With this earlier post, I began a breakdown of Horns players by position starting with the offense. While offense wins BCS rankings and gets most of the press, I believe this Texas team achieved its 11-1 record on the back of its defense. The key word here is evolution; the defense has undergone a remarkable transformation this year, a baby turning into a teenager. Mack’s transformation of his defense from a 4-3 run plugger that depends on play-making safeties to a flexible, fast, pressurizing bee swarm to combat spread offenses is now nearing completion. All that remains is to develop those play-making safeties and find at least one more linebacker, and this becomes a defense that beats teams up (like they did to Kansas).
What’s left, and the Fiesta Bowl provides a great intermediate target, is to complete the journey from teenager to man for the 2009 season. So where are the Horns in that process?
Defensive Tackle – All summer, fans worried that Texas would be too light and too shallow in personnel to hold up for the season. The show was billed as Roy Miller and the Munchkins, since 260 pound DEs (in 2007) Lamarr Houston and Aaron Lewis bulked up to 275-280 and converted to tackle in the spring. That show never made it out of focus groups; what we got instead was The Gatling Gun, a group of gap-shooting disruptors that played hell with opposing teams’ running games and produced 7 sacks and an astounding 52 quarterback hurries (only 3 less than that produced by the much more ballyhooed defensive ends). In perhaps their finest game, the play of the DT’s actually forced Missouri to shrink the gaps between the center and guards, equivalent to a big-time tightening of the derriere and capitulation by a spread offense. Instead of a weakness, DT was a team strength. Individually, senior Roy Miller was a god, with 26 quarterback hurries (only one less than Brian Orakpo), 4 sacks, and 46 tackles with 10 for losses. How he could not be on the All Big 12 defensive team is beyond me. Miller’s stuffing of the Jeremy Maclin opening-play reverse against Missouri was the statement play of the game and maybe for the year. Although much less heralded, Aaron Lewis played better than expected and looks to be a very good player for 2009. Lamarr Houston, one of PB’s “my guys” from the pre-season, was somewhat disappointing, given his athletic talents. Aside from the distraction from the DWI incident in September, I suspect it’s a case of “You can take the DE to DT, but you can’t take the DE out of the DT,” or something like that. Houston ran himself out of too many plays and seemed to struggle to hold position when double-teamed. On the other hand, he’s been plagued with a nagging foot injury that has diminished his explosiveness. Despite all this, he was undeniably disruptive, because 7 (30%) of his 20 tackles went for loss and he delivered another 11 quarterback hurries.
DT is another position where Texas has a considerable advantage over their hulkier, slower counterparts on the Ohio State offensive line. With time for his foot to heal, Houston, together with Miller and Lewis could emerge as the disruptive force that stops Beanie Wells before he can generate a head of steam or makes him bounce outside, where the Longhorns’ speed advantage can come into play.
Backups: A true freshman, Kheeston Randall began getting on the field toward the end of the season, and junior Ben Alexander played well enough to spell a starter now and then. To my limited eye, there was never a huge dropoff when either was in the game. Randall, with a year of strength training and some additional bulk, could be a serious player in the years ahead.
Defensive End. As of this writing, Brian Orakpo has won the Lombardi, Nagurski, and Hendricks awards for the nation’s best lineman, defensive player, and defensive end, respectively. Next, we’ll find out he’s won the Medal of Honor. Short of Orakpo, does Texas have any defensive ends? I think the answer to that question is a resounding yes. The "other" ends in the 2008 campaign, senior Henry Melton and sophomores Sam Acho and Eddie Jones combined for 8 sacks, 16 tackles for loss and 29 quarterback hurries. Not exactly girl scouts. I must say I am more than impressed with Henry Melton, who went from a sad sack of a sophomore running back that seemed afraid to hurt somebody to a consistent, motorized force at DE who may yet play in an NFL always looking for pass rushers. This depth and aggressive play from the opposite side of the line prevented consistent double teams on Orakpo and allowed the defense to develop a remarkable fluidity and unpredictability that is the trademark of Will Muschamp. All this aggressiveness did lead to a certain vulnerability to screen passes, especially early in the season, but you can’t have everything.
In their two most recent BCS beatdowns by SEC teams, speed and power off the edge from the opposing team’s DE’s completely overwhelmed the Buckeyes. With Orakpo’s knee healed up and Acho’s confidence peaked for the Fiesta Bowl, the Horns DE’s could very well be the heavy artillery that takes out the command and control of one freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The key is not to sack him on every play but rather to collapse the pocket, making him stand and read defenses rather than run, free-lance and play sandlot football.
