In 2012, the Texas Longhorns lost a number of important players from a defense that played well under a first-year defensive coordinator and struggled mightily with basic fundamentals like beating blocks, executing run fits, and tackling opponents.
In 2015, the Texas Longhorns lost a number of important players from a defense that played well under a first-year defensive coordinator and is now struggling mightily with basic fundamentals like beating blocks, executing run fits, and tackling opponents.
Three years ago, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz seemed like the primary culprit -- his preferred fire zone schemes were too complicated for the young players to understand and his lack of football background seemed responsible for the tackling issues.
And while the 2015 defense last six starters compared to a 2012 group that lost starting linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, the explanation as to why head coach Charlie Strong's defense is still lacking in basic areas isn't as easy to understand.
Through three games, the Horns have given up 722 rushing yards, an average of over 240 yards per game. At its worst, the 2012 defense gave up 790 rushing yards during the three-game stretch of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Baylor. Things might not get that bad during conference play this year, but it's not out of the question because opponents now have little incentive to throw the football since they know there are guaranteed yards available on the ground with the potential for big plays.
Against Cal, Texas gave up 280 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per carry, including critical runs of 49 yards to Khalfani Muhammad that set up a key touchdown before halftime and the 74-yard touchdown run by Muhammad that pushed the Golden Bear lead to three touchdowns late in the third quarter. The Horns also gave up 18 yards to Muhammad on a rush just before his long touchdown and also allowed a 37-yard run by Vic Enwere in the first half.
It's not really a scheme issue for Texas in 2015 with the coaches dialing up too many fire zones and twists on run downs -- a lot of it is about playing with the fundamentals and techniques taught by the coaches in practice.
"That's the thing," Strong said after the game. "Everything was gap. You see the one big run and we sit there, and the guy is in the gap, and then he turns back and tried to fight off the defender, but it's all gaps, and we've got to get off of blocks. We've got to hit blocks, get off blocks, and that's where we didn't do a good job tonight."
The player in question on Muhammad's long touchdown run was junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who beat his initial blocker and then the H-back coming on the trap block, but got distracted by the offensive lineman at his feet and allowed Mohammed to get into the hole and past him.
"We had a 3-technique in the A-gap, and the Fox (End) in the B gap, and they split us right down the middle when we’re boxed-up with the corner coming off the edge…The guy running the ball is a sprint champion the year before," said defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.
When the defensive front breaks down and allows a running back to quickly hit a crease, it puts the secondary in an extremely difficult position.
"Any time you have a vertical seam, and the guy can run, you’re not going to bring him down. It’s fundamental football. It’s engaging up front with the linebackers and coming for the ball, it’s things we’ve been working on and talking about this year and last year and 10 years ago. It hasn’t changed but, right now, we’re doing a very poor job of getting those things done."
Even against Cal and pocket passer Jared Goff, Texas stuck with zone coverage, which should have made run defense easier on the team since more players have their eyes on the football.
"The big runs there, even when you're in zone coverage and the ball breaks the line of scrimmage, you should have enough guys on the line of scrimmage where guys can make the tackle, and we didn't."
There's also a lack of conviction in pursuit -- players aren't running full speed to the football until the whistle blows, a problem that plagued the 2012 defense, as well.
"So it was just gap control then; because even the one right before half where we had it there, one of our defensive backs thought the guy was tackled, and I said, no, don't ever think that, you go tackle him, but that's just youth and running up there and being in position and go make it," Strong said.
The cornerbacks in particular are struggling in run support. On the Mohammed run before halftime, it was redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney who got caught too far inside and got out-leveraged. On the long touchdown run, freshman cornerback Kris Boyd was the run-force defender and though he didn't lose contain, he was unable to recover in time to make thp elay.
Meanwhile, senior Peter Jinkens took himself out of the play with several false steps, freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson allowed Cal offensive lineman to get his hands on him, and both safeties took poor angles on that play from which they could not recover. Jefferson in particular displayed poor technique in allowing his opponent to get into his body instead of using his athleticism to shed the block.
Jefferson had to deal with the offensive lineman so quickly because the Golden Bears were unconcerned about the defensive line making plays, resulting in linemen climbing to the second level on zone plays without even attempting to execute the typical double team first.
Unless the defensive line starts demanding actual combo blocks, opponents will likely continue mauling the Texas linebackers unless Jefferson can show some major growth at the second level instead of being a relatively one-dimensional edge player at his best when blitzing.
From the wide-angle viewpoint, it only takes one player making the right play to stop these long runs. On the other hand, it's disheartening that so many players are making mistakes on these plays.
So how does Texas fix these problems? Strong doesn't believe it's a personnel issue, though scheme and personnel may be impacting play somewhat -- Ian Boyd of SB Nation/Inside Texas noted that the Longhorns switched from Cover 2 to Cover 3 and moved senior cornerback Duke Thomas back outside and Bonney back inside to nickel in the fourth quarter.
Can Texas get it fixed with an emphasis on fundamentals and some scheme/personnel tweaks? There haven't been any major signs of improvement through the first three games -- the mistakes the Longhorns made against the Fighting Irish were extremely similar to the mistakes made against the Golden Bears.
Still, Strong is hopeful.
"Well, it's just guys not doing what they're coached to do, and it's just gap control... It's so many things that can be fixed."
However, given the lack of playmaking along the entire defensive line, the issues both starting linebackers have beating blocks, and the desire to play both safeties so deep to take away long passing plays, fixing the run defense may not be as easy as Strong suggests. And employing so many limited players means that there are personnel issues that the coaching staff can't address unless it's by putting younger players on the field and bringing in a strong recruiting class in 2016 to continue correcting the problems next year.
Ultimately, however, the current group has to do better and can do better by playing with better fundamentals and technique.
"We got to stop making excuses about saying, 'This shouldn't have happened,'" said Desmond Jackson. "We got to go out there and make sure it doesn't happen again."