ATX Longhorn Sports 2013
Football Talk

From the stands: Spring practice 2013, focus on the defense

From the stands: Spring practice 2013, focus on the defense

Austin Photo Set: News_trey_spring practice_march 2013_manny diaz_ut longhorns
Coach Manny Diaz and LB Dalton Santos Courtesy of Texassports.com
Austin Photo Set: News_trey_spring practice_march 2013_defense_ut longhorns
Defensive line Courtesy of Texassports.com
Austin Photo Set: News_trey_spring practice_march 2013_manny diaz_ut longhorns
Austin Photo Set: News_trey_spring practice_march 2013_defense_ut longhorns

It was a tremendous weekend of suck for Texas sports:

  • The basketball team, fresh off their monster comeback over ou in Austin last week, fell apart in the last 21 minutes of the game at Oklahoma State and lost going away.
  • The No. 5-ranked softball team went to Florida and lost to 3-8 Hofstra and 5-9 Fordham in the Citrus Classic.
  • The baseball team was swept by Stanford in Palo Alto, losing in walk-off fashion, 2-1, on Sunday. Combined with the mid-week loss to Sam Houston (the first time Sam has beaten Texas in 13 years) the Horns have lost four straight.  
  • And women’s basketball. Oy.
  • All of this comes on the heels of starting tackle Josh Cochran breaking his leg last week, which will cost him the rest of spring practice likely most of the spring semester, if not all of it. Reports are he will be ready to go this fall.

It happens sometimes. You just have to roll with it and move on, right. Right? Right. Baseball will have better days and basketball will also have better days (Update: They did, beating Baylor Monday night.). Baseball is working out the kinks, while a team like Stanford already has them worked out. Josh Cochran will heal and his absence will allow younger players to get much-needed reps that might not have gotten otherwise.

As for basketball, the better days for Barnes’ group will come, but not this year. Texas is taking their lumps with some many kids playing (officially the youngest roster in the nation), but it will only make them better in the long run. The good news is this happened.

Let’s talk some football. This week we finish our spring practice preview of the Texas Longhorns with a look at the defense.

Spring practice 2013: The defense

Let’s just get it out there — Texas was terrible on defense last year. Terrible.  They finished ranked 88th in rush defense, 73rd in scoring defense, 64th in pass efficiency defense and 40th in total defense. While the rankings may not sound all that bad, they were. Poor tackling, poor angles, poor tackling, blown assignments and poor tackling were the themes for the 2012 Texas defense. And poor tackling. And now Texas must replace the two best players from that 2012 defense, Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro, as both are projected first round NFL draft picks. That’s the bad news.

The good news is two injured players return in defensive end, Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks. Also back, nine starters from last year, meaning Texas has plenty of experience on that side of the ball, but for Texas to get where they want to be, things needs to happen. Let’s see what those things are. Again, unit by unit, but first let’s talk about the defense as a whole.

Adapt

When Mack Brown was looking to hire his new defensive coordinator in the spring of 2011, he went to the best league in the country, the SEC. He asked his colleagues who was the toughest guy to prepare for offensively and they said Manny Diaz at Mississippi State because his defenses were so intricate. In his first year at Texas, the Horns were excellent, finishing the season ranked No. 11 in total defense, highlighted by the mauling of Cal in the Holiday Bowl; however, with the loss of his starting trio of linebackers to the NFL (Eacho, Keenan Robison) and injury (Jordan Hicks), 2012 was a train wreck.

The blitzing and stunting that was so effective in ’11 was ineffective in ’12 with inexperienced linebackers who didn’t really understand or comprehend what was needed from them. A struggling and inconsistent linebacking corps only magnified the lack-of-tackling prowess in the secondary, and with a coordinator who likes to bring exotic pressure to confuse the offense, the result was the 40th best defense in the country.

Manny Diaz is not a dumb guy. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. He had terrific success in 2011 with experienced linebackers that understood what he was trying to do. He didn’t have that success last year with young and inexperienced linebackers and, honestly, I thought it took him a little longer than it should have to adapt. Texas went with Peter Jinkens and Tevin Jackson later in the year and the defense was much, much better. Diaz simplified his defense, allowing his players to focus more on finding the ball and making plays than out-foxing the offense with formations and stunts. I say keep it up.

