With the Texas defense taking baby steps back towards respectability in the last 10 quarters by playing much better football than in the previous, well, whole season, the question is looming about whether maligned defensive coordinatorhas done enough to keep his job next season.
A few weeks ago, two friends and I were having an intense discussion about Diaz, whether he should be fired, and what he could do to save his job. One friend came down squarely on the side that Diaz should be fired on the spot, the other took the stance that advocates Texas staying the course across the board, and I attempted to articulate what progress would really mean for Diaz.
I believed that it wasn't something that could necessarily be defined by pure numbers, not with productive offenses like Texas Tech (at the time), TCU, and Kansas State looming. Instead, it was something more qualitative, which made it much more difficult to define, something I struggled through over the course of the discussion.
I said it was about the linebackers showing progress, to evidence that Diaz at least wasn't holding them back with his teaching techniques. About not making the same playcalls that were resulting in so many big gains. About showing the flexibility to abandon favored schemes by showing some self-awareness and problem-solving skills that seemed to be such strengths mere months ago.
Basically, could Diaz put his players in a better position to succeed than he had been?
Again, qualitative and therefore difficult to define, but let's try to work through those two major points -- improvements from the linebackers and more effective schemes.
On the first account, there has clearly been success. Steve Edmond has been playing the best football of his career over the last several weeks and is now becoming something of a steady performer, playing faster, not taking himself out of plays. The same for Kendall Thompson before he got hurt. Peter Jinkens came in against and made some plays despite showing his youth missing a tackle on the lone Iowa State touchdown.
Even Tevin Jackson has been employed in blitz looks to get him on the field in a way that he can be successful. It paid off with a sack against Kansas in the early part of the game.
Over the last two weeks, the consistently ineffective Cobbs has seen his playing time drastically reduced, a major decision after he was the featured player in the one-linebacker dime look Texas employed for much of the game against Baylor. Also a needed decision.
For all those things, Diaz deserves the same amount of credit as the position coach as he deserved blame when they were playing terribly. Count the first area on the positive side of the ledger.
As well-chronicled in these parts, Diaz has always been a fan of the blitz, especially the zone blitz but in other guises as well.
In the first half against Iowa State, Diaz blitzed on about one out of every three plays ($), often dropping defensive end Alex Okafor into coverage. On every third down, the Longhorns sent extra defenders towards the quarterback, mostly finding success in terms of results. Results meaning not giving up big plays and keeping the Cyclones out of the end zone.
And though Okafor had nine tackles in the game, he missed all three of his tackle attempts in coverage, suggesting that a player currently tied for the Big 12 lead in sacks may be better suited rushing the passer more often than not. Throw in two more missed tackles by Cedric Reed and Reggie Wilson and the three defensive ends went 1-for-6 on tackles in coverage.
On another third or so of the plays, Diaz ran something other than a straight-up defense, twisting less, but stunting the linebackers more often or slanting the defensive line. The interception in the first half came on such a slant when defensive tackle Brandon Moore forced an overthrow by Steele Jantz that cornerback Carrington Byndom intercepted.
On the first drive, the two biggest plays came when Texas blitzed (15-yard pass) and slanted with a run blitz behind it (9-yard run). The second drive ended with a six-yard pass play on 3rd and 7 against a Texas blitz. On the third drive, two straight-up defensive calls forced a 3rd and 6 blitz that resulted in an incomplete pass.
Stunts produced three gains of 10 or more yards in the running game on the fourth drive, though one was called back for a hold, while a blitz produced an 11-yard pass gain prior to the interception. The next drive eventually resulted in a missed field goal after a zone blitz resulted in a 14-yard pass and Texas was beat from a straight nickel alignment for a 9-yard scramble by Jantz and a 13-yard run.
The touchdown drive came about as Texas gave up four significant gains from nickel or dime alignments that included no blitzes, twists, or stunts.
Against a quarterback with a propensity to lose accuracy with rushers in his face -- like most quarterbacks -- and no playmaking receivers to speak of, going aggressive against Iowa State probably made sense, even though the blitzes gave up most of the long pass plays on every drive other than the final Cyclone effort of the half.
The final drive did provide some evidence that Texas may not be able play a base defense consistently, even against a struggling offense like Iowa State. Fair enough.
So, Diaz appears to have ditched the line twists that resulted in such massive losses of gap integrity, while stepping up the blitzes, especially in passing situations. The complaint there, as made last week and again this week, is that cornerbacks are getting beat in man coverage across the middle and giving up some big gains in areas that linebackers could impact were they in coverage and not going after the quarterback.
At what point do a few pressures fail to outweigh the costs of giving up passes of 10 or more yards on a significant percentage of blitzes? Tough to say, and the answer probably stems from an individual's personal preferences about how a defense should be run.
Perhaps the calculus with the all blitzing is different for Diaz if Jackson Jeffcoat and Ashton Dorsey were healthy, but the feeling here is increasingly that even as the defense improves doing the fundamental things that every defense should do, Diaz will continue to reflexively blitz/stunt/twist because he wants to out-smart the offense on every play.
And that may be the crucial point here -- rather than playing risk-averse football, Diaz seem to want to make the perfect call every play. That may just be who he is as a coordinator.
Tap his patellar ligament and his knee won't jerk, but he will call a blitz/stunt/twist.
In other news, I have discovered this season that while my offensive inclinations still tend towards innovative spread offenses, defensively I am a crotchety old man. Hey, hey, get off my lawn! Damn kids.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results, that will start applying soon enough in regards to asking the defensive ends to make tackles in coverage, because against Iowa State they weren't able to do it.
The endless twisting and stunting is certainly closing in on that threshold as well.
The final two games will provide more conclusive evidence in terms of how well Diaz can put his players in positions to succeed.
If he twists and stunts his way to major creases in the running game against Kansas or gets burned when blitzes don't get home against TCU and defensive backs in man coverage give up big plays, then the improvement from the linebackers would not seem to be enough justification to keep Diaz around in light of his continued emphasis on attempting to make the perfect call every play.
For the next week, things are in a holding pattern of modest improvement against two poor offenses and a legitimately successful game against Texas Tech.