least of which is that Robinson's simplicity is allowing Texas to finally find some identity and confidence.

Yet, while KSU is perhaps underrated as an offense, they managed 5.7 yards per play against Texas, which would not result in an impressive slot for the Longhorns in Huckleberry's team rankings. Robinson will need to continue to build up the team's fundamentals while crafting better strategies for handling the Lockett-level threats that Texas will face on a weekly basis.

Whether or not he can take away multiple weapons from the same offense remains to be seen. Fortunately, KSU was not able to present Daniel Sams and Tyler Lockett as threats on the same down. Iowa St barely has any weapons at all, OU will have several. As is typical with this team, we'll find out exactly where we are in Dallas.

At the very least, Robinson is successfully building a foundation that will serve the next coordinator well when he inherits players like Hassan Ridgeway (shown here driving back the guard and then blowing up the fullback's block as well) and Shiro Davis.

Given that this team's ceiling isn't high enough to keep Mack's job, I'm going to take the opportunity to enjoy the development of some exciting young players and root for bowl eligibility and some fun games.