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Longhorns Defense: Where We’re At and What’s Next

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Notre Dame v Texas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

From last week’s Monday You Call It post, the winning requests were those asking for a diagnostic of where we were on both offense and defense at the quarter pole with a look out at our Big XII prospects based on what we’ve seen to date. I’d hoped to get to these last week - or at least have the weight of a full three games of charting behind them when they came out - but the charting is an absolute bear (working to get it under 11 hours per full game currently) and rather than put everything off til Thursday I figured I’d get the ball rolling now and then let you know if I reach any new conclusions as the charting gets caught up.

Since defense is the order/panic driver of the day, no reason not to dive in and handle that side of the ball first. I was going to do our current eval and prescription in one post, but it was it was quickly turning into The Brothers Karamazov. So today let’s look at where we’re at and the root-cause issues that the defense has to deal with and save the Rx for the morrow.

Where We’re At: Run Defense

We’re largely fine with some cleanup work to do against the QB run game.

Texas is currently 38th in the country in Adjusted True Rushing Yards per Attempt at 4.15 yards a pop, and while opponent adjustments take a little longer to resolve there’s no question that number is jacked up significantly by a straight blown tackle from Hughes against ND (four yards becomes 50+), a vintage Cole-ing against UTEP (everyone else in the front does their job, he drifts for no reason and hands out a 52-yarder) and the end-of-watch 54-yarder to Enwere in the waning moments of the Cal game. You don’t just get to glibly take an “Other than that, Mrs. Kennedy, how’d you like the parade?” approach to your worst defensive plays, but when guys who won’t be asked to do a ton more fundamental linebacking boned you on fundamental linebacking plays it’s fair to say that they aren’t part of a systemic issue, either.

Texas has been getting much better DL play against the run than I anticipated heading into the season, keyed by Boyette and Nelson turning into credible two-gappers at the nose and both Poona and Omenihu mixing up disruption and toughness well enough in 4i alignments that we’re able to mess up interior gaps and give our linebackers some protection that was often sorely lacking last season. We need to work Cottrell in more and find more developmental and save-the-starters’-legs snaps for Wilbon, Christmas and Elliott, but depth and play level are fine here if we stay on a reasonable growth curve.

Wheeler has been serviceable or better as a primary between-the-tackles linebacker who’s learning to read his keys and fill, and while Malik still won’t knock anyone’s socks off while knocking head with a guard he’s pursuing well and can let everyone play up when he’s outside/offset and owns the entire outside responsibility so guys can jam up the interior. There’s been hit or miss success with a Fox guy (Hughes, Hager) playing as a 3-3 stack Mike and there may be some ability to keep doing that, but otherwise depth is still kind of scary here. Need Freeman to keep stepping up and recognize that Cole simply doesn’t have a role in P5-caliber ball.

Hall has been OK in run support though he’s still not an ace at finding run fits, and we’re candidly lacking in open-field cleanup ability from the other spot. But help could be coming soon.

We’ve got cleanup work to do against the Zone Read (mainly getting more fundamental play from the unblocked defender) and QB draws (these are tough and probably team/game-plan specific) but by and large run D is steady as she goes.

Where We’re At: Pass Defense

There’s not a stat you’ll find that’s not scary for the Longhorn pass D at this point - we’re a meh 51st in Adjusted True Passing Yards per Attempt thusfar with a horrifying 103rd mark in Passer Efficiency Allowed due to our propensity for letting errrrrthing get into the end zone.

But the “we’re going to get it fixed” mantra from Charlie after Notre Dame will only become hot shit rather than hot air if root causes are properly ID’d, things are taught (and learned) effectively and we keep most of the responsibilities simple while leaning on the right guys to do some heavy lifting.

We’ve got a collection of pass rushers capable of individual wins despite lacking an individual dominator - Poona, Omenihu, Roach, Hager and Malik off the edge give you the foundations of a workable pass rush if paired with solid coverage and some well-disguised blitzes. Unfortunately, some predictable blizes and absolutely dubious coverage have kept reasonable pressure from turning into tangible results.

