During the weekly Big 12 coaches teleconference, Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong had a simple answer when questioned about what he most wants to fix with the defense he officially took over last week.
“Without a doubt, deep balls.”
During Strong’s first two seasons at Texas, the ‘Horns mostly succeeded in keeping opponents from generating big passing plays, sometimes at the expense of the running game.
In 2014, the Longhorns defensive backs gave up only one pass of 40 or more yards. In 2015, Strong’s secondary gave up 14 play of 30 or more yards, which was still good enough to tie for 28th nationally, a respectable finish for a young defense that ranked 20th in pass defense S&P+.
Somehow, a group that only suffered the loss of nickel back Duke Thomas regressed this season, despite high expectations for young cornerbacks like Davante Davis, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd, not to mention the young talent like PJ Locke, DeShon Elliott, and Brandon Jones.
Through five games this season, Texas has allowed four passes of 50 or more yards and 13 passes of 30 or more yards.
Despite receiving consistent repetitions in practice against the deep passes attempted by offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s offense, the defensive backs aren’t understandable the techniques taught to them.
“The thing they have to realize is you’re in man coverage. Keep your eyes on the man,” Strong said. “We got beat on a double move, jumped on the slant. Then the ball is on our side, laid up, just track the ball. “
On the double move, Strong was referencing Hill’s poor decision that resulted in Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook’s 72-yard touchdown catch on a slant-and-go route just before halftime.
“When you talk about deep balls, it’s cushion,” Strong said. “You can’t allow a receiver to eat up your cushion. Once he does eat up your cushion, you’ve got to get out of your backpedal and run with him and keep your eyes on him, and when his hands go up, your hands go up. At some point, his eyes will take you to the football.”
Texas defensive backs have had consistent issues with not having their eyes right, especially in man coverage, which should be a simple concept — just shadow the guy.
On a 50-yard completion by the Sooners, Boyd inexpicably turned and looked for the football as his opponent created separation.
“It’s so important you keep your eyes on the wide receiver,” Strong said. “A lot of times, a DB will look back, and there goes the ball over his head. It’s all about how you play the deep ball, because once you get your cushion eaten up, you have to flip and run.”
Tackling issues have also been a huge problem for the secondary, with players often breaking down in space instead of picking a shoulder to run through.
One of the most frustrating aspects of those issues is the fact that practice performance isn’t matching game performance.
“We can make the play in practice, but sometimes we get in the game and freeze for some reason,” said the Texas head coach
Despite a substantial amount of success in tutoring defensive backs in the past, Strong and former defensive coordinator Vance Bedford aren’t getting through to a regressing group of cornerbacks.
It’s now been three weeks since Strong promised to fix the defense and so far there aren’t any signs that it’s happening.
Now time is running out as opponents continue to run past Longhorns defensive backs.