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Texas-UTEP Game Review: Defense Post-Mortem

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NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Texas Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing heals a defense like a simple scheme where you let it rip and a 6A Texas high school talent taking snaps at QB. The Longhorn D needed a post Irish confidence boost and they got it from a physical, but completely one dimensional UTEP team with a NFL talent at RB. UTEP was held to 208 yards, 51 of them on their only score.

It’s worth noting that Aaron Jones had 15-114-1 in the first half and 3-9 in the second. Why? Because it was 34-7 with 6:09 left in the 3rd quarter after the Dorian Leonard touchdown pass. Offensive production is its own defense against one dimensional teams. That goes for a team like Cal as much as UTEP.

Scheme

Texas rolled out Fox Force Two and rather than belabor it here, read this brilliant exposition by Nobis. Is it duplicable against future opponents? As a look? Absolutely. As a 50 snap game mainstay? Probably not. We’re going to see more 3-3 stack, the conventional nickel and our Dirty Dime looks as we face teams that will throw it 50 times a game.

DL/Fox

I can’t evaluate the Fox LBs with the LB group when their task was to line up at wide 9 and come like hell on every snap. Even if Papa Roach dropped into coverage on 3rd down and came up to slobberknock a receiver like he was Brian Urlacher.

It’s encouraging that two games into the season I can write with conviction that Chris Nelson, Poona Ford and Paul Boyette are steady reliables against the run who have upped their unit physicality from substandard to plus in the space of one offseason. Hats off to them for their technique work and Moorer for getting offseason buy-in on upping strength and power. Nelson and Ford in particular are doing a good job inside stuffing easy seams and setting up our linebackers, defensive ends and safeties for candy on the bounce.

An exciting part of this game with direct applicability to our next opponent and a future slate of wide open Big 12 offenses was the Longhorn DL’s ability to get pass rush production and a pocket push on passing downs from the likes of Roach, Omenihu, Elliott and Cottrell. Hager will do his own mayhem thing in space (and led us in tackles against UTEP with 8), but it’s collapsing pockets and interior activity that will create easy opportunities for our edge lunatic. Containment was a problem and better teams than UTEP will exploit it if we don’t do a better job of keeping an honest pocket.

Cottrell’s return is very welcome and he’ll be more and more important as the season unfolds, but Omenihu continues to show me something new in his repertoire each game. The NFL is simply a matter of when, not if, for #90. He covers ground easily and for a young 6-5, 270 DE to play with his leverage and strength at the point of attack is impressive. He had repeated snaps at DE where he played the option like a senior and he’s one reliable pass rush move away from being a double digit sack guy.

Speaking of high school projects that Charlie Strong saw as obvious takes while everyone else peed their Depends and worried about clean projections, #32 Roach is a silly athlete and 260+ pound guys who move that easily don’t ask for snaps - they just take them. It’s entirely conceivable that Roach will play Fox as a freshman, 5 tech as a 280 pound sophomore and DT as a 300 pound junior. And still move around like he’s not affected by gravity. The Cory Redding Trifecta in three short years. The mayhem potential of Roach/Omenihu/Elliott together on 3rd and 9 going forward is exciting.

Our DL has some predictable mainstays intermixed with run or passing down specialists and it makes for some fun combinations.

What oxygen UTEP got in the running game was a function of ILB error, not DL gaffes.

LB

Good hustle plays abounded from Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler. It’s hard to appreciate their mobility and hustle and fault them for not playing a lead draw like they’re Harry Carson or Mike Singletary, but sophomore linebackers are going to have some holes in their game. However, there are holes and then there are Coles.

Tim Cole was responsible for the 51 yard Aaron Jones touchdown and he had a couple of other gaffes in very limited snaps. I broke down the play in detail at Inside Texas, but the summary is that he was left unblocked, actually created a double team seal block on Chris Nelson with aimless drifting inside and Aaron Jones sprinted through a vertical seam right where he should have been standing. On 3rd and 1. Dude. It’s pretty clear that the 5th year senior doesn’t really understand game context, our concepts or his run fit.

Nobis pointed out last week that our Foxes had a good run at MLB from the 3-3 stack (in admittedly limited snaps) and I think that’s a solution over running out #30. Whether Hughes (who is surprisingly physical playing inside), Hager (aggression, but will overrun) or Roach (I want to see him unblocked on that Jones score) helps get Wheeler and Jefferson rest is unimportant - we need to be creative, try some stuff out and see if we can solve our ILB substitution problems. Particularly as teams like Cal, Baylor and Texas Tech put our defense on the field for 80 snaps a game.

Malik is a wonderful player who thrives in chaos and on broken plays (batted ball, several excellent clean up tackles in space), but he’s still too impatient, particularly in his pass drops and running under blocking. Wheeler is going to be good. It’s simply a matter of experience and reps. Getting them both rest so they can play 55 hard snaps instead of 75 exhausted ones is key.

DB

Facing Kavika Johnson will do wonders for your stat line as Texas held UTEP to 14 of 21 for 73 yards passing. They threatened downfield about the same way that I threaten Fabricio Werdun in a bar fight. I was encouraged to see Davante Davis mentally in the game (beautiful hit and strip from zone coverage) and Sheroid Evans continuing his very high level of play. Kevin Vaccaro notched another sack while giving up another open field run from the QB. Vaccaro’s physical limitations are considerable, but it’s clear that the coaches believe he has a steadying effect on his teammates.

Antwuan Davis had a pair of very nice open field tackles and PJ Locke acquitted himself decently.

This a deep unit that needs to prove itself against Cal on the road. Few college defenses have the ability to run out three or four quality corners and run out a variety of safeties. There’s a real potential for Texas to play man under coverage, safeties deep, stuff the run with honest numbers, and turn Cal over when they try to go to their tempo short passing game. The key is playing up to their ability on every snap and complete mental engagement. And avoiding dumb penalties. Kris Boyd.

10 penalties for 115 yards has little consequence against UTEP, but new sets of downs against spread offenses, with the predictable ensuing mental letdown as the players press in compensation, have a maddening tendency to end up in dumb “what was that?” scores.

Overall

Nice job against the Miners. Now the Texas defense faces its first road test and a wide open passing attack that will be our first exposure to the weekly norm of Big 12 play. DL and DB depth will be critical, but mental engagement and the ability to take turnover opportunities will decide whether this game is a nail biter or a road statement.