Now that we have a basic (and I mean basic, we haven’t even discussed coverage or blitz packages at this point) understanding of the multiple 3-4 defense run by Todd Orlando, who is expected to take over the reins of defensive coordinator for Texas after Houston’s December 17 bowl game, we can discuss how the current Longhorns personnel fit into this scheme.
Since this post has been widely anticipated, and in some people’s mind is largely overdue, I will not hesitate any further and will get right into the meat of the post, but before I do, I must remind you that this terminology is mine. I have not found any reliable sources which show what terminology is used by Orlando and his staff, and all of Houston’s depth charts simple list End, OLB, and ILB, I doubt that is what they call each position, but I digress. Moving along.
Nose Tackle (N)
Houston’s starting nose in 2016 was freshman sensation Ed Oliver. Oliver is listed as 6’2, 290 pounds, and is a very athletic defensive lineman. Behind Oliver was 297-pound Jerard Carter. It seems as though Orlando prefers more athletic linemen and is willing to employ less hefty personnel on the front three in order to achieve this. In fact, Houston only employs one defensive lineman who is over 300 pounds — 314-pound senior B.J. Singleton.
This is not an uncommon thought process among defensive coaches. My coaching mentors always preached, “We like size, but only to the extent that it does not affect speed and agility.” Bulking up was fine, but there is a point where a certain level of bulk, be it fat or muscle begins to slow a body down. You have to choose between being a step faster or 10 pounds larger, take the extra step every time.
So who fits this profile for the Longhorns in 2017? There are really four names that stand out in that regard — Poona Ford, Chris Nelson, Gerald Wilbon, and Jordan Elliott. Based on his athleticism, and the fact that the three technique is the position which requires more muscle on the defensive line, I’m going to go with Nelson on this one, although sophomore D’Andre Christmas may push him for playing time.
Defensive Tackle (T)
The tackle position is the three technique previously mentioned. A review of Houston’s film from 2017 shows that they use the three technique with a linebacker or both outside linebacker’s on the line of scrimmage frequently. At times, Houston moved the tackle technique to the same side of the formation as the end, who would play a seven technique with the rush playing a seven technique on the back side and the nose in a one technique. Houston stared 6’4, 290-pound Nick Thurman at this position in 2016 with Singleton as the back up.
On the Longhorns roster, there is plenty of bulk to consider for this position. Expect Ford, Elliott, and Wilbon all to push for playing time at this position with a host of freshmen from the 2016 recruiting class also in the mix. In the unlikely event that five-star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson commits to Texas, this is the most likely spot that he would land as well.
Defensive End (E)
Houston used a pair of 270 pounders at this position in 2016. 6’6 Cameron Malveaux was the starter with McNeil product Zach Vaughn (6’4) backing up. Texas has a host of players who fit the profile of this position, but aside from being able to set the edge in the run game, the most important factors in an end is his ability to rush the passer.
I really like Malcolm Roach for this position in 2017. He is listed at 6’2, 263 pounds providing plenty of size for the position. Additionally, he may be the best pass rusher on the team, and he is a sure enough tackler to keep teams from exploiting a weak edge. This also allows Texas to get their best 11 on the field defensively by moving Roach to a position not shared with Breckyn Hager. Charles Omenihu, Naashon Hughes, and potentially Marcel Southall or Andrew Fitzgerald all could push for playing time at this position next year.
6’4, 224-pound Stephen Taylor played this position for the Orlando in 2016. The Mike linebacker is the quarterback of the quarterback of the defense, so experience and leadership abilities come into play when determining who plays position. Malik Jefferson could play here in 2016, but I like Malik on this outside because of his speed (coverage) and ability to rush the passer.
Because of this, I think Edwin Freeman best fits the bill for this position. This also makes sense because Orlando likes to run a lot of Tampa 2 coverage, which gives the middle linebacker a deep middle zone responsibility with the safeties taking deep halves, but concentrating on the outside, and Freeman has shown the ability to make plays in this role in 2016, with an interception of his own in the Kansas State game and helping to force an interception by Dylan Haines in the West Virginia game.
Demarco Boyd or Anthony Wheeler would be the most likely backups for this position with Wheeler getting the leg up due to his previous starting experience.
6’1, 230-pound Matthew Adams played this position in Orlando’s defense in 2016. As a coach, I always practiced with inside linebackers at one position group and outside at another, so the Mike and Will were virtually interchangeable (not as much with the buck and rush, but we will get to that).
