Regardless of whether there’s a national tackling epidemic, there is a missed tackles epidemic in the burnt orange nation right now as the Texas Longhorns suffered through numerous mistakes in that regard against the Texas Tech Red Raiders last Saturday.
“It was disappointing, absolutely,” Orlando said on Wednesday. “To me, it’s technical. Your right of passage to get on the field in this defense is you better be a tough guy, but I thought us throwing low on guys, I thought technically it was poor, we weren’t running through guys, we were catching guys, and that’s not us.
“So we gotta get that cleaned up, because that’s on film until the planet blows up, you know, and that’s an indictment on myself as a coach and everybody that was on that field.”
The solution? Spend more time tackling in practice. Normally, Tuesday practices feature players without any lower body padding, but Orlando requested that head coach Tom Herman make it a full pads practice this week to focus on tackling technique.
Injuries have surely impacted the tackling, too — Herman called the defense a “mash unit” in the second half against Texas Tech since numerous starters were out or banged up. Consider this list:
- Defensive end Breckyn Hager — limited with a dislocated radius
- Defensive end Marqez Bimage — out with a dislocated shoulder
- Cornerback Davante Davis — left the game with a bone bruise in his knee and an ankle strain
- Nickel back Josh Thompson — left the game with an ankle injury
- Nickel back/safety PJ Locke III — played through a toe injury
- Safety Brandon Jones — missed his second straight game with an ankle injury
- Safety Caden Sterns — left the game with a concussion after getting banged up
As a result, Orlando had to make constant substitutions and play little-used backups like junior Donovan Duvernay, who ended up at nickel, even though he almost certainly never gets reps with the ones there in practice. Freshman safety BJ Foster had to play a deep safety position, even though he’s spent most of the season in the Joker position. Sophomore safety Chris Brown played the most snaps of his career.
“I was next in line I think to play DB,” Orlando said.
Orlando called it a Rubik’s Cube in terms of figuring out how to fill out his secondary during the game as he had to adjust his coverages on the back end to provide help for players with little experience by players with little experience.
The results were ugly — Texas Tech scored 24 points in the fourth quarter, aided by a successful onside kick that provided an extra possession and a fourth-down conversion on a pass-interference penalty.
So there’s no question that Orlando is struggling to find answers. He’s tried to send blitzes from depth at times, but quarterbacks have been able to get the ball out quickly, in part because the coverage hasn’t held up as well on the back end as it did last season. When he’s tried to play coverage, quarterbacks have been able to stand in the pocket without harassment.
Run defense has also been a concern, but one thing that Orlando isn’t likely to do is to add another defensive tackle to the line on early downs.
“I think it’s just because of our league. Our league is so lateral that — don’t get me wrong on this, rushing after the quarterback with four and doing that — but to be able to cover up gaps, because most of the people are spread in this league,” Orlando said. “So if you vacate some gaps, they’ll throw it on the outside, they can beat you up.”
When Orlando wants to generate a pass rush, he’s more likely to use four linemen, but on early downs, the tite front (4i-0-4i) he prefers with gap coverage across the line from three linemen forces the ball to the perimeter.
“If you’re in coverages that can support the run out on the perimeter and then also have the ability to cover those guys out there, we believe it really helps us overall,” Orlando said.
At that point, it’s about getting guys to the ground, and that’s a major emphasis this week.