Texas changed their offense for Vince Young and is changing it again to match the personnel they have now. I encourage the defense to do the same. Adapt to the personnel you have, coach. If the philosophy is too complicated for the unit, then make it less complicated. If constant blitzing and stunting doesn’t work, stop doing it. If tackling is an issue, find the personnel that do it better. If none of them do it well, make it the top priority for the defense. You don’t have to abandon your philosophy, but you need to adapt it for it work. Diaz showed at the end of the year he could do that.

Likewise, the personnel need to adapt as well. The coach is simplifying things so the players can make plays, now the players need to make those plays. The safeties have to tackle better. The linebackers have to read their keys better. It all must be better. No more 260-pound ou fullbacks jumping over two players staring at the ground trying to shoulder tackle him. Do your jobs, fellas. Adapt to what the coaching staff is giving you to be successful.

There is too much talent, too much experience and too much knowledge on this defense for the bad trend to continue. If nothing changes at all, more experienced linebackers and more depth across the board will make Texas a better defense; but I think everyone adapts some and things get better. Let’s take a look at the units.

Defensive line

It isn’t easy to replace a first round draft pick, because most of the time you aren’t going to be better with a talent like that gone; but this isn’t a typical situation. Alex Okafor is out, but Jackson Jeffcoat is back. The senior, an All Big 12 selection as a sophomore in 2011, was lost for the year against ou in 2012 with a torn pectoral. He should slide into the role as No. 1 pass rusher seamlessly as long as he’s healthy. Texas is not rushing him along right now, holding him out of contact drills to get him fully healthy. He will be ready for prime time this fall and should have an Okafor-like year.

With Jeffcoat out last fall, Cedric Reed stepped in and started the last six games, notching 2.5 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures. Thrown into the fire, the inexperienced Reed showed himself very well last year. Now he’s a veteran and comes into the spring as the starter opposite Jeffcoat. At 6-foot-6 , 250 pounds, he’s got basketball athleticism and terrific quickness and will be the Sergio Kindle to Brian Orakpo, the Sam Acho to Sergio Kindle, the Jackson Jeffcoat  to Alex Okafor —  the other end that excels as offenses focus on the more celebrated name. And if form holds, next year it will be someone else’s job to take the pressure of Reed. I think Texas is set at starter with Reed and JJ outside, so the goal is to find Nos. 3 and 4.

The odds-on favorites right now are Shiro Davis and Reggie Wilson. Both played a ton last year and as a senior, Wilson has flashed some serious play-making ability, but he isn’t as consistent as Jeffcoat or Reed. A sophomore, Davis came on late last year and is as quick as anyone on the team off the edge, but is relatively light at 236 pounds. These two are very good, but they are a step behind Reed and Jeffcoat.

The guy to watch is Bryce Cottrell. The redshirt freshman from Plano is about the same size and Davis and will be a demon off the edge this fall. Texas is set with five deep at end and the goal this spring is to keep everyone healthy and working on their game. So far, so good.

Texas lost Brandon Moore to the NFL draft and missed on a few high profile recruits at defensive tackle, so the staff decided to move Hassan Ridgeway inside. Ridgeway should do a nice job of replacing Moore, whose potential was greater than his production. He’s very raw, but sick with talent. It was an excellent move by the staff to fortify the tackle spot, but it’s mainly for depth as the starters are set, at least in my eyes, with sophomore Malcom Brown and junior Desmond Jackson.

Brown reminds ME of Shaun Rogers in his size (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) but far exceeds Rogers in mobility and range, even when he was in college. He’s a beast and his time increased over the season and I think he’s locked up one tackle spot. Jackson is a vet that started the most games of any of the tackles last season and he will hold onto the other job. He isn’t the playmaker that Brown is, but he’s solid to very good and makes few mistakes.

Chris Whaley and Ashton Dorsey round out the top four as Ridgeway competes with Paul Boyette and Alex Norman for the No. 5 spot in the rotation and that battle will be ongoing throughout spring. Like the ends, Texas is fairly set at defensive tackle barring an opening somewhere in the reserves.  

