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McCausland: Breaking down the Texas defense

The Longhorns defense has been spiraling downwards the past couple of weeks. What is the problem, and how can it be fixed?

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Bethany Hocker, USA TODAY Sports

Texas produced over 500 yards of offense on Saturday, did not turn the ball over, punted once the entire game and held West Virginia to only 4 possessions in the second half. The Longhorns somehow still came up short, falling to the Mountaineers, 42-41, in Austin. Todd Orlando and his defense now find themselves at a point in the season where they will either figure out a way to piece things together down the stretch, or else Texas may limp to the finish line with a 7-5 record. After rewatching the game, I want to take a look at the three main factors that define every defense in the country — personnel, scheme and execution. This will help give some answers to a burning question: what the heck has happened to the Texas defense?

Personnel

There is no denying the fact that Texas sorely misses Poona Ford and Malik Jefferson. The two upperclassmen held the defense together for all of 2017. Ford gave the Longhorns max effort at the nose tackle position and lived in opponents’ backfields. Jefferson’s ability to play sideline-to-sideline and serve as an effective blitzer made him the ideal Big 12 middle linebacker.

Fast forward to 2018, and Texas is not lacking talent. Chris Nelson, who took over for Ford, is a good run stuffer who demands double teams. Anthony Wheeler took over Jefferson’s MAC position, but had seen a lot of playing time his first 3 years on campus. Wheeler was a highly decorated recruit out of Dallas Skyline whom Texas stole away from Oklahoma at the last minute. Outside of Ford and Jefferson, the only other starters the Longhorns had to replace were DeShon Elliott and Jason Hall (when Texas played Dime). It could be argued that their replacements, Caden Sterns and BJ Foster, are even more talented than their predecessors.

What can be forgotten easily is life in the Big 12 is unforgiving for defensive players. Texas is counting on true freshmen at several key positions, but also have PJ Locke, who is probably best suited for safety, playing nickel. It was thought before the season that Locke would move to safety, but backup Josh Thompson was not ready to be thrown into the fire quite yet. Add up all those factors and throw in the fact that Texas is now in the ‘Air Raid offense’  portion of the schedule, and it is not surprising to see the defense having some issues.

Scheme

Let’s go back to Jefferson for a second. Prior to the Oklahoma State game a season ago, Todd Orlando cooked up the 3-2-6 dime defense, featuring Jefferson and Gary Johnson as his two linebackers. The ability and athleticism of those two players, combined with rock solid Poona Ford in the middle, gave Orlando the confidence Texas could stop the run with 5 and 6 man boxes. This also allowed for Texas to add an extra defensive back on the field to take away the ability for teams to stretch the Longhorns vertically.

Texas has not had as much success with the dime defense this season, and the primary culprit is linebacker play. Right now, Texas is trying to utilize Anthony Wheeler like they utilized Jefferson, and it isn’t working. Wheeler is showing that he lacks instinct in the run game and can’t cover TE’s or RB’s in coverage. This has also made life for Gary Johnson more difficult. Johnson was able to play freely and fly all over the field in 2017, because he and Jefferson complimented each other well. I’m sure when the defensive coaches watch the film from yesterday’s game, they will see the tentativeness Johnson is playing with right now.

The Longhorns have a scheme that is conducive to stopping Big 12 offenses, but it may take a few years to get the type of players at each position that Todd Orlando wants to have. In the meantime, Texas has to tweak the scheme to fit the current roster.  

Execution

Todd Orlando, Jason Washington, Craig Naivar and Oscar Giles can do all the coaching and preparation they can, but at the end of the day, Texas has be able to execute. The two-point conversion from yesterday is a good example. West Virginia came out in a formation featuring 4 receivers on one side and David Sills V isolated on the opposite side. Tom Herman called timeout to talk about how to defend it. West Virginia adjusted by flipping the formation and isolated David Sills on freshman CB Anthony Cook. Herman and Orlando did not like that, and subsequently called another timeout just before Will Grier fired a slant to Sills. So at this point, Texas knew the formation and West Virginia had already shown them a play. Texas adjusted. They flipped Cook and Kris Boyd, and instructed LB Jeff McCulloch to take away the throwing window for the slant.

I’ve watched the play dozens of times now, and the Longhorns actually had it defended pretty well. Graham and Omenihu stayed in their rush lanes, and McCulloch dropped back a couple steps to take away the slant. Once Grier pulled the ball down, it was 6 Longhorns vs 5 mountaineer blockers. Johnson, Wheeler and McCulloch were all in perfect position to fill their lanes and force Grier back inside where Chris Nelson and TaQuon Graham were waiting. Instead, McCulloch took way too many steps toward the middle of the field, and Grier pranced into the end zone untouched.

Execution is a combination of both personnel and scheme. Sometimes you can have all the right players on the field and the perfect play call, and you still get beat.

What’s next?

The good news for Texas is that all 3 of these areas of fixable, but it is not something that can be fixed overnight. There is no free agent pool to choose from, and Todd Orlando can’t change his entire defense in a week. The Longhorns will see growth in all 3 areas as they continue to fill the roster with high quality recruits and are able to adapt their system to fit the team’s strengths.

The number one thing that would benefit Texas at the moment is not overcorrecting and doing something drastic, but simplifying things and trying to put players in positions to succeed. If an offense out-executes you, tip your cap and move on. Todd Orlando didn’t just forget how to coach defense in a year, and the players certainly didn’t forget how to play it. It is a frustrating time for Texas fans, but there are much brighter days ahead for the Texas defense once the personnel, scheme and execution all come together.

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Jameson McCausland is originally from Frisco, Texas, where he grew up a Longhorn fan. His two favorite sports are football and baseball, both of which he covers for HornSports. He enjoys spending time with family and friends in his spare time. Jameson is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.

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