Any discussion of new Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz usually starts with mentions of his preference for fire zones or exotic fronts with every defensive line standing and milling around pre-snap to confuse the protection schemes for the offensive line.
And to be sure, Diaz brought a massive playbook with him to Texas that included hundreds of different looks and blitzes. When pressed for an exact number, Texas senior linebacker Emmanuel Acho smiled, played coy, and declined to name a number, in part because Diaz "probably thought some up last night."
Since he didn't play football in college, Diaz has spent his adult life borrowing ideas from other places in order to develop his philosophy, including defensive legends Chuck Amato and Mickey Andrews during his time at Florida State. But Diaz also told Bruce Feldman (while he was at ESPN), that he scours the internet for the latest sabermetric approaches to the game.
In other words, he's not necessarily tied to a specific way of thinking about how defense needs to be played. Instead, he demonstrates the traits of someone interested in being a lifelong learner, constantly challenging his own philosophy and the philosophies of others.
But Diaz also has the ability to adjust his strategy based on what will work against a given opponent, which includes in-game adjustments as well, as Scipio Texas, per usual, aptly pointed out:
Right now, this defense trusts their schemes and each other. And they clearly trust their defensive coordinator. I thought Diaz was doing some things at times earlier in the year that bordered on unsound, but he's proven that he's not married at all to any sort of specific style of defense. He rolls it out there, sees how you attack, and then starts choking off options. We basically played coverage in this game and I like that Diaz has no ego attached to his blitz-first persona.
Still young in both real years and coordinator years, it seems as if Diaz has grown throughout the season as he's adjusted to the style of play in the Big 12, showing his willingness to trust his coverage, as well as his defensive line to get to the quarterback if the secondary can keep the ball from coming out for an extra second or two.
As Diaz has grown, the rest of the defense has grown with him. Besides simply believing in his fundamentally-sound schemes, the politician-like charisma that Diaz inherited from his father is paying major dividends with the team, with head coach Mack Brown calling him the most positive guy on the sideline.
Part of what makes the variety of looks that he employs effective -- even if he uses them in certain situations during many games -- is that it creates buy-in from the players because it keeps practice interesting:
To me, I always felt like you wanted it to be fun for the kids. We want our guys coming into the building on Wednesday saying, 'What do you have this week coach?'
If you go with same-old, same-old thing, you are going to get the same-old, same-old practice. When you tell the nose guard that he is going to drop back up to Sam linebacker spot, all the sudden he thinks it's like some KGB stuff that came from an East German spy so it has to work. Whether it does or doesn't is sort of irrelevant. If they think it's going to work, then you've got it half whipped right there.
As the players have started to trust the scheme more and more, Diaz has given them more freedom on the field, according to Blake Gideon:
Coach Diaz, from the time that he came, he told us that if we can figure this defense out and we show the dedication throughout the week to know the tendencies, then he is going to give us all the freedom in the world. Really, whenever he is calling the play, he is giving us the base, and we have the ability to look at an offense and look at each other and make different adjustments. It's that ownership that we are able to have some control out there.
In the pre-snap chest match that will occur before many plays against the Baylor offense, the trust that Diaz has in players like Gideon and Acho could play an important role into getting the defense into the right plays and possibly baiting the Baylor offense into some bad plays.
Once again, however, Diaz will likely opt for a coverage-heavy look that eschews blitzes in order to commit more players to defending the Baylor passing game, while the defensive line focuses on containing Robert Griffin III in the pocket to keep him from gashing the defense with scrambles for first downs, which he does roughly twice per game. On the season, Griffin averages 9.1 yards per carry on scrambles, well above his 5.1-yard average on designed carries.
Even if the Longhorns focus on Griffin and stopping the explosive Baylor passing game, it's easy to overlook senior running back Terrance Ganaway, who is currently the most productive healthy running back in the Big 12 on the season with over 1,000 yards at 5.8 yards per carry, more than doubling his total career yardage coming into the season.
Of particular concern is stopping Ganaway on first down, as the 235-pound back averages 6.8 yards per carry to help keep the Baylor defense ahead of the chains and pressure the defense by having to worry about both the pass and the run on second down.
The explosive Baylor passing game is of particular concern, as Griffin averages nearly 36 yards per touchdown pass. With 13 passes of 50 or more yards on the season and 21 that have covered 40 or more yards, the Bears can flip field position in a hurry, resulting in eight touchdown drives of 80 or more yards, twice as many as the second-place team, Oregon.
As with many explosive offenses that create space by spreading the field vertically and horizontally, however, the Bears struggled mightily in the red zone, turning only 75% of all those possessions into points (104th nationally), though the team's ability to score touchdowns in those situations is much more average -- 52nd nationally at about 63%. Still, the overriding point is that the Longhorn defense can afford to bend in the middle of the field in an effort to stand strong in the redzone.
Going into the last game of the season, the Longhorns are still the only team in the country not to allow a touchdown pass of 20 or more yards and whether the secondary can say that coming out of the game could have a major impact on whether or not Texas puts Case McCoy in a position to pull off another improbable comeback late in the game.