We’ve got the speed, length and athleticism to play lights-out at corner, but the light simply hasn’t come on consistently in terms of understanding and executing on responsibilities. Our offset linebacking has been largely fine in coverage though lacking an interior blitzer with Peter Jinkens’ panache, and safety is on the ragged edge of acceptability without an infusion of playmaking.

The pieces are there to field a Top 25 defense, but the sheer botches and beats have been far too numerous for us to even sniff the Top 50 at this point. As our defensive dick-steps have been a mix of something old, something new, something borrowed and something blown (namely the coverages,) I figured that a proper diagnostic needs to bucket the fuckups into a few different categories:

  • Blown Assignments/Role Confusion gets everything where a guy simply didn’t make an attempt to relate to the receiver in the coverage that the other ten guys on the field were playing.
  • Poor Call or Alignment covers everything where we made (or stayed in) a playcall that was a bad idea based on simple alignment, or we just failed to align/adjust to a threat in the proper way giving guys no shot at success
  • Screens get their own category here, as we’ve got issues defending tunnel, RB and bubble screens that are (IMO) our toughest coaching solve
  • Tip Your Cap goes to the plays where we just got physically beat as a result of a great play, giving a QB more than four or five seconds to throw the ball and the like. Sometimes the other guy just wins.

Now, let’s tally up the damage on the killer opposing pass plays we’ve seen this season (sorry for a bit of a Cal Game redux and for the overall triggering that this list might, um...trigger):

Blown Assignments/Role Confusion

ND, 2Q 5:09, 3rd and 13 on ND 41 (15-yard skinny post gets ND out of jail): Davante abandons his outside guy to jump an underneath route already covered by Antwaun Davis - ball’s completed in front of Jason Hall who had no chance to get there with a conversion van-size window thanks to the blown coverage.

ND, 2Q 3:44, 1st and 10 on Texas 30 (30-yard TD toss): Same story as Davante loses his mind and his man up the sideline, giving Haines no shot at getting over before he can only be konked in the head by a knee on St. Brown’s second TD of the game.

Cal, 2Q 10:30, 3rd and 7 on Texas 43 (39-yard toss to Hansen to set up first and goal): As seen on WhatTheF*****g Edition, Sheroid misses a call or otherwise doesn’t know what’s up and allows Hansen to run free up the sideline.

Cal, 2Q 4:55, 2nd and 10 on Texas 29 (29-yard switch/wheel TD): Either we’re in Cover Two and Hall did a poor job of relating over the top to the most dangerous guy, or we’re in Quarters and Holton Hill completely blew his assignment to defend the sideline. Either way this is a serious botch.

Cal, 2Q 1:02, 2nd and 9 on Texas 23 (23-yard freebie TD up the sideline): Judgement call here on whether Sheroid Evans just got physically beat since the jagoff ESPN broadcast never showed the full route, but if Evans is trying to fulfill his assignment of protecting a deep third it’s hard to see Hansen just running right by him.

Cal, 4Q 11:21, 1st and 10 on the Texas 21 (29-yard fake screen wheel route to set up a TD): Confusion reigned here as Roach ran onto the field late, forcing Texas to try and cover three with two to the playside and leaving Holton Hill in an untenable position once two guys went deep.

Cal, 4Q 5:01, 2nd and 10 on the Cal 35 (30-yard slant and go): There’s some just got beat here (especially on the second half of the play where a Haines pratfall set the receiver loose for extra yardage) but there’s no chance that ONE of the linebackers in the neighborhood wasn’t supposed to carry him at least partway up the seam - instead, it was a totally free release that no centerfield safety was going to stop.

Blown Assignments Total: 7 plays, 185 yards, 3 touchdowns. Ouch.

Poor Call or Alignment

ND, OT, 1st and 10 on Texas 25 (25-yard tunnel screen TD): ND motioned to Trips to the field where we had Malik and a corner blitzing - there were only two guys within fifteen yards of the tunnel screen receiver BEFORE the OL all released. This one is a little of everything - there’s a tip your cap element on the call, it was definitely in the screen family but we should have checked out of this blitz on the motion because you can’t hand the O a three to two advantage outside no matter what the call is.

