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Texas vs. Cal: 5 areas where the Longhorns defense must improve

In order to have success against the high-powered Golden Bears offense, the Longhorns defense has to get better in a number of different areas.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Losing six starters from the 2014 Texas Longhorns defense -- two at each level -- has defensive coordinator Vance Bedford scrambling to find solutions with a 2015 group that is struggling in virtually every phase of the game.

After giving up 462 yards on 96 plays against Rice, there are numerous areas that the Longhorns have to clean up in order to become eligible for a bowl game.

Here are five areas where Texas has to imrpove quickly:

Win the "money down"

Why have only five defenses in the country faced more plays than the Longhorns? Because Texas can't get off the field on third down, allowing opponents to extend drives on 22-of-35 opportunies, a 62.9-percent conversion rate that ranks dead last in the country.

A major part of the problem, according to defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, is that the Texas defensive backs aren't maintaining contact in zone or man coverage. Especially in man coverage, the defensive backs have to understand where the first-down marker is and not give up ground past it.

To reduce the number of third-down conversions, though, Texas must also improve in the other four areas listed before -- as with any defense, all of the parts tie together.

Reduce the number of off-schedule plays

Bedford said on Wednesday that Texas missed on seven sack opportunities against Rice that contributed to roughly 150 extra yards of total offense, with Strong commenting that the Horns were losing their rush lanes at times.

At other times, there were players in a position to make plays, but they were unable to. For Strong, it comes down to fundamentals and technique -- the problems in bringing down Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson often resulted from defenders allowing Jackson to hit them with an inside fake so he could get outside. It happened multiple times to freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson.

'Malik rushes one time," Strong said. "He says, 'Coach, I went down thinking he's going to run inside.' No, he wasn't going to go inside at all. The quarterback wasn't going back in the middle, he was going to fake like he was, try to get you back to the outside. That's all he did all night long."

And Texas couldn't stop it.

Pressure the passer

After facing two extremely capable running quarterbacks in Notre Dame's Malik Zaire and Rice's Jackson, the focus for the Texas defense was maintaining the integrity of pass-rushing lanes to keep them from breaking contain and creating big plays.

As a result, the defensive ends weren't able to be as aggressive getting up the field and the defensive tackles had to worry about losing their own gap if they tried to make a hard move inside or outside.

Strong also thought another issue was the three-man line often used by the Longhorns -- look for Texas to be a little bit more aggressive in bringing an extra rusher, whether it's the Fox end or by continuing to use freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson to stunt.

The defensive ends are also part of the issue. Of the three sacks created so far by Texas, none of them were by defensive ends.

Senior Shiro Davis still doesn't have the flexibility to turn the corner on a speed rush and sophomore Naashon Hughes hasn't shown enough real playmaking ability at all yet in his career, despite his own athleticism. Posting two tackles for loss in two games this year is an improvement after only 3.5 last season, but he needs to start getting to the quarterback in the pocket to really increase his value.

Since junior-college transfer Quincy Vasser looked sharp in limited opportunities against Rice, perhaps he could be an answer on the strong side. At Fox end, redshirt freshman Derick Roberson looks to have the most upside, but he didn't play against Rice, though Strong said he would see the field against Cal this weekend.

The bottom line is that those players have to win on the outside, according to Strong. It isn't happening, and missing on guys like Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett is looming ever larger, as those two are currently providing the Aggies with perhaps he best playmaking bookends in college football.

Stop the run

Head coach Charlie Strong wants to make offenses one-dimensional. For some offenses, that means taking away the vertical passing game by playing two safeties deep and hoping that the three down linemen and linebackers can clean up the messes.

But a lot of times what Strong means is to take away the opposing run game. Doing so tends to put offenses behind the chains and create the type of long down-and-distance situations that are crucial to helping defenses get off the field.

Against Rice, however, the Owls were able to run into the A and B gaps -- right into the heart of the Longhorns defense.

"What you can't allow a team to do is turn around and hand the ball off... They're not trying to get the ball outside, they're attacking us just down the middle," Strong said. "We always talk about being good down the middle. We weren't very good the other night. We never established ourselves and got our feet in the ground."

The linebackes are also culpable, as neither Jefferson nor senior Peter Jinkens have shown much aptitude at defeating blocks at the second level. And gap control also extends into the secondary, as the starting safeties have often taken bad angles coming up in run support, getting out of their lanes and allowing running backs to hit creases through the third level of defense.

Get plays from the defensive tackles

One problem is that senior Desmond Jackson probably isn't 100-percent healthy at this time after suffering his Lisfranc injury last season. He's losing the line of scrimmage too often, in large part because he's not yet confident enough to really drive off that foot. During the Monday media availability, Jackson wasn't willing to make excuses, but it's clearly still bothering him.

Then there's sophomore Poona Ford, who was able to make plays last year despite being undersized because he was so good at keeping opponents from getting into his body. This year, he hasn't been able to use his hands to hit and separate, so he too is getting swallowed up on too many occasions.

Junior Hassan Ridgeway flashed at times against Rice in the second half, disrupting the blocking schemes for the Owls, it just hasn't happened consistently enough this season as he works back into shape following his undisclosed offseason injury.

Throw in the overall ineffectiveness of junior Paul Boyette and there isn't a single Texas defensive tackle who is changing the game right now, even though the staff praised the defensive line overall as a potentially impactful group for the Longhorns.

"We're not winning one-on-ones right now," Strong said. "I tell them all the time, You can't be a shock absorber, go in there and get stuck to a blocker. Let's get off the blocks and go win, apply the pressure."

It's about motor, it's about technique, it's about the pure desire to make a play. One possible move the Horns may have to consider making is not playing the sub-6'0 defensive tackles next to each other -- use Jackson with Ridgeway and Ford with Boyette to make sure there's enough size and length on the field to combat good offensive lines.