“It’s a little disappointing, in my opinion.”
If anything, Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s Wednesday evening take on the state of the pass rush was a bit of an understatement — the ‘Horns have only produced two sacks in two games after averaging 3.4 sacks per contest last season.
The most disappointing aspect of the production drop off?
The fact that Texas lost only 7.5 of the team’s 41 total sacks to graduation last season and the top seven players returned, including junior Breckyn Hager, who led the team with six.
Other than the sacks, the ‘Horns have added only three more tackles for loss.
The decrease in production isn’t for a lack of trying either — Orlando has been his usual, aggressive self.
“In this package it should be a lot higher than what it is,” Orlando said. “It's not like we're sitting there and playing base stuff. We're trying to move guys around. It's been addressed and it's got to pick up.”
Orlando pointed to two potential problems — technique and fundamentals — in discussing the need for finishing more plays. But personnel may also be a factor.
Junior linebacker Gary Johnson didn’t play on defense against Maryland after sustaining an ankle injury in fall practice, but made a tackle for loss and showed the ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage with his quickness.
Of bigger concern are two position changes that Orlando made — moving sophomore Malcolm Roach to a 3-4 defensive end position playing heads up against an offensive tackle and Hager to middle linebacker.
Last season, Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford quickly realized that Roach and Hager could be extremely disruptive, and could even play together, rolling at a package using the two Fox ends primarily as pass rushers, though Roach showed some ability in space.
Roach has been slowed by a turf toe injury he suffered in fall camp and isn’t even a starter at the position, as he’s listed as a co-starter with junior Charles Omenihu. It’s possible that Orlando has been limiting Roach’s snaps to ensure that he’s healthy and fully available for this game, but it’s not a move that has been paying off so far.
To be sure, Roach has the strength and mass at 270 pounds to make plays — he looked impressive in practice clips from prior to his turf toe injury — it just hasn’t showed up on the field yet.
Hager, meanwhile, got buried on the depth chart at linebacker and only has two tackles so far this season, in sharp contrast to his impressive production last year, which also included 13.5 tackles for loss.
In the opener against Maryland, he played with back-up B-backer Jeffrey McCulloch in a third-down package. Unfortunately for Texas, the package wasn’t designed to stop the run and it didn’t take long for the offense to begin exploiting it.
Against San Jose State, that package was nowhere to be found, though Orlando did get Hager on the field at B-backer more often.
One of the toughest, most relentless, and most physical players on the team, Hager has his weaknesses, including his pass drops and ability to play under control. Even so, he’s a valuable asset to a team that is demonstrating a need for pass-rushing ability and he’s simply not getting enough opportunities to do what he does so well.
The coaches had high praise for senior B-backer Naashon Hughes this fall and he’s one of the team’s captains. Off the field, there’s no reason to doubt his leadership abilities. On the field, however, his production has never quite matched his athleticism or playing time in terms of creating negative plays — he had nine tackles for loss as a sophomore, but only 3.5 last season, all of them sacks.
The reliance on Hughes as the starter was likely part of the reason why Orlando moved Roach and Hager to different positions. After all, McCulloch is a capable player off the edge as well, he’s just struggling to get on the field because he doesn’t defend the run as well as Hughes.
So, are the position changes and personnel choices part of the problem? Orlando didn’t deny that claim.
“I think there's some merit to getting some different guys in there,” he said. “Some guys that have shown they can make plays. It's just one of those things, like turnovers. How come we don't have this amount of turnovers? Sometimes it's you're just not getting any turnovers.
“I don't want to panic. But when I look at those numbers and know what this package is about, in my opinion, we have to pick that up to be able to make this package work.”
Beyond defensive front, the secondary also needs to contribute, as the safeties made plays behind the line of scrimmage last for Texas and did for Houston, too — the Cougars got 10 sacks from defensive backs last season.
Against Maryland, Orlando used junior safety DeShon Elliott in the box and as a blitzer, but he wasn’t able to generate much pressure in that role. At some point, the secondary will need to have an impact behind the line of scrimmage for Orlando’s pressure packages to achieve his goals.
One of the overall issues may be players still pressing too hard wanting to make plays. Though Herman praised his team in his post-game press conference and on Monday for playing more loose, Orlando still thinks there’s more improvement necessary.
Whether that improvement comes without making personnel changes or as a result of them remains to be seen.