Way back when fall camp started, the Longhorns were going hard with tough, physical practices. As the staff ratcheted back the level of hitting as the season approached, it seems that physicality of the defense ratcheted back as well.
The results have been apparent in an extremely negative way. In response, the staff opted to allow more hitting in practice leading up to the Baylor game.
Here's the deal. We had it during two-a-days, we got away from it going towards the season, and we're getting back to that. During two-a-days we were light's out, banging heads, and now we're back to that.
With linebacker Jordan Hicks having missed every game since Ole Miss, that group is lacking leadership right now, but Vaccaro and fellow senior Alex Okafor are trying to bring a physicality to practice that will spur on their teammates and fill the leadership void left by the injury to Hicks:
I definitely try to bring a physical presence to practice. But I mean, it's everybody. All the leaders at each position try to bring that presence. But yes, I'm in guys' ears. [Senior DE] Alex [Okafor] really is too. I'd say he's stepped up the most as far as talking to everybody.
Vaccaro admitted that he and Okafor had backed off a bit as vocal leaders as the team got ready for the season, but said that's been changing. He also believes that the defense is getting things fixed.
The buzzword remains consistency, as emphasized by defensive coordinatoron Monday:
Well, I think it comes down to our consistency. I mean, we can play well in spurts, we can play well at certain spots, and we just have to consistently get better. Guys that are making plays, but then have a couple not as good. So I think that's what it comes down to is we just want to go out and play a total ballgame, to make it easier on our offense to try and win the football game.
The missed tackles haven't been as egregiously bad the last several weeks as they were during the Ole Miss and Oklahoma State games, so there has been some small measure of improvement there. And the linebackers weren't blocked as often against Baylor as they were against Oklahoma, when sophomores Steve Edmond and Kendall Thompson were locked up by Sooner linemen all game.
Baby steps, as head coach Mack Brown termed them on Monday.
Neither linebacker played much last season. Neither did safeties Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson, who have both had their share of growing pains, though they may have not surpassed the level of play put forth by junior Adrian Phillips, who continues to be one of the primary culprits missing tackles, even as he's earned his starting job back.
For Diaz, youth ceases to be an excuse at this time of year:
We're halfway through the season, so what we're telling them is we have to stop being young. It's time to get some of the urgency, and I think what you see realistically when you analyze the tape is those guys that made three exciting plays and then 10 plays earlier in the year that you were not so excited about. And every week that number is starting to turn, and they're starting to make more plays that you're getting excited about and less plays that kind of drive you crazy. That's part of the maturation of a college football player.
The concerning thing, other than the pure results, is that Diaz still seems to be trying to find the right buttons to push with Edmond and Thompson to fix the run defense:
How do I keep hammering away at Kendall Thompson? What's going to be the way to get it in to Steve Edmond, to understand this concept? I mean, as a coach that's all your focus is about is how do I get my players - and that's where it starts either at your position or the whole defense - how do I get my guys better? What's going to be the one thing? Do you hand them a piece of paper? Do you show them a video? Do put it on a Power Point? What is the one thing?
It's the major question surrounding the Manny Diaz era at the current moment -- can he start finding answers to these problems? Can he teach and build these players up instead of coming in and succeeding with essentially finished products in Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho last season? Will he stop run blitzing all the time against a team that Texas should be able to play straight up?
While other teams increased their emphasis on the run game in the last few weeks in response to the success of Ole Miss and Oklahoma State, Kansas won't have to alter their typical game plan to attack the glaring weakness of the Texas defense.
It is Kansas, so it's conceivable that Texas could take them lightly. Not likely, says Vaccaro:
They're a great running team. [Head coach] Charlie Weis is a great coach. I see that they look physical. They're close with a lot of teams at halftime and third quarters. They just didn't finish. I mean, we're definitely not underestimating them at all.
Vaccaro added that the chance will be in playing with a base defense featuring three linebackers for the first time in weeks, precisely the group that is creating most of the issues on that side of the ball, which will present some different choices for Diaz in how he chooses to employ a player like Vaccaro who has been playing in the nickel during that time, which has kept him close to the line of scrimmage to defend slot receivers and help in run support.
For Turner, he believes it will come down to pride:
Not only that they are just going to run the ball, but it's kind of a pride thing. We shut them out last year so they are going to come even more fierce in running the ball and trying to make plays. Kansas is a strong program. They are still building with a new coach, but they are a great running team and we just have to fit our gaps and contain the run.
If the solutions were truly as easy as Turner makes them sound, the Longhorns would have solved these problems weeks ago.
The hope is that the physical practices will continue helping the tentative tacklers of the group, that Diaz will find the right buttons to push with his young linebackers, and that the old-school running game of Kansas will be easier to stop than the new-school spread looks Texas has been facing that take better advantage of creating space.
Otherwise, Texas Tech gameweek won't be particularly pleasant.