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Texas-Notre Dame Football: Defensive Postmortem

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Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

In the preseason TTF preview, we cautioned that the Longhorn fanbase trusting blindly that this staff would just sort out the defense despite significant attrition to the NFL, a horrific LB depth chart and a lack of speed over the top might be shocked at the results after the first half of the season.  Despite our warning, even I was shocked at how poorly we played.

I know we're all caught up in speculation about the direction of the new offense, but we also have a defense.  And that defense had its ass thoroughly kicked on Saturday.  Credit a very good Notre Dame offense with more team speed than I've seen from the Irish in two decades, a senior laden OL and a nifty college QB, but also fault Texas for getting whipped on the line of scrimmage, blowing coverages and generally playing in ways we don't expect from a disciplined Charlie Strong defense.  Strong and Bedford must be besides themselves at the mistakes they saw on Saturday.

The Longhorns surrendered 500+ yards, put Malik Zaire in the Heisman conversation (hey, it's Notre Dame!), were manhandled at the LOS and got schooled by an Irish WR corps that seemed to have an endless supply of playmakers.

Texas doesn't have a pass rush and we don't have the personnel to go man against an offense with quality options. That's concerning.

**

DL

Hassan Ridgeway was clearly hurt.  He looked de-conditioned, lacked explosiveness and power and was handled easily by the Notre Dame interior OL.  I expected a huge year from Ridgeway and this isn't it so far.  I'm still waiting for Tank Jackson to show anything against a good OL.  Maybe he's still feeling the effects of his injury, but even at his best, these are the sorts of games where he's typically a non-factor.  Poona Ford was swallowed up by Notre Dame's size and had his leverages negated by experienced 6-6 to 6-8 OL with big wingspans and good technique.  Boyette looked like the same role player.  He got heavy snaps out of desperation more than anything.

Outside, Hughes flashed his value as a player that can cover space and I love his ability to range to the sideline, but his quickness doesn't translate to pass rushing (I'm actually struggling to understand - he may just be too weak) and he lacks the strength to squeeze a tackle or tight end to compress an inside run.  Shiro Davis is still the same guy. Straight line athlete with no dip or flexibility.  If he can't bull rush a weak OT, he's got nothing.  He ran right by Malik Zaire on a stunt when Zaire slid six inches right.  Davis would be a back-up on most Texas Ds.  Cottrell didn't impress in his snaps, but he did show some natural pass rushing ability.  Omenihu got more play than I realized during the game and he was OK given his tenure.

If Ridgeway doesn't get healthy and some of the more tenured players don't get it in gear, this DL has little upside.

LB

Malik Jefferson made some mistakes, but he made them going full speed, exhibited great effort in backside pursuit and his first step quickness is extraordinary. He's going to be awesome.  We also may need to move him to the edge on passing downs.  It's exciting that a freshman was our best player on defense.  It's terrifying that a freshman was our best player on defense.

With Jefferson blitzing or in coverage, Jinkens drew the role of enforcing run integrity.  He had some moments, but also some large gaffes.  I expect Freeman to push him.  Cole played and didn't make a play.

DB

We zoned a good bit to keep Zaire in the pocket (that didn't work out so well) and work through his progressions (he did) and to keep ND's fleet WR corps in front of us (nope).  While it's tempting to advocate man coverage and jailhouse blitzes, please believe me that would've been ugly as well.

The player we miss the most after DT Brown and LB Hicks is...Mykkele Thompson.  It's a big hole.  He could erase a slot receiver, had great range in Cover 3 and he supported the run.  His presence gave us the speed and man coverage flexibility to keep Haines and Hall on the field, more or less protecting them from single receiver responsibilities.  Diggs would be nice, but Thompson is what's really missing.  He's gone and we're exposed now.  And there is no easy fix.

I won't belabor it, but this was Dylan Haines' worst game as a Longhorn.  He blew coverages, was late in run support and generally played without composure or physicality.  Aside from conceding the Will Fuller touchdown on a Cover 2 bust and some other late arrivals in Cover 3, there was another play really upset me.  ND was running wide, our DE squatted down on the inside cutback lane, prevented the runner from getting a good angle and Haines had a clear line of run support.  It should have been a 2 yard loss.  Haines took a bad angle, squatted next to the DE passively, gave up his angle and allowed the runner a clean corner for a 10+ yard gain.

Jason Hall started and didn't really factor into the game.  If he's not playing near the line of scrimmage, he doesn't have a ton of value.   Hall and Haines are a bad safety combo in how they complement each other if the other three guys aren't man coverage or pattern matching blankets.

John Bonney struggled at cornerback and may need to go back to the nickel role.  Upon review, Duke Thomas actually played better than I initially thought, but that's a matter of degree.

This unit is in trouble.  They're not talented enough to man up consistently or screw up assignments and they're not delivering blows in zone coverage.  Throw in no pass rush and that's a toxic combination.

The freshmen are going to get some run.  That means better athleticism and a lot more mistakes.

**

The defense will get coached up.  I have faith in this staff.  But it has some talent deficiencies - as well as some bad injury luck - that's going to make anything like the level of play Longhorn media or fans expected before the season unlikely.

This is a program in rebuild.  On both sides of the ball.