Backups: Although Orakpo and Melton seemed to always be on the field, Acho and Jones are not much of a drop-off. Their signature moment as a pair was the six-play goal-line stand against Kansas where each got a sack
Outside Linebackers – On one hand, we have Sergio Kindle, whose brutal tackles and pass rush kept the Horns in the game against Tech when every other player’s head was spinning demonically and has played like a beast ever since. I always think of him as "The Cleaner" for his tactic of delaying his pass rush until he sees that a. it really is a pass, and b. which way the quarterback might flush and then swooping in for the kill. He is easily the most disruptive and best pass-rushing linebacker in the Big 12. Then we have Roddrick Muckelroy, who has a different job of cleaning up draws, screens, dumpoff passes to running backs or fronting slot receivers who run hot routes. With all this responsibility, he is the first linebacker to record 100 tackles in a season and lead the team in tackles (by a wide margin in fact) since Derrick Johnson in 2004. He played monster games against UTEP, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech, but was dominated by Oklahoma State’s TE Brandon Pettigrew, and has virtually disappeared since the Texas Tech game (Colorado-Tech, averaged 11.6 tackles/game, but only 6 per game since). It may be that he’s injured but the team hasn’t reported it, but his on-again, off-again performances have left him off the All-Big 12 teams.
Given the Horns’ recent history of atrocious linebacking, this year’s play is a serious upgrade. But the team has been vulnerable to runs off the edge (see UTEP, Oklahoma State, and Baylor (incidentally Muckelroy’s worst game)) and good TE’s (Gresham, Coffman, and Pettigrew all had big games). It could be scheme-related, but somehow the outside linebackers seem a year away from being truly great. As a fan, I hope Kindle doesn’t turn pro, because I think he is still learning the LB position and could easily triple his signing bonus by playing another year for Muschamp.
This group needs to work out how to play the double TE set, because as sure as a Sunday morning, Ohio State will line up with 2 TE’s and pinch the DE’s, daring Kindle and Muckelroy to fight off the FB or make the right choice on a Pryor option play. While their athletic ability is unquestioned, their mental game needs an overhaul, or Beanie Wells just might wear out the UT defense.
Backups: Sophomore Keenan Robinson and freshman Emmanuel Acho have shown a few flashes, but neither has been on the field enough to tell what their potential might be. One encouraging sign of some quality depth is that Robinson was listed ahead of Kindle on the early depth charts in summer camp, until Kindle had shown Muschamp what he could do.
Grade: B (It’s a long way up from last year’s atrocity at all linebacker positions. Kindle is a difference-maker against spread offenses, but the defense has proved vulnerable to attacks on the outside LB’s in several games).
Inside Linebackers – Rashad Bobino and Jared Norton have shared this position all year. Bobino is the senior and a veteran of the 2005 championship year, but has been consistently ineffective throughout his last 3 years. Norton has a lot of athleticism, but has come up short in the smarts and pass coverage department repeatedly. Neither player’s play changed significantly from 2007, although both seem to have improved their ability to pick gaps and judge attack angles. The MLB position poses no real threat to offenses and has made few signature plays. In some games, particularly Oklahoma State and Tech, they seemed a significant liability with missed tackles, poor gap control, and being lost in pass coverage. This is a classic case of how experience may not make you a better player.
The Fiesta Bowl will test these two hombres in serious ways. Controlling their gaps in coordination with slanting defensive linemen will be key in any feasible plan for stopping Beanie Wells. Fans can only hope that they will "man up" for that job. Fortunately, the Buckeyes do not have an all-world TE to abuse them in pass coverage.
Grade: C (One of two remaining problem areas on defense. Luckily they have Miller & Co. in front of them).
Cornerbacks – This position has perhaps evolved the most during the year. The starters on the depth chart, Ryan Palmer and Deon Beasley, are likely the worst players (more on that later), and the subs, considering their youth, have been fairly spectacular. So let’s focus on the starters. Ryan Palmer seems to be the only DB with good enough hands to make an interception (he leads the team with 3), and in fact made a critical interception in blowing open the Baylor game. Nevertheless, his small size and lack of quickness and closing speed leaves him vulnerable to downfield blocking on outside runs. As the only senior, he was clearly the glue that helped hold the secondary together early in the year, but he is clearly ready to be supplanted by the wondrous Chykie Brown (more below). So now let’s turn our attention to the single most disappointing player on the team, Deon Beasley. You can see his talent in his ability to change direction. You can also see that he is the worst tackler on the defense, and the player most likely to be obliterated by a blocking wide receiver. Watching him be manhandled by Michael Crabtree and Dez Bryant felt like watching a movie on spousal abuse. Beasley versus the run on Roddrick Muckelroy’s side of the defense equals disaster. Interesting that the decline in Muckelroy’s performance has accompanied the period of Chykie Brown’s injury; hmmm… I think we have the point.
With Chykie Brown returned to health by the Fiesta Bowl, Horns fans can hope that Beasley gets relegated to the bench now that the team will not be facing a spread offense. Beasley versus the run is scary. Beasley vs. Beanie is called hide the children. While the Brown’s are not exactly the return of former UT great Quentin Jammer (who I thought was one of the best college cornerbacks against the run that I ever saw), at least they’re not afraid to knife through a double team or underneath some big clumsy pulling guard.
