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Texas-Cal Football Postmortem: Defense

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Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Bad defensive play starts in ripples and ends in waves.  If you have average players, they'd better play perfectly, understand their role within the larger defense and tackle reliably.  Every player who does their own thing, doesn't play with technique or simply lacks the tools to do their job creates ripples that eventually cascade into a tidal wave that rolls through the defense.

Against Cal, it started up front, spilled through to the linebackers and eventually reached a pair of not-ready-for-primetime safeties who were left trying to stop the flood with a tool kit of Ziploc bags and bathroom caulk.  The Texas game plan was to keep Cal from going over the top, limit Goff to the short and intermediate game and then stop the run situationally.  The first part was more or less accomplished, the second part earned a F grade.

While our defense has obvious physical deficiencies, the most glaring thing about this unit is the lack of football acumen. Or maybe I just made the mistake of watching Northwestern play before our game for three weeks straight.

While lack of IQ is perfectly understandable for freshmen and the loss of both starting safeties did us few favors, the worst offenders are often seniors and juniors.  They're also the sloppiest technicians. They seem to have minimal understanding of game context (i.e. here's what down and distance, the defensive call and field position allow), their role within the larger defense and when it's appropriate to go off script.  Just Do Your Job is a football cliche for a reason and it's not clear to me that some of these guys understand what their job actually entails.  Some of that is on the position coaches and the teaching of the overall defense, but the harsh truth is that some players are just front runners, lack talent or instincts for the game.

Right now, Texas doesn't have a single player on defense who opposing offensive coordinators start game planning against on Monday thinking,"How are we going to address Player X?  Dude's a problem."

That's a problem for our defensive coordinator.

DL

Hassan Ridgeway flashed (two Goff quick pressures that lack of containment from the DEs botched) as he did against Rice, but he still appears to be de-conditioned from his injury and not quite in football shape.  So he's alternating good play/negligible play and his snaps are limited.  The play from the other DTs was quite poor.  Boyette gives more ground than the Louisiana Purchase, Ford is getting washed out by his lack of size and Desmond Jackson is a non-factor who got single blocked by a freshmen center and the Cal guards whenever they wanted, which allowed unfettered access to a LB corps that doesn't exactly excel at holding ground or shedding blocks.  We don't play with low pads after the first ten snaps of the game, which drives me insane given that our DTs aren't exactly JJ Watt proportioned. Backside pursuit is frequently non-existent.

Shiro Davis had a big sack and forced fumble off of the Cal tackle seeming to lose the snap count and his night ended there.  He's a senior with no concept of containment or the larger role he plays in the defense.  He plays because he's the only DE we have who can hold the edge in the running game.  Goff's scramble TD throw where Ridgeway pressured him out of the pocket was enabled by Davis managing to both lose containment and somehow lock up inside in a slow dance with the OT.  Had he simply played his technique, Goff runs right into his arms.  An easy Cal touchdown toss turns into an 8 yard loss.

Cottrell got a foolish roughing penalty and offered little else.

Naashon is consistently grading out the best in terms of effort and play, but he's not a pass rusher and his greyhound lean 230 pounds isn't going to squeeze an OT down in the running game.  He's a complementary player in a defense that needs playmakers.

Cal's running game exploded in large part because they realized that double teams up front - or even brief help on zone blocks - was no longer necessary.  Just fire straight out on the LBs and run it downhill.  The 74 yard Muhammad run is a prime example.

LB

Because of the depth we were forced to play our safeties, Jefferson was disallowed from blitzing and doing edge disruption things and forced into a traditional LB role.  That's not his game.  He struggled with reads, reaction time, shedding blocks and seemed to be physically beaten down.  His "talent" is irrelevant when placed in this role at this stage of his career.  However, we have no other real options.  Peter Jinkens gave effort, but he's not a natural interior run stopper either (he takes some bad angles) and we have four years of data that bear that out.

They tried Hager and he immediately lost containment on Goff on an outside blitz.  Wheeler has no idea what's going on and he's not ready.  Freeman's injury doesn't help longer term development and the potential for improvement by midseason.

There are no answers here and if you read the Thinking Texas Football preview, this was an expectation we laid out pretty plainly.  The goal now is to find someone on our DL with a pulse who can necessitate a double team when they're lined up in a gap, do our best to coach up Jefferson and Jinkens and pray that Big 12 teams get impatient with their running games.  Or our young corners grow up, we go press man across the board and address the run by adding extra men and assigned gaps for all of them.  TCU will throw six 75 yard touchdowns, but Kansas will be in trouble.

DB

Cal is a high execution, precision offense that took advantage of our inexperienced talented youngsters like Boyd, Hill Davis and Locke and the physical deficiencies of some of the older guys asked to shoulder more of the burden.

I thought Duke Thomas and Antwuan Davis played fairly well, considering all factors.

A big story of the game was the loss of Haines and Hall early and while their play had been a source of frustration to Longhorn fans, their replacements quieted down the "why do they start?" musings from the last two weeks.  Kevin Vaccaro is game and he'll stick his nose in there (nice forced fumble on goal line), but he's 5-8, 180 and had to play safety lined up near the goal posts so he could keep everything in front of him.  Cal worked him over in the passing game with Lawler when we dared to give him specific coverage responsibility.  The fact that Lawler has stupid hair added insult to injury. Locke is a freshman and game speed was moving way too fast for him.  We couldn't add men to the front for fear of giving up single play touchdown throws and we didn't get the DB run support from zone coverage that usually limits running gains to 5 or 7 yards instead of 25 and 74.

Conclusion

The current state of our defense is a series of unappetizing trade-offs between worse and better.  There are incremental improvements and technical aspects that can be improved with simple instruction and game experience, but I think some of the issues are hard-wired into the players themselves.  Namely, they're either way too young, miscast out of necessity, or just not very good.  We like to imagine that our uneven recruiting during the dying days of the Brown era was limited to the offensive side of the ball, but the defense has just as many deficiencies and weird depth chart gaps.