Don't call him Gerg: How the Texas defense has improved

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Steadily, the Longhorns have gotten better defensively over the last several weeks.

That guy with the gray hair wearing the black shirt and headset on the Texas Longhorns sideline -- that's not Gerg. He may look like Gerg, but he's not. That's Greg Robinson, the guy who helped the Longhorns field an excellent defense in 2004.

That's not the same guy who was the immensely unsuccessful head coach at Syracuse and then a failure of a defensive coordinator at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez.

That's the intense guy with an extensive NFL background who preaches fundamentals and rallying to the football and intensity.

Not exactly a hot commodity after his high-profile failures at Syracuse and Michigan, Robinson hit the reset button by heading back to California. So when Texas needed a football analyst defensively and a possible mid-season replacement for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz after head coach Mack Brown opted to keep his embattled defensive coordinator, Robinson made sense because of his availability and connections to the program.

As difficult as the task before him appeared when he took over a ragged defense that was historically shredded by the legs of BYU's Taysom Hill and Jamal Williams and even their converted rugby player, what Robinson really had to do was return some fundamental sanity to the Texas defense, to install some coherency instead of a group of play calls.

There have been significant signs of success in his efforts.

Here's a look at what Robinson has accomplished through the last three games (Ole Miss gets thrown in with the start of the season since he had only several days to prepare):

First 3 games Last 3 games
Rushing Yards 308.7 pg 148.7 pg
Yards per Rush 6.0 3.7
Total Yards 491.3 pg 372.0 pg
Yards per Play 5.8 5.5
Opp. Comp. % 58.0 56.6
Red-Zone TDs 67% (8/12) 46% (6/13)
Sacks 2.0 13.0
Turnovers Forced 6 7

The improvement in the rush defense would be even more impressive had the Longhorns not allowed 51 yards on third-down scrambles from Sam Richardson, though the difference is already stark as it stands now. Neither Iowa State nor Oklahoma hit Texas as hard as they could have with the quarterback run game, but a certain amount of that is because the Longhorns are now putting so many players in the box that the defense is forcing opponents away from the plays that have devastated the group so much this season.

Even more impressive is the jump in sacks, which were curiously absent through the first several games (Texas had two against New Mexico State and zero over the next two games), mostly because the defense simply wasn't forcing opponents into third-and-long situations and when they were, as happened several times against BYU, they were giving up long scrambles for back-breaking conversions.

Only five teams in the country have more than the 13 sacks recorded by the Longhorns, who have been getting pressure from Jackson Jeffcoat, who leads the team with five sacks, all five of them in the last three games, and on an increasingly larger number of blitzes, mostly utilizing pressure from defensive backs. The Chris Whaley interception return on his zone blitz was made by the pressure of Adrian Phillips, who hit Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell as he was releasing the football to force the errant pass.

The defensive line as a whole has been playing at a much higher level, especially in staying in their running lanes against Bell and aided by the ability to play straight ahead without the twisting and stunting employed so much under Diaz.

"Well we really didn't do much to try and get him out of the pocket," Robnson said of the plan to defend Bell. "Our intent was to keep him from going up the gut, like he does to everybody else. Our guys were so disciplined and our defensive line coaches did such a good job of just working their way patiently back to him. We covered well and when we pressured, we pressured well. The discipline of the rush jumped out at us."

The defensive tackles are consistently playing with better pad level as Malcom Brown has become a difference-making presence inside and the other three tackles in the rotation have also made pays of their own. On the outside at defensive end, junior Cedric Reed has taken the next step and leads the team with 41 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. He's also arguably been more consistent than Jeffcoat.

Unfortunately, the linebackers are still a work in progress, though the efforts from Dalton Santos have slowly been becoming more consistent and his ability to lay the big hit hasn't dropped off at all. Peter Jinkens still isn't having the season expected from him, but Robinson is slowly figuring out ways to employ the linebackers in positions that give them a chance to succeed and has been using members of the secondary playing in linebacker positions to help with the run game and provide more versatility in coverage, having Phillips and Steve Edmond flip assignments at one point when Oklahoma made their own offensive shift in an effort to get Edmond in coverage against a running back, the same type of look that nearly led to a touchdown on the first drive for the Sooners.

As things get more difficult, it's important to understand the trade-off that Robinson has made by daring opponents to throw over the top and putting so much pressure on his cornerbacks to be perfect because they have little to no help.

The defensive turnaround has been impressive and the greater emphasis on discipline and fundamentals are already clear. The problem is that the Iowa State game proved that the secondary hasn't really fixed anything by tackling so poorly in space -- Carrington Byndom being run over, his Keystone Kops act reprisal on Aaron Wimberly's touchdown run with Adrian Phillips, the poor attempt Mykkele Thompson made on the 97-yard Quenton Bundrage catch and run.

However, Duke Thomas has shown the resiliency to bounce back from his poor play at times against Kansas State and Iowa State (he was as culpable as Thompson when he tried to undercut Bundrage's route and missed), while Phillips and Thompson both had flashes of their best football against Oklahoma, tackling physically against the Sooners and demonstrating excellent leverage in run support.

Not to mention the fact that Quandre Diggs had by far his best game of the season, sticking Bell at one point to stop a first down and making an excellent play in coverage in addition to his work stopping the run.

But back to the dangers inherent in the Cover 3 approach Robinson has adopted as the base defense to stop the run --the production from Kansas State's Tyler Lockett illustrated just how much of a risk Robinson is taking. Against the Oklahoma wide receiver corps, which both lacks an elite deep threat and apparently the quarterback to get the ball vertical with consistent accuracy, Texas could dare them to pass the ball deep with little fear of the type of disaster that was the longest play from scrimmage in Iowa State history.

That won't be the case against the strong groups fielded by Oklahoma State and Baylor. The decision calculus against Texas Tech is much different, of course. The Red Raiders gashed Iowa State last week to the tune of 251 yards, but managed only 2.65 yards per carry against Kansas and 1.65 yards per carry against TCU.

The strength of schedule for the Longhorns defensively has been pretty poor at No. 74 and the upcoming schedule is 44th nationally, meaning that the biggest challenges lie ahead, a number increased substantially by the presence of Baylor on that schedule, which sits No. 5 in FEI because of their No. 111 previous strength of schedule, but ranks first in offensive efficiency, available yards (yards earned/yards available), and explosive drives.

How Robinson responds to the threats posed by the two best spread offenses will ultimately define how successful his second stint at Texas will be and those offenses will pose problems for the defense on a scale that Robinson didn't really have to face when he wore burnt orange originally.

There's still some upside left for the improving group, though, as Robinson has been quick to point out that the Texas defense still has room for improvement.

"I didn't watch any of the BYU footage but I just know this, we are working hard. That's all I can say that we are working hard. We had some young mistakes against Iowa State, but the next day we began our adjustment period to fix those things. We are a work in progress and I look forward to continuing to grow."

The defense continuing to improve at a significant rate could have Robinson looking like a savior when all is said and done, as long as he can get past the toughest offenses on the schedule.

It's a big task, but Robinson clearly signed up for a big task in the first place. And owning that task should truly kill off the Gerg meme, at least as it pertains to his second stint at Texas.

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