The best defense in the Big 12 has come together impressively under Charlie Strong and a group of talented assistants who have revealed a gift for teaching and breaking down complex coverage combos into simple tasks and imparting broad guidelines that free players instead of turning them into mindless arrows on the whiteboard.
The loss of two starters (Jackson to injury, Turner to suspension) has been absorbed with little drop off. Though the extra bodies would be appreciated.
Short of catching Vance Bedford in a blitz-happy moment most of the defensive gaffes have been clear player error, a failure to adjust to a quick change possession, or a timely call by the offense. Systemic breakdowns are rare, tackling is largely excellent and most positions are revealing a level of fundamental play not seen since 2009 (with talent levels well south of that group).
The Longhorn defense has proven excellent at limiting big plays in the passing game, often at the expense of consistent soundness against spread running teams when we go to a 3-3-5 pass-busting defense. Absent elite performers at every level, defense in the Big 12 is simply an exercise in trade-offs. We'd rather keep the ball in front of us instead of letting it behind. We're a couple of players and a little more experience in the system away from dominance.
17th in the NCAA in total defense isn't shabby (in yards per play allowed, Texas is Top 10 at 4.29) and as the data set grows, our adjusted numbers will demonstrate even better results.
Texas has the 4th ranked passing efficiency defense in FBS starting a sophomore walk-on and a true freshman at safety in our base nickel defense.
While our cornerbacks are pretty good (Thomas is probably our best pure cover guy, Diggs has been very physical) and Thompson has proven to be a solid rover over the top, we're not exactly brimming with NFL talent. We don't have the best secondary talent in the conference, but we coach and play our guys the best. OU had more coverage busts last Saturday than this secondary has had in their previous three games. TCU appeared to bust about 40% of their coverages against Baylor. We might have blown three against the Bears all game. Coaches on the field and on the sideline, it seems.
In our preview mag, we talked about the value of multiple eyes (Strong, Bedford, Vaughn) on this secondary speeding development and how coaching them as a unit instead of individuals should pay dividends. Results have exceeded prediction.
Jordan Hicks has been the standout of the unit, but even he has had a few key busted tackles that led to opponent big plays. He leads the team in tackles and deserves All-Conference recognition so far. Steve Edmond's formula is now pretty reliable - when we can keep him between the tackles facing a conventional running attack, he's a fairly reliable thumper. When the game expands and he's asked to cover more space as a 3-3-5 LB against a spread running game or playing contain on a scrambling QB, it's not fun to watch. One under appreciated aspect of his game is his ability to cut off short routes and react in zone coverage. His issues as an athlete appear to be of the stop-start variety - once he gets moving, he's pretty athletic for his size.
When paired in a 4-2-5, they're at their best. However, our ability to defend the flats and sideline (as evidenced against OU) is compromised. Remember what I wrote about trade offs?
Jinkens has underwhelmed, Cobbs has disappeared and we've largely eschewed playing a 3rd linebacker in favor of adding more pass protection deep.
Malcom Brown is the best defensive lineman in the league and my mid-season defensive MVP. 37 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 3 QB hits at the halfway mark is getting it done when you're the constant recipient of offensive attention. Ridgeway has been an excellent complement and though he lacks Brown's consistency, his upside looks frighteningly similar (26 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 sacks). Boyette has been solid in relief, but the drop off is noticeable on his sub downs. He's an active guy though.
Cedric Reed has been quiet by statistical measures, but his game impact is significant. He's a rock against the run and consistently gets pressure without sacrificing containment. Bluiett has surpassed Davis (as predicted) and the surprise contributions of Hughes bode well for the future. Both players make plays and mistakes, but the former is outpacing the latter. I'd love to see a fourth DE give us a reliable pass-rushing body down the stretch - Bryce Cottrell, I'm looking at you.
This group has performed at an A- level. If paired with a functional offense and useful special teams, they'd have gaudier statistics and would probably be allowing 14 points per game instead of 20. The key development down the stretch for this group will be in the emergence of back-ups who can provide good snaps in relief, an ability to balance the upside and downside of our formational choices against the spread running offenses and a more consistent effort level for four quarters.