I really like Jeffrey McCulloch at this position. I think he could grow into a Mike linebacker, but given that he is a true sophomore in 2017, he will do just fine at Will and that will allow him to grow into the Mike position. If he can grow in the mental portion of the game, don’t be surprised to see him and Freeman switched on the opening day depth charts. Boyd and Wheeler could also back up at the Will position.
The Rush is essentially the Fox hybrid position in Charlie Strong’s defense. I like to call it the Rush because the R is easily differentiated from the F, which stands for free safety when drawing up plays on the board. The Rush plays on the line of scrimmage a great deal, making strength a bigger factor in this position than other linebacker positions. The Rush is also more of a pass rusher and doesn’t hold the same coverage responsibilities as the buck.
This position was held by 6’3, 240-pound Tyus Bowser. While slightly smaller than preferred at 227 pounds, I love Breckyn Hager at this position, and expect him to be the starter. Naashon Hughes and Erick Fowler both profile as a rush linebacker as well, and are the likely backups at this position.
I saved the best linebacker position for last — the Buck position was made for Malik Jefferson. 6’1, 225-pound D’Juan Hines was the starter for Orlando in 2016 at this position, but he was often taken off the field in favor of nickel back Brandon Wilson.
The 238-pound linebacker Jefferson ran a 4.39 at The Opening in 2014, which allows for him to stay on the field in passing situations. I am a big fan of keeping the best 11 on the field all the time, if possible, and I believe having Malik at Buck does just that.
Malik has the speed to man up with a slot receiver, allowing Orlando to split coverage, playing man to the boundary and zone to the field side while bringing pressure from the safety position. He can also use Jefferson to bring pressure, allowing the strong safety to play man coverage on the No. 2 receiver to the boundary side.
Having this versatility in the buck and strong safety makes it extremely difficult on an offensive line, which simply doesn’t know where the coverage is coming from.
From the film, it does appear that Orlando likes to use a system with a man coverage corner and a zone coverage corner. In blitzing situations, he will bring pressure from the boundary, leaving the boundary corner isolated in man coverage on a receiver.
Given the struggles at this position in 2016, I am just going to say that the two corner positions appear to be a four-way battle between Kris Boyd, Holton Hill, Davante Davis, and John Bonney. Also, if the Horns can land a major prospect at the position in the 2017 recruiting class, they may also push for playing time.
The positions are pretty much wide open at this point, and all depend on who performs in the spring and in fall camp.
6’0, 200-pound Khalil Williams started at this position for Orlando in 2016. If Brandon Jones can grasp the game mentally, he is the sure starter at this position for Texas in 2016 with PJ Locke backing him up.
6’1, 200-pound Garrett Davis played strong safety for Orlando’s 2016 defense. Orlando likes to use this position bring extra pressure, especially from the boundary. He will also use this position for run blitzes and in split coverage with the strong safety being isolated in man (playing zone to the other side of the field) in certain blitz packages.
Jason Hall profiles here physically, with his pass-rushing abilities and his physical nature in the run game, but in the past he struggled mentally at times. If Hall can learn the defense and live up to his potential under a new coaching staff, expect big things for him in 2016.
I’m going to be optimistic here and list him as the number one, with DeShon Elliot as the backup. Texas is fairly thin at safety, so they may be active in the recruiting game or look for a transfer at this position.
Orlando used an additional corner back in the nickel package in 2016, rotating the field corner, Brandon Wilson into the buck position and removing the Buck (D’Juan Hines) linebacker from the field. This makes sense, as the Buck often plays man coverage on the back side (or boundary side) when pressure is brought.
Expect P.J. Locke to fill this role in 2016, but if Malik can use his elite speed to cover slot receivers, the defense may be even better (yes, even in four-wide looks) keeping Malik on the field than in the nickel package. Another option is to move Malik to the will position and rotate the starting will (McCulloch is projected) out of the game in order to get more speed on the field.
After all of that, we are left with my 2017 projections for the Texas defense:
In all, 2017 looks to be a promising year for the Texas defense, especially if the athletes in the secondary can mature mentally and live up to their physical potential.
Aside from nose, Texas has better athletes at every position than the Houston defense, which was 10th nationally in yards per game (325) and 27th in points per game (22.6) in 2016.
With the potential for Malik to return to his natural position on the outside, for Jeffrey McCulloch to be on the field making his presence felt in the middle, and having Hager and Roach on the field together, I expect big things from the Texas defense in the immediate future..