For Texas Longhorns safety Kenny Vaccaro, the answer to the Longhorns giving up fewer big plays following the game against Wyoming was for the defensive players to take their heads out of the magazines. Other players mentioned a lack of communication, in particular on the play that resulted in the final Cowboy touchdown, when the player in coverage didn't have the expected help over the top.
After Texas allowed New Mexico to control the football during the first half, the idea was simply to play better assignment football, an ability that was tested by the Lobos and often found wanting.
After giving up numerous big plays against Ole Miss, notably plays that helped keep the Rebels and their fans at least somewhat in a game that otherwise would have gotten much uglier, much earlier, the explanations weren't as simple.
In fact, on Tuesday, when head coach Mack Brown was asked if there was a common denominator in the mistakes, here was his reply:
No, if it was a common denominator, it would be easy to fix. What you do is you take every young person. So for a [LB] Demarco Cobbs, not to call him out, but just a name, [defensive coordinator] Manny [Diaz] will sit down with him and he will go back through every missed tackle or missed assignment he's had for the first three games. He'll ask him his opinion. He'll ask him what happened.
To actually call out Cobbs, the junior linebacker hasn't been as good as expected early, for taking some poor angles, missing some tackles, as he did on the long Jeff Scott touchdown run, wouldn't be overly harsh.
The queries of individual players will happen across the board:
At the same time we'll do that with every player on defense that has missed an assignment, like we still have a penalty on third down and long. We've done that three times this year. We can't have it. Gosh, we had a great blitz in Bo Wallace's face, hit him right as he was throwing it when they made the third-and-18 down the middle. We got to cover better. The long touchdown catch by Moncrief, we had him covered. Safety didn't take the proper angle to get there. Those are things we can fix. Just got to fix them.
Not a bad time to have a bye week, given the issues.
One of the potential culprits is the lack of tackling work in practice -- according to reports, the coaching staff had some disagreements about the level of physicality that was necessary in practice and ended up spending most of the fall in thud tempo. It's a rather weak excuse for not being able to wrap up, but still a legitimate possibility. Expect tackling fundamentals to be a focus in practice this week.
As well as taking away big plays in general:
We are giving up too many big plays. It happened some to us early in the season last year. We got better at the end of the year, but still gave up some against Baylor. We still have some tackling concerns.
Against the Rebels, Texas missed 16 tackles according to ESPN ($), giving up 214 yards after initial contact, though Mack Brown put the number at nine. He did point out that two missed tackles resulted in 97 of those yards. Solving those issues will go a long way towards improvement:
You take that out, you take scores out. We can't continue to do that with this league, the way that people score. We just have to keep working on it.
Work that won't be able to extend beyond next week before Texas seriously risks being exposed and giving up 40 or more points against Oklahoma State.
Brown does, however, feel positive that the coaching staff can help facilitate some improvement:
The good thing is, it can all be cleaned up. The mistakes in the secondary, the inconsistency, are things that we can fix. We have to do it, do it better. Have two weeks to do it before we head to Stillwater. Same thing with the tackling. We're taking each play out and showing the guys the nine plays we missed tackles.
In that sense, the by week came at an opportune time, as instead of working to prepare for the next opponent, the staff can linger on those mistakes.
Brown was also quick to point out that he had cautioned against the high expectations of fans and media entering the season with such significant projections being made regarding the linebackers:
We're showing them exactly what happened and what we need to fix so we can improve it. We'll just go back to work on those issues. I said in pre-season, "These have been issues in spring and fall." We said, "We lost a lot of seniors down the middle, and those four seniors are being missed right now and the young ones have to pick it up and do a better job."
Aside from the defensive line, which is mostly doing a good job besides some mistakes in playing the read-option game against Ole Miss, the biggest problems are in the linebacking corps and the secondary.
In his post-portem, Scipio Tex identified five issues with the defense right now -- poor tackling, poor communication, the option, fundamentals, and identity. The team will work on the tackling, which goes along with fundamentals. The communication has been better from the first game and defending the option is mostly about assignments. Set to face a running quarterback in Oklahoma State redshirt freshman JW Walsh, mistakes in that area could result in some big gains on the ground for the Pokes.
Finally, identity is the biggest problem at the moment. The loss of Jordan Hicks to injury illustrated how reliant defensive coordinator Manny Diaz can be on his players to make their own adjustments, which resulted in some late calls from the sideline after Hicks went out as Diaz tried to out-maneuver the Ole Miss offense. Diaz loves to have the final say with the offense, but he may have to give that up in an effort to simplify and avoid the type of breakdowns that the Longhorns are experiencing right now. The problems seem to extend to the secondary, with players out of position on some critical plays.
Diaz has also shifted from a two-deep look that often used five defensive backs and two linebackers in conference play. This season, the Longhorns are playing one deep safety in the middle of the field and three linebackers, which helps the numbers in the box, but can lead to some major issues if the safety help is late, which it certainly has been at times. Or there with a poor angle, as the one that Adrian Phillips took on the long Moncrief touchdown reception.
To make an adjustment, Diaz would have to leave his linebackers more exposed against the running game, a decision he probably doesn't want to make because he can't quite trust them to be in the right place, with the exception of Hicks, who is battling his hip flexor injury at the moment. Going back to two deep safeties would help provide some more margin for error against the pass, but could result in more consistent gains on the ground.
Another consideration there? Vaccaro is too versatile in the box and in coverage to leave him as the deep safety -- it devalues his playmaking ability.
A related issue is the poor zone coverage from Texas, which seems to have been the issue on several of the third-and-long conversions by opponents through the first three games. Cobbs is okay when he's in man coverage, but struggles with the zone concepts, which the Longhorns traditionally have taught extremely poorly in the past. It may be time to mostly abandon those. Edmond as well has had some troubles getting the right depth on his drops and identifying opposing receivers, with the exception of his interception return for a touchdown.
As touched on a bit just above, run fits were at the center of discussions last year, especially early in the season when the Longhorns gave up big runs to both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State because linebackers weren't in the right gap. It's happening again, quite often against the option game as Steve Edmond's lateral quickness has been exposed somewhat, along with poor run fits in general by players like Cobbs, who isn't putting himself in the right positions often enough.
Diaz has mostly gotten a free pass from Texas fans for doing an excellent job during his first season, but he's not pushing all the right buttons right now and needs to find some answers for problems that could derail a shot at the Big 12 title because of a defense that was expected to be elite again this season, but so far has been well short of it.
There were growing pains last season as Diaz worked to completely install his defense. Looking back, it seems that the transition from thinking out there and playing quickly and without hesitation was aided tremendously by Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, neither of whom will be walking through the ball of the football offices any time soon. Or if they do, they certainly won't be able to put on pads.
The growing pains weren't expected again. With some questions about the identity of this defense, especially in the back seven, it looks as if there will be some more this season. Have been some. To beat West Virginia, Oklahoma, and probably even Oklahoma State, Texas will have to reduce the number of mistakes that have been happening through the first three games.