As Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong conducts evaluations of his coaching staff, the fate of coordinator Vance Bedford remains up in the air after Strong made a Monday promise to fix a beleaguered defense.
While the burnt orange faithful await news of potential changes in the staff’s roles and responsibilities, here are five steps that Strong can take to improve his defense.
Of all the tasks facing Strong and his defensive staff, this may be the most difficult. Based on previous results, Bedford is capable of communicating effectively to his defensive backs.
Strong certainly has his own track record of success in that regard, too.
For whatever reason, Bedford and new defensive backs coach Clay Jennings aren’t getting through to the secondary. The sophomores who showed flashes of brilliance last season haven’t been able to show improvement and reduce mistakes.
Something has to give.
Perhaps the coaches have to figure out a different way to communicate.
Maybe the players just aren’t listening, but the head coach isn’t accepting that as an excuse right now, pointedly saying exactly that during his Monday media availability.
But if the Strong takes over in-game play-calling duties for the defense and then elevates linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary to defensive coordinator, does switching up the voices just a little bit really change things?
To truly have an impact, Strong may have to get more involved in practice and position meetings to eliminate the confusions in alignment and coverage that led to so many big plays against Cal.
Right now, there aren’t a lot of viable options and there is limited time to starting getting this fixed, so this is the area where the ideal solution is not particularly clear.
Bring along the young defensive tackles
There’s no position in football where it’s harder to contribute as a true freshman than at defensive tackle, a truism borne out by the fact that none of the three Longhorns players at the position who have seen the field this season got into the game against Cal.
But the lack of trust in those players forced Paul Boyette Jr., Poona Ford, and Chris Nelson to play heavy snaps against the Golden Bears, numbers reduced only by the fact that the ‘Horns played at times with a single defensive tackle on the field.
Last weekend, Cal didn’t exert much effort attempting to exploit the lack of size up front for Texas due to the success Davis Webb was having throwing the football, but other teams are better suited to take advantage of undersized fronts.
The Longhorns also need to get more out of those older players — the three have combined for four pressures this season, but have not yet recorded a sack. Ford and Boyette Jr. combined for 5.5 last season, with Hassan Ridgeway and Desmond Jackson contributing nearly as many, so there’s some significant lost production right now in terms of interior pressure.
In several big performances last season, Boyette Jr. was a difference maker. This season, he hasn’t had another Baylor or Oklahoma game yet with two total tackles for loss and one quarterback pressure.
While those numbers aren’t awful, Texas needs more from its most experienced defensive tackle.
Since freshmen Jordan Elliott and D’Andre Christmas have some upside as pass rushers, bringing them along to the point where the coaches can trust them to play 15 snaps a game could provide a significant boost to the defense.
If that happens, the older players won’t have to take plays off due to fatigue, while the younger players could even cause some disruption at times.
Play the young safeties
The Texas coaches clearly trust senior safety Dylan Haines.
In the past, he’s been responsible for lining up younger players like Jason Hall and DeShon Elliott. In the past, he’s been responsible for nearly a third of the interceptions by the Longhorns in the Charlie Strong era.
But Haines hasn’t made any game-changing plays this season after missing parts of six different quarters with his neck injury sustained in the second half against Notre Dame. He also missed two tackles against Cal that led to a significant amount of extra yardage.
If Haines isn’t making plays, his impact on alignment isn’t enough to justify his continued playing time.
Enter freshman Brandon Jones, the nation’s No. 1 safety, who has made his presence felt on special teams with several tackles and two blocked punts.
While the defensive staff is understandably reticent to give Jones the responsibility of serving as the last line of defense against big plays, the big plays are already happening and Haines and Hall haven’t been doing much to stop them.
So how much worse can it get?
According to Haines, Jones has been working at safety, nickel, and dime this fall, so the coaches clearly believe that he can assimilate a large amount of information in a short period of time.
Based on all reports, Jones is capable of doing that, which is one of the reasons why his commitment on National Signing Day was so important — he possesses an ideal mental makeup in addition to the physical tools to excel for Texas.
And if Jones can’t see the field after making plays on special teams, what kind of message does that send to other players on the team and recruits considering the ‘Horns?
Even if Jones does make some mistakes, he also has the speed to recover and put himself in position to make plays that are difficult for Haines, even with the extra half step or full step that the senior can gain due to his preparation ability.
When he does read plays correctly, look out, because he’s a physical tackler with good ball skills after spending some time on offense in high school.
As for Elliott, he played some with Hall against Cal and while he hasn’t yet earned the trust of the staff, either, his ability to make game-changing plays means that he needs to be on the field.
Last season, the 2015 Under Armour All-American intercepted two passes in limited playing time and forced the key early fumble against Oklahoma on special teams. During the Orange-White game, he forced a fumble with a big hit and added another physical blow that took down 250-pound running back Chris Warren.
And whether it was targeting or not, there’s no questioning the fact that Elliott’s hit on Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. in the end zone saved a touchdown and ensured that Texas had a chance to win the game in overtime.
The Kraken just makes plays and the Longhorns defense is desperately in need of players who can do exactly that.
Listed at 209 pounds, Hall has dropped some weight recently, but it’s worth wondering whether he might have a brighter future at linebacker, a position where there isn’t a lot of experienced depth now for Texas.
Even if he remains at safety, it’s clear that the Longhorns need to get more speed on the field at that position.
Get Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach more involved
For all the offseason talk about how much Fox end Naashon Hughes improved against the run and in rushing the passer, it hasn’t been apparent early this season — he does have one sack, but hasn’t made any other tackles for losses and has played a high enough number of snaps so far this season that he should be making more plays.
His back ups, resident wild men Hager and Roach, have played far fewer snaps, but have combined for four of the team’s 11 sacks, of which four more have come from defensive backs.
Against UTEP’s version of the Boise State offense, Strong wanted to get the two players on the field so much that he asked his staff to create a special package with two Fox ends.
It worked, as Roach and Hager have gotten a sack each in the last two games, while Roach was disruptive in other aspects of the game against the Miners. When the Texas defense held Cal scoreless in the third quarter, it was with both in the game, sometimes alongside Hughes.
Strong doesn’t always know what he’s going to get out of the two players and both are better suited for packages where they can rush the passer with impunity, but given that they are the only players in the defensive front who are consistently getting to the quarterback, it’s another area where the coaches may have to live with some mistakes.
Unleash the Predator
Through the first three games, preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Malik Jefferson can only count a single sack to his name. Otherwise, he hasn’t caused much havoc other than breaking up a pass in the UTEP game and deflecting the first pass of the Cal game.
Strong said on Monday that teams are noticing where Jefferson lines up and sliding protection in his direction in order to account for him.
However, given Jefferson’s proven ability to make plays off the edge, it seems like the staff isn’t finding effective ways to fully maximize his potential.
Against Oklahoma last season, that was as simple as lining him up as a rush end and letting him beat the big Sooners freshman left tackle.
Of course, expanding the package for Roach and Hager has reduced those opportunities for Jefferson, but when they aren’t on the field, Texas would be well served by giving the face of the program more chances to make plays outside of his traditional linebacker role.
However it happens, Jefferson is one of the players who needs to make some game-changing plays for a defense that has only forced one turnover through three games.