Recruiting misses beget coaching changes. Coaching changes beget recruiting misses. Coaching changes beget attrition. Injuries beget the reckoning for coaching changes that cause recruiting misses and attrition.
For the Texas Longhorns in the second season under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, the reality of early departures for the NFL, previous recruiting mistakes, and the attrition that comes as a result of coaching changes have resulted in a disappointing defense sent over the edge by injuries and suspensions.
In the midst of two consecutive losses for the first time in nearly 13 months, it’s worthwhile to understand how the defense came to look the way it does right now.
John Bonney’s departure hurt the secondary
Last season, when Orlando installed the Lightning package and had to deal with the suspension of star cornerback Holton Hill and an injury to nickel back PJ Locke III, he was able to turn to fifth-year senior Antwuan Davis in the nickel, replace Hill with a former starter in Davante Davis, and insert senior Jason Hall, another longtime starter, at the Joker position.
This season, when Davis and junior safety Brandon Jones missed time, Orlando turned to sophomore Josh Thompson at nickel, with Locke moving to safety and redshirt freshman Kobe Boyce or freshman Anthony Cook at cornerback.
Cook has largely held his own, but Boyce struggled against Tulsa and especially against Oklahoma State star Tylan Wallace. Thompson gave up a big pass play against the Golden Hurricane, too, as well as two touchdown passes against the Mountaineers, including the game-winning pass with a seven-point lead.
So the lack of any experienced depth in the secondary has been a major issue for Orlando, one exacerbated by the preseason departure of John Bonney, a fifth-year senior who landed at Texas Tech. Capable of playing every position in the secondary, Bonney has provided the same steady play for the Red Raiders.
Especially important for a team facing a sudden turnover drought, Bonney has forced two fumbles this season.
In some sense, the excellent recruiting in the 2018 class beget Bonney’s departure, as he understandably made the assessment that he wouldn’t play much for the Horns this season without injuries or suspensions. Unfortunately for Orlando and the Texas defense, that is exactly what has happened.
The 2016 secondary signees couldn’t replace the early departures
Two members of the impressive 2015 defensive back signing class for former head coach Charlie Strong departed after last season — Thorpe Award finalist DeShon Elliott capitalized on his luck securing interceptions and Hill left following his suspension.
So instead of fielding a secondary filled with seniors and junior Brandon Jones this season, Texas was left starting a freshman and relying on a handful of young players to step up as a result of injuries or suspensions.
The pressure to perform landed squarely on Boyce, Thompson, and Cook because Jones is the only starter in the secondary to emerge from the 2016 recruiting class.
Under Armour All-American cornerback Eric Cuffee should have been poised to contribute for the first time this season as a redshirt sophomore. Instead, he was passed by younger players and transferred to Trinity Valley JC, where he’s managed so far to earn a lone offer from New Mexico.
Donovan Duvernay, a cornerback and twin brother of Devin, the junior wide receiver, has played in two games during his career. Consider Donovan recruited over as well.
Chris Brown, another redshirt sophomore, lost the battle to replace Elliott to freshman Caden Sterns and now serves as the backup at the Joker position to another freshman, BJ Foster. And so while Brown may eventually emerge as a contributor, right now he is at best the No. 5 safety on the team.
To complete the count there, Strong and his staff took four defensive backs in the 2016 class and only one is them is a significant contributor during year three. One is already gone, while another is unlikely to ever appear in a game again.
The 2016 DL class was an absolute bust
The Longhorns start three former three-star prospects along the defensive line and play two sophomores and a junior as the backups. Beyond those top six players, there’s a lightly-recruited junior college transfer who has appeared in one game as a senior and the freshmen from the 2018 recruiting class.
Gerald Wilbon, the junior backup nose tackle, is a space eater in the middle who was a mid three-star prospect and typically plays next to a late addition to the 2017 recruiting class and a solid sophomore in Ta’Quon Graham who should emerge as a key contributor next season.
There have been some questions about why Orlando hasn’t moved to playing with four down linemen over the last two games as the defensive line has struggled. With the injuries to Breckyn Hager and Marqez Bimage during the West Virginia game and the ankle sprain suffered by Chris Nelson before the game, the answer is the lack of depth.
Of the six defensive line signees in the 2016 class, only Wilbon and D’Andre Christmas-Giles are still on campus. Christmas-Giles has barely played under the new staff, the only defensive end signee, Andrew Fitzgerald, gave up football, and Jordan Elliott, Chris Daniels, and Marcel Southall all transferred out.
So instead of having defensive line depth with juniors or redshirt sophomores who could displace or supplement the older players in front of them this season, Texas has two true sophomores and a surviving junior as the backups.
Because the attrition in one class is now effectively more than 80 percent at a key position group.
Where’s the edge-rushing star?
The great hope from the 2016 class was local product Erick Fowler, who flipped from LSU to Texas on National Signing Day with a dab reflected around the Longhorns coaching facilities. And yet, Fowler only lasted a little more than a year in the program due to grade issues after a late enrollment. Dab in, dab out.
Malcolm Roach ended up filling that role for Fowler, though the Louisiana product has dealt with significant injury issues over the last two years and hasn’t keep his weight down enough to legitimately play as a B-backer capable of excelling in space.
