Assessing the Texas Longhorns defense, and assigning a grade for each of the units, is an especially difficult task given the change in defensive coordinators, so this is an attempt to piece together the overall narrative spanning the end of the Manny Diaz era and the beginning of the Greg Robinson era, 2.0.
There were some high expectations for this group heading into the season, especially for sophomore Malcom Brown, who was seen as a player set to build upon a promising freshman season to become a menace inside. And while Brown has been the best among the defensive tackles with 15 tackles, including two for loss, he hasn't always shown up on film, notably losing his rushing lanes and playing high against BYU in a rather poor performance.
Fortunately for the long-term prognosis of Brown and his development, he was much more active against Kansas State than his modest two tackles would suggest (he may have had as many as five). The former five-star prospect needs to use that as a building block moving forward.
Senior Chris Whaley and junior Desmond Jackson didn't face as much pressure entering the season to perform at a high level, but it's probably fair to say that neither of them have flashed the strong play needed from them, either. Whaley, for instance, while showing his motor and overall movement abilities on a few plays, has fewer tackles than redshirt freshman Hassan Ridgeway, who has seen much less playing time.
And Jackson seemingly hasn't developed much since he began his time at Texas ,a significant disappointment given that he was supposed to be the second coming of Roy Miller.
Both Whaley and Jackson have played high at times and lost the scrimmage on too many occasions.
The most positive development has been the play of Ridgeway, who managed to take out both the quarterback and the running back on a read option play against New Mexico State and flashed his incredible punch and power on one particular play against Kansas State. He may still be a year away from putting it all together, but he needed to step up to become a contributor after the departure of Ashton Dorsey and he's done that so far.
First, a significant caveat -- the grading of the defensive ends assumes that they were playing the read option as they were instructed through the first three games by almost always crashing down hard on the running back. The opposite assumption would mean a grade more in line with the linebackers and secondary.
With that being said, the play of senior Jackson Jeffcoat and junior Cedric Reed has been by far the best from any single position on the defense. In fact, along with junior linebacker Jordan Hicks, Jeffcoat and Reed have been the best players on the defense.
Jeffcoat has returned from injury to notch 22 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 pass broken up, and 6 quarterback hurries. His sack and strip of Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters late in the game was a nice exclamation point on the victory.
Meanwhile, Reed has clearly benefited from the playing time he received last season when Jeffcoat was injured -- he's currently the second-leading tackler on the entire defense with 25, along with 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 passes broken up, and 3 quarterback hurries.
After Jeffcoat and Reed, the level of play has dropped off fairly substantially, as senior Reggie Wilson still hasn't put it together and sophomore Shiro Davis often shows little understanding of contain or technique in general. The two of them significantly pull down the overall grade for the unit -- if Reed and Jeffcoat are playing at an A level, giving the rest of the defensive ends a C is probably generous.
When talking about the linebackers, there's Hicks and everyone else, with the possible exception of sophomore Dalton Santos, who is moving much better and playing much more decisively in understanding how to leverage opponents.
Prior to his injury, Hicks was basically everything that Texas fans thought he would be while pining for his services last year after his hip injury. He was the team's leading tackler again before he went down and the glue that (barely) held the shaky linebacker corps together. However, he was just as bad as the rest of the linebackers against Ole Miss, which was pretty bad.
The preseason rhetoric about junior Steve Edmond being lighter and more capable in space has turned out to be exactly that -- rhetoric. He's still slow in recognition, still slow in getting himself in a position to make a play, and still terrible at dealing with blockers at his feet. Coming into the season, he was at a crossroads in his career -- his junior campaign would define whether he was another highly-recruited disappointment or a serviceable player. Based on the early returns, it's looking like the former.
Perhaps more disappointing has been the play of sophomore Peter Jinkens, at least heading into the Kansas State game, when his ability to take both Waters and the pitch man on a speed option was his most notable positive play of the season. He hasn't played a ton in nickel situations this year, but the fact that two defensive ends and a defensive tackle have more tackles than him is concerning and the game against BYU was a disaster, as he missed five tackles, made four bad reads, and took two bad angles.
Santos is seen as the great hope in the middle and he's had some excellent moments with some big hits and played competently against Kansas State when replacing Edmond, but his performances against BYU and Ole Miss were both as choppy as the rest of the linebackers as he made some bad reads and was taken out of plays by blockers on numerous occasions. Is he better than Edmond right now? Probably, though considering Santos anything close to a finished product would be a mistake.
Neither junior Tevin Jackson nor junior Kendall Thompson have played much this season. Thompson was bad against the Cougars when he did play.
For the second year in a row, the secondary has been a disappointment, except this time there's no Kenny Vaccaro around the redeem the unit. In truth, each player has had moments that range from poor to really bad, from seniors Adrian Phillips and Carrington Byndom to juniors Quandre Diggs, Mykkele Thompson, Josh Turner and Sheroid Evans, down to sophomore Duke Thomas.
Diggs has pretty much been a disaster at the nickel position, as he doesn't disguise his blitzes, hasn't been effective taking on blockers, and generally hasn't been around the football in the way that he was in his two previous seasons playing the field corner position. If Texas had a better option at nickel back, they would probably be smart to try it. As it is, it looks like Diggs will have to continue sinking or learn how to swim.
What new is there to say about Phillips? He continues to take bad angles and miss tackles. Thompson has had several encouraging moments surrounded by plays like being blocked downfield against BYU by a 5'9, 175-pound (listed) wide receiver. Byndom looks like he has no interest in beating blocks of opposing wide receivers, though he did have much more success than any other Texas defensive backs covering Kansas State's Tyler Lockett last weekend.
Evans and Thomas have mostly been serviceable, but Evans was one of those culpable for not beating a block on one of BYU quarterback Taysom Hill's long touchdown runs and Thomas failed in his difficult task last week of defending Lockett with little to no help.
Turner has been exceedingly average as well -- it doesn't seem like a lack of physicality on his part as much as a lack of mass. He's a cornerback playing safety and it shows up at times in his tackling ability. There are fewer excuses for the bad angles that he takes.
The defense didn't show much, if any, improvement against Ole Miss over the disastrous performance against BYU, but defensive coordinator Greg Robinson did appear to start putting his mark on the unit in the win over Kansas State -- the defense played hard, flowed to the football aggressively, and for the most part appeared to understand their assignments.
All three of those areas represented enormous improvement over the previous weeks. Robinson has been operating with a more simple scheme that has abandoned most of the Manny Diaz Fire Zones that often resulted in players in the wrong gaps. He's also asked the defensive line to occupy gaps and beat the players in front of them and appears to have emphasized staying in passing lanes to the defensive ends instead of always sprinting so hard up field, which has resulted in a jump in deflected passes.
In other words, Robinson has introduced a modicum of sanity and while the biggest challenges still lie ahead, the Texas defense isn't being actively hamstrung by silly scheming.
As for the position coaches, their efforts as judged by how their players have performed on the field are range from poor to atrocious. At defensive end, Wilson and Davis haven't come on, though Oscar Giles perhaps deserves some credit for the development of Cedric Reed. Bo Davis hasn't been able to get the defensive tackles to consistently play with leverage and hasn't quite lived up to his reputation after coming over from Alabama.
And the shine is off defensive backs coach Duane Akina after his secondary has underperformed for a second straight season and his defensive backs continue to take terrible angles to the football and haven't exactly shown the trademark toughness that defined so many of Akina's secondaries.
Only the improvement against Kansas State in a simplified defense keeps the coaches from getting an F overall.
Thoughts, comments, concerns or areas of disagreement?