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Texas-Rice Football Postmortem: Defense

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Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

My impressions against Notre Dame weren't overly alarmist.  While this defense still has significant potential to grow, our preseason predictions (available now just in time for the Halloween rush!) that this unit was being wildly overrated in the preseason based on experience and actual talent level are prophetic.  Texas surrendered 462 yards on 96 plays and while those numbers may be made more palatable on a per play basis (4.8) and an extra possession or two can be explained by the Texas special teams and offense notching one play drives, the stark reality of 14 of 21 surrendered on 3rd downs doesn't give the defense anywhere to hide.

Good defenses get off of the field on 3rd down.  Particularly against Rice. Half of those conversions can be explained by simple missed tackles, the DL getting stalemated by 275 pound guys with inordinately high SAT scores or our linebackers filling as lightly as a down comforter.

It's clear that our game plan was to prevent Driphus Jackson from making plays downfield in the passing game and disallowing big plays in general.  Mission accomplished.  In fact, if you'll remember, our 3 man front was susceptible to the run last year, with much better personnel.  Some of this frustrating grind was in the schematic cards.  This is understood.  However, the whole idea of playing that scheme is so that you can win playing situational defense on 3rd and 3+.  Patriot football etc.  When you combine underwhelming DL play with bad tackling, horrible inside linebacker play, a predictably blitzing Malik Jefferson on 80% of downs (which is both good and bad) and two safeties who are playing deep and/or not supporting well when they're not, your defense isn't going to get off of the field.

On the positive side, the effort level is largely there, the staff dedicated significant portions of the game to playing talented 18 year olds with big upsides, the Longhorns forced four turnovers (and scored off of one) and the young talent on display gave significant reason to believe that the future is very bright.

DL

They were outnumbered in a 3 man front for much of the game and while this should create disadvantages when Rice chooses to gang up at the point of attack, these guys should be holding up a lot better.

A few general observations:

1.  Hassan Ridgeway flashed some of his old form in the second half and that was extremely encouraging.  Every bit of health and conditioning he gains raises the potential of this defense substantially.  Poona Ford played very hard, though not always well.  I don't have much nice to say about Jackson, Davis or Boyette.

2.  The DL evidenced bad technique and tactical play.  Question: Do they understand their roles in a 3 man front against a run option team?  Answer: No they do not.  Playside DTs stood high on double teams and surrendered ground instead of submarining to create a pile up or split the double team.  They consistently lost or stalemated at the point of attack inside and allowed blockers to seep to the linebackers.  Backside DL single blocked by a Rice OL didn't squeeze down to the ball (which would have helped shut down the inside running game) or pursued after taking a false step upfield with a useless angle.  Several times, players were caught high during the pre-snap shift and were blown out.  Boyette and Jackson were consistently content to fill an area and junior high slow dance with their blocker instead of violently controlling their man, discarding them and flowing to the ball to close off cutbacks and constrict seams.

Brick Haley was demoted at LSU for Ed Orgeron.  Is there more to that than just recruiting acumen?  We're all aware of his resume.  Does that mean he doesn't have to show up to work anymore?

3. Does our DL look strong at the point of attack to you?  If any of your respond with Desmond Jackson's bench press numbers, I'm going to throw my keyboard at you.  I mean on the football field.  I'm having trouble figuring out where bad technique meets a lack of physicality. Perhaps more 1.5 mile runs will help them build explosiveness?

4.  Shiro Davis spends more time applying arm butter than pressure on QBs.

LB

Malik Jefferson demonstrated the descriptives "brilliant" and "freshman" in equal measure.  He missed a couple of key tackles, was taught a containment seminar by Driphus Jackson (who is legitimately impressive) but also evidenced incredible effort, a panther's first step and scooped and scored a fumble off of Kris Boyd's option hit.  Malik is a disruptive blitzer but he currently lacks tools as a traditional LB and this showed at times in his play and in how we must play him.

The coaches are auditioning a replacement for Peter Jinkens right now.  Edwin Freeman tried out, but he's immature and he missed three tackles.  Tim Cole has yet to turn into a diamond.  This is the part of the post where some guy in the comments recommends a freshman Hager because they remember his Dad.

The bottom line is that we don't have a true inside linebacker. If we're going to play 3-3 stack looks against spread option teams, that basic inability of our linebackers to diagnose and fill and the inherent predictability of how we play Jefferson is going to mean offenses running 80+ plays and grinding on us.

DB

Our zone coverage is still lacking, but on review much of that was attributable to our linebackers getting poor drops and taking bad steps against play action.  We miss Jordan Hicks a lot.  We played an honest front to shield the safeties and prevent the long pass plays set up off of the option that Rice feasted off of last year. That was successful and our three interceptions were a byproduct of that approach.  There are plusses and minuses to our 3-3-5 look.

The real story of the game, however, was the number of snaps dedicated to freshmen Kris Boyd and Holton Hill at cornerback.  Boyd showed his talent on an amazing forced fumble option play where he negotiated three blockers and then blew up the Rice ballcarrier, but later showed his youth on a goal line pick play where he failed to get a jam or a switch and allowed an easy saunter into the end zone.  His skill set will come in handy against Cal, but it will also mean our coverages will have to be incredibly simplistic.  That's a double-edged sword with no hilt coated in Vaseline.

Jason Hall looks hesitant and slow.  There's something going on with him physically.  It's also clear from his interception return that he attended Tiki Barber's ball security webinar.  Dylan Haines played much better and that's in large part because we played a scheme which enabled him to avoid single match-ups, take in the field from depth and play general rover.  Duke Thomas played well and John Bonney is still experiencing some sharp growing pains.  He's there in coverage, but he's not THERE.

Overall

This unit has a lot of growing up and coaching up to do.  The schedule offers no respite, with Cal coming to town on Saturday.  Styles make fights and it will be interesting to see if this group performs better against a more traditional spread offense with a QB who doesn't represent containment issues.  Unfortunately, Cal represents a whole host of other issues and if we're not able to scheme pressure, stop the run with an honest front and protect our safeties from single coverage, this game could get ugly fast.