I like where Texas is with their depth and rotation on the defensive line. Malcom Brown is going to blow it up.

Linebackers

Safe to say the linebackers last year were a disappointment. Don’t fret, because help is on the way: Jordan Hicks. Out after the Ole Miss game with an injury, the senior-to-be was sorely missed. He’s the guy that got the front seven where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there, and without him everything seemed to fall apart. Guys that were expected to step in and takeover did not.

At the end of the season the staff went with two young guys outside in Peter Jinkens and Tevin Jackson and things looked better. The two are instinctive linebackers and seem to understand what Diaz wants to do, which was significantly simplified when they entered the lineup. With Hicks back, the three of them are the top outside linebackers. Inside Dalton Santos, down 21 pounds from the fall, is battling Steve Edmond for the starting mike spot and I think he wins it. Sort of.

To be honest I think both Santos and Edmond are killers in the run the game; the problem is most of the time when they come in the game offenses are likely to attack their cover skills. Edmond had his moments- a pick-six at Ole Miss and a game-changing deflection at Tech- but overall he struggled at times picking up backs across the middle. That’s why I say “sort of.” I think Santos will win that job and he will be considered a starter along with Jinkens, Jackson and Hicks and Diaz will rotate the four of them in depending on the scheme and the situation.

Sometimes that may mean Jordan Hicks is in the middle, or Tevin Jackson, or sometimes all three could be on the field at the same time. Those four are just better right now than everyone else and I think you’ll Diaz find ways to use them.

I am very comfortable with these four being the first team unit. The key for them is absorbing as many practice reps and as much knowledge as possible, because the instincts and talent are there. Oh, Jordan Hicks should be in a golf cart all the time when he isn’t practicing. He needs to be healthy and on the field.

Secondary

Texas is set at cornerback with Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom as the starters and Duke Thomas coming off the bench as No. 3. Leroy Scott is running second team behind Byndom and will need to hold off the kids coming in, but he’s solid.

The idea going into spring was to move Diggs over to safety and let the sophomore Thomas take over at corner, but so far that hasn’t happened. Right now Mykkele Thompson and Adrian Phillips are the starters at safety. I’m fine with AP out there as long as the shoulder injury is far behind him. He was the best db on the field for Texas in 2011, but last year he definitely seemed concerned about his shoulder, which needed surgery and cost him the spring and summer of 2012. If he’s confident, he’s very good.

Thompson is as impressive physically as anyone on the team, but he has got to get better tackling. He has size, speed and vision but at times his tackling is just ATROCIOUS. It’s a hard job to be safety. I know it isn’t easy to cover all the ground and wrap someone up, but it has to be done. He has all the tools to do that, but he still has to DO IT. He must be doing it well so far because Diggs is still at cornerback. I hope he shuts me right the hell up.

Lots of candidates are pushing him, like Adrian Colbert, but so far he’s hanging on. I expect to see Diggs get a look later this spring even if Thompson is the best db on the team just to change things up, but for right now it looks like Thompson has the job.

Texas surely isn’t standing still hoping Thompson turns the corner. If he wasn’t progressing or improving (or if Phillips’ shoulder was an issue) Texas would be shuffling in any and every one to improve the position. They aren’t, so I take that to mean Thompson and Phillips are taking care of business.

In conclusion

I really like how Texas is setting up in the front four. There is experience, depth, talent and a nice mix of young and old that complements each other well. I think the linebackers look promising with the return of Hicks and the emergence of Jinkens, Santos and Jackson. If Manny Diaz will not over think things with these guys, they have a chance to be a playmaking bunch that have speed, attitude and instincts.  

The safety spot concerns me some, but I like the idea of a returning starter (Phillips) and a guy with significant snaps (Thompson) back there. But they have to tackle better. There is no try, only do. The talent is there for Texas, as is the experience. Manny Diaz didn’t forget how to coach last year. The Horns need to learn from their mistakes and adjust, adapt. If they can do that, this defense will be fine.

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Trey McLean writes From the Stands for the University Co-op. Follow Trey on the University Co-op Game Day Page, on Twitter @TreyMcLean, or email him here.