Cal, 2Q 5:18, 3rd and 9 at the Texas 44 (15-yard tunnel screen to let Cal out of jail): Screen family here, but poor alignment was a culprit here as we blitzed away from the play and had no box defender capable of addressing the screen.

Cal, 4Q 1:28, 1st and 10 on Texas 12 (12-yard cake and candy slant TD): Cal ran a simple slant-flat combination here that we had no chance of stopping with off coverage and a centerfield safety too far away to get in the mix. Maybe someone else was supposed to do something here, but this just looked like a nonsensical D to roll out in the shadow of your own goalpost.

Poor Call/Alignment Total: 3 plays, 52 yards, 2 TDs and some significant overlap with the Screens category.

Screens

ND, 2Q 13:46, 3rd and 7 on ND 39 (15-yard screen pass): Middle RB screen against a five-man box gets us thanks to advantageous numbers and probably some slow recognition from Malik and at least one upfield rusher.

ND, 3Q 3:40, 2nd and 10 at ND 27 (17-yard screen pass): Maybe this belongs in Confusion as there was assignment confusion here with both Hager (3-3-5 Fox) and Vaccaro jumping the field flat zone while Wheeler had to scramble towards the trips set on the boundary when Malik blitzed from that edge. Again you won’t kill a screen without some good recognition somewhere, but if Hager understands where the threats on the field are he’s drifting towards the playside and could easily have run this down.

Cal, 1Q 3:24, 1st and 10 on Cal 34 (24-yard tunnel screen): Texas didn’t make any blatant alignment/assignment errors here other than Malik taking some false steps with the running back at Mike, but this was just an example of how a well-designed tunnel screen can be a hell of a play to defend without very favorable alignment or good recognition from multiple guys.

Screens total: 3 plays, 56 yards, 0 TDs - not as deadly as our pure F-ups, but there’s work to be done if we’re not going to be constantly under threat of letting teams out of jail and/or blunting our rush on 3rd and long.

We Got Beat/Tip Your Cap

ND, 1Q 12:28, 1st and 10 on Texas 13 (13-yard TD): Sunday player to Sunday player as Kizer hits Equatorial St. Bernard on a fade with a subtle veteran pushoff to beat Davante Davis. Could have been played a little better, but shrug and move on.

ND, 2Q 1:03, 1st and 10 on ND 25 (14-yard completion): Scramble from Kizer finds the running back late - this one took almost five seconds and is on the pass rush.

ND, 4Q 10:57, 3rd and 8 on Texas 17 (17-yard TD pass): Josh Adams wheels out of the backfield against a Psycho blitz, Kizer lofts a perfect touch pass as he’s hit and Adams runs under the ball with Wheeler half a yard away from him. Sometimes them’s the breaks.

Cal 1Q 12:53, 2nd and 6 on Texas 29 (29-yard post-corner(?) TD pass): Who the hell knows here as the broadcast went 0-2 on showing us any route or coverage on that side of the field, but the receiver was behind both Locke and Davis at the pylon on a back-foot lob from Webb - I guess tip your cap.

Cal, 4Q 12:52, 1st and 10 on Cal 41 (29-yard sideline lob to Hansen for a bobble-catch): This one’s another judgement call due to dubious coverage, but I’m leaning towards Kris Boyd just getting beat (with potential help from a push-off according to some eyewitnesses) and misplaying the ball, with Haines lacking the range to get over and make a play on a lobbed ball.

Tip Your Cap Total: 5 plays, 102 yards, 3 TDs - if that’s your tally across three games with two against high-functioning offenses and quality QB/WR groups then you can live with it.

That’s the way I see it when looking out at what’s gone down to date. Interested in whether that’s how you’ve seen things - tomorrow we’ll lay out some organizing principles for the defensive re-set and take a look at a couple of build-from-the-basics sets that could help Texas get the wheels back on and make a real ahead-of-schedule run at the conference.