The improvement by a Texas Longhorns defense that ranked No. 60 last season in defensive S&P+ could be immediate, at least if the early returns from spring practice are any evidence.
While that would be a good sign for the long-term impact of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s multiple 3-4 scheme, it fits with typical spring trends, according to the head coach on Tuesday.
“Yeah, usually I would hope that it would be that way through eight practices,” Herman said. “I use the analogy that on defense, ten guys can screw up and one guy can makes a great play and you've got a tackle for loss or a sack.”
Two of the players standing out individually on defense making those types of plays are senior nose tackle Poona Ford and junior nickel back PJ Locke III, the noted gym rat whose parents received a congratulatory call from Herman for the way they raised their son.
It was the only such call that Herman has admitted to making since his arrival.
As in defenses run by Charlie Strong at Texas, the nickel has a number of responsibilities — defend quick slot receivers, set the edge against the run and screen passes, and demonstrate upside as a blitzer.
After a strong sophomore season, Locke looks ready to emerge in each of those roles, especially as an overall playmaker, the descriptor that Herman used for him on Tuesday.
After all, he’s been learning from the best in the business.
When considering how Locke goes about the business of being the best football player he can possibly be, it’s no surprise to see the type of company that he consistently keeps.
Trying to keep a pipeline going #409 pic.twitter.com/YWU5NC7gbh— James "PJ" Locke III (@PjLocke4) April 3, 2017
So far this spring, Locke isn’t just a vocal leader, he’s also a playmaker from the nickel.
As for Ford, Herman hasn’t been particularly impressed with his conditioning, but following a nose to tackle, the 5’11, 300-pounder is “a handful for any center.”
One of the other key positions in the defense is the B-backer position that plays to the boundary and most closely resembles the Fox position used by Strong.
“In order to be as multiple as we want to be from an odd front to a four-down front to our third-down package, that guy’s got to be a hybrid pass rusher, linebacker, and cover guy,” Herman said. “He’s got to be able to take on blocks from tackles and tight ends, but also drop into coverage and reroute a slot receiver and play man-to-man on a tight end.
“Those are the things that make that position so unique. I’ve been happy with how we’re progressing with the two guys there, Naashon Hughes and Jeffrey McCulloch. I’ve noticed them more as the weeks go on.”
Hughes also made himself known to Herman as a leader, but consistently producing big plays has been an issue for the Harker Heights product — the senior recorded only 24 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last season, a disappointing production rate for someone who was on the field so much.
Perhaps more notably, the 6’4, 260-pounder didn’t have a single quarterback hurry last season, though all of his tackles for loss counted as sacks.
Indeed, given the overall lack of playmaking production from Hughes in his career, there’s a chance that McCulloch could threaten the longtime starter, especially since he’s a more natural player on the edge than his older teammate, who played further from the ball in high school.
“Usually guys that are that cerebral are not the toughest cats, to be honest with you,” Herman said of McCulloch. “With physicality he’s nowhere near a finished product, but he’s definitely not scared. He’ll throw his stuff in there and do the dirty work. That was good to see here the last few times we’ve put the pads on.”
So clearly McCulloch has the mental side down — he ranked fifth of 795 students at Aldine Davis during the spring of his senior season with a 3.95 GPA — so now the task is understanding the nuances of the position.
With Hughes emerging as a better leader, it’s possible that he could ultimately tutor McCulloch into the starting role that Hughes currently holds.
Overall, communication is a key aspect of improving defensively, and not just in the position rooms — the Longhorns suffered way too many coverage and overall assignments busts last season.
Sophomore defensive end Malcolm Roach is one of several players on record about that as a point of emphasis.
“It's important because the starter defense communicates to get aligned right, If we don't talk, everything is just messed up form the start,” he said. “So we just have to learn to communicate better, and like I said, that just comes with time. The more we practice together, the more we learn each others' tendencies, and this defense will get better.”
Right now, the big takeaway is that as the team sits 10 days away from the Orange-White game, the cohesion of the offense is lagging behind that of the defense, though that is, once again, certainly understandable and not unusual.
“On offense, ten guys can do perfect and one guy can screw up and you've got a TFL or a sack,” Herman said. “Defense is about running to the football and having a really bad attitude when you get there, taking your shot and not being able to miss a tackle knowing that ten guys are right behind you sprinting their tales off to have your back. Offense is more choreographed, so that choreography takes a lot longer.”
In fact, the loss of several offensive starters and most of the running back corps for a stretch that ended with the Tuesday return of early enrollee Toneil Carter and redshirt sophomore Tristian Houston is likely playing a significant role in the offensive struggles.
During Saturday’s scrimmage, the back up at running back to Kyle Porter was walk-on Trent Halfley. No offense to Halfley, but he’s at Texas to be practice cannon fodder in these situations and boost the program’s GPA, two things he does diligently.
Center Zach Shackelford just underwent surgery to correct issues associated with multiple high ankle sprains, right tackle Brandon Hodges is sitting out due to academic concerns, and running back Chris Warren III is out for the spring with a hamstring injury.
Frankly, though, Herman believes that the team still has a long way to go in order to be ready for the opener against Maryland on September 2. With a little more than half of spring practice gone now, that’s not exactly a surprise.
“Not to coach speak with you, but we all need to work,” Herman said. “Saturday was not great. We had a long team meeting today to address a lot of it. We put up ten clips on the video screen, offense and defense, of sub-maximal effort. When we’re in a live scrimmage situation it is unacceptable to give anything other than your maximum effort.”
Recall that effort for defense and ball security for the offense are the two areas where Herman will not compromise with his players.
“We just need to keep playing, instill in them and applaud and praise those that do well, those that exemplify our culture and point out those that don’t,” said the Texas head coach. “We need to make sure they’re being taught what the expectations are around here every single play.”