Back-ups The future is now with the Browns, Chykie and Curtis and a true freshman wunderkind named Aaron Williams. Because of injuries and spread offenses, these guys all got a lot of playing time early in the season, and gave us some of the best defensive plays of the year. Who can forget Curtis Brown leaping to break up a "go get it" pass from Zac Robinson to Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State. Who can forget Chykie Brown running up the sideline stride for stride, mano a mano with Jeremy Maclin of Missouri. Aaron Williams had FOUR blocked kicks, not including the one he blocked against Oklahoma that was called back for roughing (my A!!), and returned an interception for a touchdown.
Grade C+ (If it isn’t obvious already, I think Beasley is Texas’ worst defensive player and he drags an otherwise B-level group down with him).
Safeties – This group of all true or redshirt freshmen, led by starters Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon, has been scrutinized more than a couple’s first baby. Oh look, his first blown coverage! (Thomas against Florida Atlantic) Oh look, his first interception! (Thomas against OU). Oh look, his first blitz! (Gideon against Missouri). Mack must have regurgitated the pre-game dinner (if he ate at all) for every game leading up to Oklahoma, pinching himself to remember that, yes, we’re STARTING TWO FRESHMEN AT SAFETY. And one of them, the true freshman, IS CALLING THE PLAYS!! Even the casual fan knew about "the safeties" and followed their every burp and crawl. And then came the Tech game, where on the final two plays of the game, some little evil devil whispered in the ear of first Gideon (drop that interception, don’t you know you’re just a freshman!) and then Thomas (let go of that jersey, dude, you’re out of bounds and you’re just a freshman). As Texas fandom despaired, along came the Kansas game, where Gideon and Thomas formed a double-headed hammer, whacking on the Jayhawk receivers and tight ends, knocking Kerry Meier and Jake Sharp out of the game (yes I’m still impressed by that).
So if we forget all the baby babble and realize that, like all babies, our safeties after 12 games are all grown up now, the safety position has to be considered a success. Are they Eric Berry of Tennessee? Heck no! Are they as good as anyone could be in their situation? Heck yeah! I’m impressed that Gideon has gotten everyone lined up since the first game. I’m impressed that they make opposing defenses limit their throws over the middle. I’m impressed that, since the Oklahoma State game, they take good tackling angles (OK Michael Crabtree, yes that one bad one by Thomas). I’m impressed that, despite giving up big plays here and there, many of those were created by clever screens or by blown coverages and overrun plays by linebackers. I saw no uncontested post patterns, no ankle-breaking flops in front of juking midgets. I saw few short angles that allowed receivers to outrun double teams. So, dare I say it, I’m impressed!
That’s not to say that the safeties wouldn’t benefit from tip drills and former Ohio State and Minnesota Viking great Cris Carter’s video method on learning to catch a football. Three interceptions by the safeties in 12 games is not going to cut it. "Hands of Stone," was branded by the retired welter/middleweight Roberto Duran, and has no place on the football field. The safeties also need to learn how to chickenfight with and tackle low on big tight ends like Gresham and Pettigrew.
Against the Buckeyes, the Horns just need MOS, more of same. The Buckeye receivers are fast, but not faster than Jeremy Maclin or Manny Johnson. They’re definitely not tougher than Crabtree, and not as good an athlete as Dez Bryant. The Horns’ group kept the lid on all these characters (with the exception of one play) and I don’t see Robiskie and Hartline as nightmares waiting to happen. They will have to "man up" against Beanie, but the fans have seen significant man-evidence the last 3 weeks to feel confident about that.
Backups: Back in the summer, everyone wondered which of the four safeties, Thomas, Gideon, Ben Wells, or Christian Scott would start. So it’s not surprising that there is not a lot of drop-off in talent to Wells and Scott. What has been surprising is that Scott made such an impact when he came in for the concussed (call it what you want, coaches) Gideon against Kansas, it was like a medieval carpenter discovering the nail gun. With the debacle of the Pirates of the Plains fresh in everyone’s minds, the clamor for Scott to start issued forthwith. When asked why Scott hadn’t played more, Muschamp offered a one-word answer, "Preparation." Going deeper into the lineup, Nolan Brewster has played better in mop-up duty over the season, as he was lost in the first four games.
Grade B+ (Given where they started, "the safeties" performed better than anyone could have expected, even with ‘the drop" and "the jersey tackle")
Conclusions Given the vanguard of top offensive teams the Horns have played this year, being in the top 25 in scoring defense is nothing short of a miracle. This is a very good defense, that, with some coach cojones to demote Beasley and a subliminal sleeping tape on how to play linebacker for Norton, should be one of the top defenses in the country in 2009. Right now, it’s a defense no one wants to play, as PB predicted in the pre-season. As a "baby," Will Muschamp has schooled it through crawling, walking, running, training wheels, bicycles, to adolescents on motorcycles. A beatdown of Ohio State would provide its official driver’s license for 2009.