In a media availability on Thursday, Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando detailed the specifics of several position changes on defense that are having a big impact on the depth chart:
Here are the position changes Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando made after watching last year's film pic.twitter.com/ymIklTpMoS— Anwar Richardson (@AnwarRichardson) March 24, 2017
And so while Orlando’s multiple 3-4 defense will typically employ a similar 3-3-5 look against spread teams as the defense run by former head coach Charlie Strong, he clearly sees different things on film and has different requirements than the previous staff.
After a largely disappointing two-year experiment with Malik Jefferson in the middle, the junior will cede the role of most important defender to fellow junior Breckyn Hager.
Jefferson was the top player in the state in 2015 and the crown jewel of Strong’s recruiting class, while Hager was one of the lowest-rated players in the entire group and originally committed to Baylor.
Now the roles are rather reversed — it’s Hager who will take on the role of calling the defense and utilize his trademark maniacal play back at linebacker, where he played as a freshman before switching to the hybrid Buck position last year.
In discussing the role of linebacker’s in his defense, Orlando made his expectations clear for the position. He also happened to send a thinly-veiled message to Jefferson, who was benched last season for his effort level.
“We're not going to go into the season with a soft middle linebacker, it's just not going to happen,” Orlando said. “So whoever ends up being the toughest kid, the kid who's going to be the most physical, play in and play out, is going to wind up there when we eventually play Maryland. That's the approach, that what always goes into what part this is. That position should be the quarterback of the defense, he should be the toughest guy, everybody should respect him, he should go extremely hard all the time and be vocal. So that's kind of the prerequisite that you look for when you're trying to fill in that spot.”
In 2016, Jefferson’s play improved at the end of the season before it ended due to a concussion, but Orlando made it clear that if it flags again for whatever reason, Jefferson will find himself on the bench much more quickly than he did in the past.
“It’s not going to be, 'Malik Jefferson is not playing well, Malik’s going to stay in there.’ No, Malik is going to be on the bench, and we’re going to put somebody in there specifically who for that day is going to play. It’s creating competition and stressing it every day (when) you go out on that field. Ourselves included as coaches. You’re being evaluated every day.”
Sophomore Malcolm Roach is making a different transition than Hager in moving closer to the football. After playing at the Fox position last year, Roach is now at 270 pounds and playing as a 3-4 defensive end that will require him to play lined up over or inside the offensive tackle.
So far, it sounds like the change suits him.
“We watch him in inside run, he’s a strong kid,” Orlando said. “He’s got some grit to him. Just polishing him. He’s still a young guy. Just continue on I’d like to see him get a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger. He’s had a nice couple of four days right now.”
The other defensive line change is the switch of junior Chris Nelson and senior Poona Ford. While Ford often played the 3-4 defensive end position last season, he’s moved inside and Nelson is playing further outside, where he won’t have to deal with as many double teams.
And the movement among the linebackers continued, with sophomore Erick Fowler back in the middle where he started last season before playing what may be his more natural position on the edge. Now the question is whether he can display enough technique at the position to make an impact.
However, Orlando’s description of Hager and why he’s at the position also fits for Fowler, who has some of the same attributes in terms of his physicality, toughness, and overall motor.
Indeed, Orlando mentioned Fowler specifically in the early part of his response about the middle linebacker position.
Meanwhile, McCulloch is already the back up to senior Naashon Hughes at B-backer thanks to the sudden lack of depth at that position with Roach, Hager, and Fowler no longer playing there. Like Fowler, McCulloch played on the edge in high school and showed an aptitude for pressuring the quarterback and generally being a nuisance around the line of scrimmage.
In the secondary, Bonney, a junior, is making the change from cornerback to boundary safety after Orlando watched him struggled at cornerback last season. He thinks that Bonney’s intelligence and physicality will serve him well at safety, where he won’t have to cover as much ground on the short side of the field.
The position changes provide a compelling look at the changes that Orlando is making to the Texas defense as he rebuilds it in his own image.
Whether or not those changes put players in a better position to succeed will play a significant role in the upside of the 2017 Longhorns defense.
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