The 2017 class didn’t feature an ideal B-backer when Herman arrived in Austin, though the staff tried to capitalize on its longtime relationship with Houston product K’Lavon Chaisson late in the cycle.
Ultimately, Brenham defensive end Marqez Bimage flipped from Houston to Texas before ending up at defense end this season, while Chaisson backed out of a reported silent pledge to the Horns and signed with the Bayou Tigers.
Chaisson had a promising freshman season with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss for LSU before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Miami in early September.
From the recruiting standpoint, the loss of Chaisson is the most significant failure for Herman’s staff in terms of impact this season. And given how close Chaisson was to ending up in Austin, it’s hard to blame the staff too much for not translating the recruiting efforts at Houston to the recruiting efforts at Texas — in many ways, it was surprising that the Galena Park North Shore product even seriously considered the Longhorns at the end of the cycle.
Remaining in that recruitment so long was a credit to the current staff, not a failure.
As a longer-term developmental prospect, Texas pursued Under Armour All-American Nik Bonfitto late in the last cycle and even had some momentum until negative recruiting helped Oklahoma land the Florida native. Just thank the purveyors of information that is easy to weaponize against the Longhorns program for that one.
Still, the Horns were able to close with in-state product Joseph Ossai and long held a pledge from an intriguing athlete in Byron Vaughns. The future is promising, at the least.
Whither the linebackers?
Recruiting linebackers has been a difficult task in Texas over the last few seasons. Why that’s the case is the subject for a more extended discussion, but even in perusing the top players in the state in the 2016 and 2017 classes, there just aren’t a lot of bodies that would even fit at that position.
So that suggests something of an anomaly, even as arguments about the structural nature of spread high school football teams and the 7-on-7 culture continue in regards to how those realities impact the development of linebackers.
The reality for the Longhorns right now is that the miss on Alief Elsik linebacker Dontavious Jackson, the high school teammate of Brown, made a difference in the 2016 recruiting class. If it wasn’t for that meddling Tim Brewster...
Texas also missed on Killeen Shoemaker’s Rahssan Thornton, who ended up at LSU.
With limited margin for error due to a lack of linebacker prospects, Strong settled on Demarco Boyd in addition to Fowler and Jeffrey McCulloch. Boyd may never rejoin the team following an assault allegation and McCulloch has dealt with injuries and an inability to translate his skills to the college level.
And so while McCulloch has contribute some as a B-backer, the Horns got nothing in that class in terms of help at the Mac and Rover positions. Just a wasted cycle.
Charlie’s demise helped spark the Texodus
Just as the end of Mack Brown’s tenure led to a disappointing finish to the 2014 recruiting class that Strong helped save by signing two former Louisville defensive tackle commits, Strong’s failures in Austin led to the inevitable transition class.
And just like Strong had little to no chance of salvaging the recruitments of Jamal Adams and Solomon Thomas in that cycle, Herman and his staff, despite better in-state ties, had little chance of salvaging numerous other recruitments.
Shortly after Herman took over for Strong, the nation’s No. 11 prospect and No. 1 inside linebacker, Baron Browning, committed to Ohio State. While Browning still hasn’t earned a starting role as a sophomore, it’s hard to imagine him sitting on the bench for the Horns right now.
The nation’s No. 8 prospect and No. 1 cornerback, Jeffrey Okudah, never seriously considered Texas because the defensive backs coach at that time had a poor relationship with Okudah’s trainer. Having a former consensus five-star prospect as a sophomore would likely be a better situation than the current backup situation, right?
How about a five-star defensive tackle ranked as the sixth player overall, the top player at his position in the country, and the top player overall in Texas?
That would be Marvin Wilson, who was lost to Florida State after the coaching change. Wilson emerged late during his freshman season to flash a bit, but tore his MCL this spring.
Just put on some John Lennon and envision what a Texas roster without the Texodus would look like.
Imagine all the five stars, living life in burnt orange...
Sorry to say, the return to reality means the current roster certainly looks like one emerging from a Texodus caused by Strong’s failures in Austin. And that’s no way to create peace in the fanbase.
So what’s the point? Deep into the second full recruiting cycle for Herman and his staff at Texas, it’s relatively easy to forget about the prospects who considered Texas and then chose other programs with better recent track records of success and more stability at the time of those decisions.
It’s easy to forget about the recruiting misses by Strong and his staff and the attrition that resulted from the coaching change.
The mistakes of Strong and his staff weren’t limited to the performances like losing in Lawrence that ultimately resulted in Strong’s termination after only three seasons — some questionable decisions in recruiting combined with the ultimate transition produced turnover.
Dealing with that turnover isn’t always easy, especially when the result of developing players like Elliott, Hill, and linebacker Malik Jefferson into credible selections in the NFL Draft was losing them to the NFL Draft.
In assessing the larger landscape of what’s happened in defensive recruiting over the relevant cycles to this year’s success, the clear reality of coaching changes is once again obvious — the transition and on-field failures that preceded it limited the transition class while increasing the probability of more attrition in the previous class.
As the manifestation of stability, quality depth takes time to build following coaching changes.
Texas clearly isn’t there yet, nor is it even reasonable to argue that it should be.