As I’ve sat back and tried tried to make sense of this valley of frustration that Texas has found itself in again, I haven’t been able to ignore the fact that there are a few factors in play that have all worked together to lead Texas to this point.
The reality, though, is not all of these factors hold the same weight. At the end of the day, this is a coaching issue, and ultimately Charlie Strong’s issue.
We can’t just say “youth” is the problem
Look, I get it. We absolutely can’t ignore the fact that youth is still effecting this team.
If we just take a look at the starters on defense, I could argue that the best players at at least seven of the 11 positions on defense are sophomores, with freshman Malcolm Roach making a case to be in that discussion.
If I include freshman Brandon Jones at one of the safety positions, who’s a former five-star recruit that’s been making the most of his small amount of playing time on special teams, we could increase that number to at least eight players.
And hey, I’m the guy that’s continued to say one thing that could help this defense the most is another offseason. So I get this team, and defense, is still young.
But we can’t just turn our palms up, shrug our shoulders, and chalk this up to youth. These players may be young, but they’re still talented.
Their talent is a reason a handful of these players were on pre-season award and watch-lists. And their talent is a reason many were highly-touted recruits out of high school.
The blame shouldn’t end with them, or even really rest on them for too long. They may have been the ones on the field making the mistakes, but the talent is there enough for improvements to have been made over the offseason.
The improvements weren’t made, though, and that’s why this is mainly a coaching issue. This is a Vance Bedford and Charlie Strong issue.
The criticism of Vance Bedford is fair
While watching the ‘Horns loss against Cal play-out in front of me late Saturday evening, I was surrounded by a group of friends..
Over the course of that four hours or so, I must have heard “Vance”, “Bedford”, or the combo of that full name yelled out a handful of times. And the statements being blurted out weren’t compliments either.
At the time, I tried to hold myself back from letting my emotions lead me to a knee-jerk conclusion or response. I wanted to see the entire game before coming to a conclusion.
But sometimes, the knee-jerk and emotional responses are right... A lot of this does fall on Vance Bedford, and there’s no denying that.
Entering his third season as the defensive coordinator for the Longhorns, Bedford had another entire offseason to get the defense pointed in the right direction, but he couldn’t get it done.
After being a liability for nearly all of last season, the defense again started the season as a liability, and it cost Texas a winnable game and nearly cost them the opening win as well.
The blame and criticism of Bedford is fair, and the questions directed at him as a leader, a coordinator, and a defensive coach are warranted.
I’d be lying if I said Manny Diaz didn’t briefly come to mind after the loss Saturday night. Similar to Diaz, I couldn’t help but wonder if Bedford’s scheme was too complicated for these players, if he was doing a poor job of coaching it, or both.
And sure, the players have been the ones making the mistakes and failing to execute on the field.
But the job of the defensive coordinator is to implement a scheme that puts his players in the best position to succeed. It’s his job to prepare the defense.
That hasn’t been happening with Bedford as the coordinator of this defense. Most recently, we all saw the breakdowns against Cal. It’s not like one defender got burned once or twice.
Chad Hansen, Cal’s leading wide receiver, burned that entire defense to a crisp. And unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time a player had done that to this defense under Bedford’s watch.
The stats back it up.
Below are other notable performances from receivers last season. Just look at how many players had multi-touchdown games. Oh and by the way, Texas lost everyone of these games below.
2015 notable receiving performances vs Texas
Will Fuller (Notre Dame): 7 rec, 142 yds, 2 tds
Kenny Lawler (Cal): 6 rec, 79 YDS, 2 tds
Josh Doctson (TCU): 7 rec, 129 YDS, 2 tds, Kevontae Turpin (TCU): 6 rec, 138 yds, 4 tds
Ian Sadler (TTU): 6 rec, 108 yds, Jakeem Grant (TTU): 2 rec, 105 yds, 1 td
That’s four different teams, four different losses, and six different players that torched the Texas secondary.
In addition to that, every team but Baylor, who was essentially down to a wide receiver playing quarterback, scored a passing touchdown against Texas last season. Yes, even Kansas and Kansas State.
The argument defending those pour performances last year is, well, that that was last year.
That was when the defense was even younger. That was when (after the first few games) the corners were just freshmen. And that was when the Texas offense wasn’t doing the defense any favors.
And that’s all true. But if we fast forward to this season, we start to see more of the same, lousy defense taking place.
2016 notable receiving performances vs Texas
Equanimeous St. Brown (Notre Dame): 5 rec, 75 yds, 2 tds
Chad Hansen (Cal): 12 rec, 196 yds, 2 tds
With an entire offseason to correct issues, and most of the secondary returning, it didn’t get done. And that’s why the panic button has again been pressed, this time because the defense wasn’t prepared.
Ultimately, this is on Coach Strong
We can point to the players for failing to execute and we can look at Bedford and question his scheme, preparation and coaching. But at the end of the day, this happened under Strong’s watch. He’s the head coach, and he’s also a defensive-minded coach.
Whether it was his loyalty, his lack of detail, or him failing to step in and be more involved when he should have, the lack of preparation and execution on defense ultimately falls on him.
I’m not suggesting he get fired. I’m not even engaging in silly “what if” Tom Herman talk right now. Texas is still 2-1 heading into conference play. And I’m of the opinion Texas has the talent to turn things around by the time this team takes on Oklahoma State.
What I am saying is Strong ultimately put himself in this position one way or another. And now it’s on him to put out this fire before before this team begins conference play in Stillwater.
Obviously, the coaching has to improve. Texas can’t afford to have it’s players, especially those in the secondary, blowing coverages and getting confused at a rate where the defense might as well be on the sidelines.
As for Bedford, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen to him and his role for the Oklahoma State game and beyond. Maybe Strong and him find a way to make it work. Or maybe Brian Jean-Mary, the Longhorns linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator sees his role increase, possibly to defensive coordinator at some point.
Ironically, back in August, I somewhat touched on Jean-Mary getting a shot as a defensive coordinator sooner than later.
Random thought: Given he's the LB coach & recruiting coord at Texas, it's probably a matter of time before Jean-Mary gets crack at DC job.— Wes Crochet (@WesKCrochet) August 11, 2016
At the time, I didn’t specifically mean it would be Texas or even a program of that caliber. But Jean-Mary seems like a candidate teams would consider. And right now, it sounds like Strong is as well.
If Strong does end up demoting Bedford, it’s unlikely he survives past this season. Given he isn’t the greatest recruiter, keeping him as a position coach doesn’t make a ton of sense. And who knows if he’d even want a demotion like that long-term.
As for the defensive coordinator job, if Bedford doesn’t some how keep it, it’s not out of the question to assume Jean-Mary at least has first crack at it.
Even though he’s never really called plays, Strong must see something in him to have kept him around this long and to have continued to give him more responsibilities.
If Strong really wants to go all in, he has to also start playing his best players more often regardless of age or seniority. He touched on it during his press conference Monday and mentioned guys like Malcolm Roach, Breckyn Hager and Brandon Jones as young players that will see more time.
The fact that those guys weren’t seeing as much time as they should have been may have also been a Bedford decision as well. We all know how much he prefers to have “extra coaches on the field”.
Fortunately for Texas, the bye week will help in at least giving this team more time to sort its defense out while continuing to iron out the offense before conference play.
And unlike last season with the offense, the pieces are there for the defense to improve enough this season. Strong just has to organize his staff and improve the overall coaching so that improvements are actually made.
Heading in to Big 12 play, Texas is still sitting at 2-1 after three games, and the conference is still up for grabs.