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Can the Texas defense take a big enough step?

The sixth post in the “15 Days, 15 Thoughts” series takes a look at what the Longhorns’ defense needs to improve in 2016.

Texas v Baylor Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

As a reminder, I’m posting one thought per day in a series of 15 posts over the course of 15 days until we get to game day.

With 10 days left until kickoff, this is the sixth post of the series.

If you missed the other posts, the links are below

Post #1 - “The Youth Movement Continues”

Post #2 - “The Quarterbacks”

Post #3 - “Texas Needs To Score More”

Post #4 - “Offense Part 1: The Trenches”

Post #5 - “Offense Part 2: The Supporting Cast”

A lot of concern, discussion and attention this offseason has been focused around the improvements needed on offense. And in a conference that scores quickly and often, it’s easy to get carried away looking at the Texas offense for answers and improvements more than the defense.

The Texas defense, however, absolutely needs to take big steps forward too if this team wants to win more games in 2016. And anyone talking about nine or more wins needs to slow down, take a deep breathe and look at last year’s defense for what it was. In many ways, it wasn’t good.

Here’s where the Texas defense ranked in each of the following defensive categories among the Big 12 last season.

I know I’m throwing a lot of stats and numbers at you, so let’s break this down to understand it better.

The good

Turnovers - Texas was not only one of the best teams in the conference (2nd behind OK St), but averaging nearly a turnover a game with a +11 margin, Texas ranked 8th in the country in turnovers. Without these turnovers, last season could have been a lot uglier. (OK St led the conference averaging one per game.)

Sacks - With a sack rate of about three per game, the Longhorns led the Big 12 and finished fifth in the nation in that category. Behind them, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State all rounded out the top-10 in the nation. (Getting sacks helps when your conference passes a ton. It’s also why an effective pass rush can do wonders for a team in this conference.)

Touchdowns - This could be partly be attributed to the Longhorns struggling to put points on the board themselves, but the defense ranked 4th in both rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns allowed. Yay?

The Bad

Defense vs the run - This defense was bad against the run. Giving up 219.2 rush yards per game and 4.51 yards per carry ranked Texas 8th and 7th in the Big 12 respectively. (Interestingly enough, of all the teams in the Big 12, opponents ran the ball the most against Texas. Teams apparently knew what this defense’s weakness was).

Yards per Game - Overall, this defense was pushed up and down the field. Allowing an average of 452.6 yards per game ranked 7th worse in the the conference.

3rd/4th downs - We heard it each week last season whether it was defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, Charlie Strong, or one of the players telling us. Texas struggled too much to get off the field on 3rd and 4th downs. To put it in perspective, Texas and Texas Tech were even when it came to getting off the field on 3rd down.

Red zone - If any team got into the red zone against Texas, the defense would give up points nine times out of ten. Texas ranked dead last in red zone defense. Ironically (I had to look twice at this stat and still don’t believe it) Kansas tied TCU for best red zone percentage in the Big 12 at 77%.

The not terrible/not good

Pass defense - The pass efficiency rating was on the lower end at 135.47 and ranking 6th in the conference. But the defense did grab 13 interceptions, allowed the 3rd-fewest yards per completion and 4th-fewest passing yards per game. Given many of the defensive backs were true freshman, those aren’t bad stats.

(The flip side of teams rushing a lot against this defense was they didn’t attempt many passes. Texas saw the fewest passes attempted against them of any team in the Big 12. This could also be attributed to the fact that Texas rarely got into shootouts on offense and didn’t put too many teams in positions where they needed to pass to get back into a game or keep up).

Steps need to be taken, but will they this season?

To summarize, the 2015 defense was bad against the run, average to maybe-kind of okay against the pass, did well with turnovers and sacks, but almost always gave up points in the red zone and couldn’t get off the field on 3rd and 4th down when it needed to.

The two biggest weaknesses that need to improve are stopping the run and getting off the field on 3rd down.

Even though this is a league that likes to pass and execute plays out of spread formations, stopping the run is still important. It’s no coincidence that teams like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State all finished in the top half of the conference (in that order) against the run.

And when Texas was on its stretch of winning ten or more games a season, the defense was always strong against the run, ranking near or at the top in the conference and nation. The Longhorns will struggle to win games if teams continue to gash them up the middle for big chunks.

The issue, unfortunately for this season, is that Texas doesn’t have much proven production upfront returning to hang its hat on. Senior Paul Boyette Jr, junior Poona Ford, and sophomore Chris Nelson are the only returning players with any sort of real playing time. Heck, they’re the only returning scholarship DT’s.

Boyette Jr - 38 TT, 8 TFL, 3 SCKS

Ford - 39 TT, 6 TFL, 2.5 SCK

Nelson - 7 TT, 1 TFL, 1 SCK

To try to begin solving the issue, Strong did sign five defensive tackles this past recruiting class. But considering they are all just true freshman this season, who knows if any of them will be able to really make an impact - the type this defense really needs this season on a consistent basis.

The other point to remember is defensive coordinator Vance Bedford’s base defense is a 4-2-5. Instead of having an additional linebacker in there to help with run support, we often see a fifth defensive back lined up in the slot.

That helps against the pass. But replacing a linebacker with a defensive back takes away another guy that could fare better against a big lineman, tight end or big running back.

Speaking of linebacker, this group will still be green, inexperienced, and lacking just enough depth to still make you uncomfortable if a long-term injury or two hits. Aside from senior Tim Cole, the only returning upperclassmen, the rest of the linebackers are first and second year players.

Sure, sophomore Malik Jefferson is already seen as one of the better linebackers in the conference. But this group will also need a couple young guys, like sophomore Anthony Wheeler, redshirt freshman Edwin Freeman, and true freshman Jeffrey McCulloch, to step up and make impacts this season when called upon.

The optimistic approach

If Texas can do just enough on offense and against the run to force opponents into positions to pass, the defense could actually improve overall.

After leading the Big 12 in sacks last season, the defensive front has a chance to do that again. Junior Nashon Hughes, sophomore Charles Omenihu, senior Bryce Cottrell join the aforementioned Ford, Nelson and Boyette in hopes of strengthening Texas’ talent in the trenches. Anything the slew of freshman big bodies can provide to than end will be a bonus, and there’s certainly some talent on hand to make some plays throughout, but in any case, filling the massive shoes left by Hassan Ridgeway will be a tall task.

The secondary is loaded with talent. The starting corners, sophomore Holton Hill and sophomore Devante Davis, played about as well as you can as true freshmen and should continue to build off what they did last season. And it sounds like fellow sophomore DB Kris Boyd is set to make a bigger impact this season as well.

On the back end, veterans Dylan Haines and Jason Hall return as the starting safeties. Haines led the defense with five interceptions on the season. And Hall was second only to Duke Thomas (who’s currently fighting for a roster spot with the Houston Texans) among all of the defensive backs in tackles with 51.

On the depth chart behind those two safeties is another veteran in Kevin Vaccaro as well as some young guys with even more athleticism and talent than the vets. Sophomore DeShon Elliott, sophomore P.J. Locke III, and freshman Brandon Jones will likely get on the field consistently throughout the season.

What’s Texas’ realistic ceiling?

There’s talent in place, there’s no denying that. But much of that talent still has years of experience ahead of them and the growing pains that come with such a young team are sure to come. Given the steps this defense needs to take eight wins looks like the team’s most probable ceiling.