“What the heck is this?”
On Monday, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman reflected on his reaction to the unusual defensive front and coverages that the Iowa State Cyclones used against the Longhorns in Ames last season.
The Texas staff had studied two years of film on Iowa State, but hadn’t ever seen the type of defense deployed by Jon Heacock on that Thursday evening. After the ‘Horns were held to 17 points in the road victory, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando went back to identify what exactly Heacock was doing.
And that birthed the Lightning package that Texas unveiled shortly thereafter, which quickly became the team’s base defense and helped limit opposing offenses for the rest of the season. Even Missouri struggled to produce in the Texas Bowl despite tearing through the end of its SEC schedule and facing a defense without several of its top contributors.
To fully weaponize the talent of the Longhorns defenders, Orlando copied the Cyclones in using a defensive back in place of the B-backer, providing more versatility and speed with the dime-based defense. Putting Breckyn Hager on the field at defensive end didn’t hurt, either.
Jason Hall filled that dime B-backer role for Texas in replacing Naashon Hughes and had an interception, a sack, three pass break ups, two quarterback hurries, and forced fumble, in addition to 22 tackles. With his combination of size and physicality as a blitzer and his experience starting 28 games at safety for Texas, Hall was a perfect fit for the role.
Entering the spring, the question now is whether juniors Malcolm Roach and Jeffrey McCulloch can provide more production than Hughes from the B-backer spot in order to incentivize the staff to take that extra defensive back off the field.
And whether there’s a defensive back on the roster who can effectively replace Hall.
“We’ve talked about Chris Brown a little bit there,” Herman said on Monday. “We’re going to experiment. First, we’ve got to see if guys like Malcolm (Roach) and Jeffrey McCulloch can do it. But if we can keep them on the field at all times then more power to them. But if we need to get a defensive back kind of body down there, then Chris Brown this spring would be a guy, B.J. (Foster) would be a guy, that we’d try to maybe later, to learn some of that.”
At 6’3 and 216 pounds, Hall was a physically imposing player as the Lightning package B-backer. Listed at 5’11 and 210 pounds, Brown isn’t nearly as tall or as long as Hall, but would bring plenty of physicality to the position.
Foster is also a hard hitter who can already power clean more than 300 pounds who also lacks the height and length of Hall.
The best potential fit for the position moving forward, though? How about DeMarvion Overshown, the Arp product who played some defensive end as a sophomore and is currently listed at 6’4 and 200 pounds?
The physical freak from East Texas won’t arrive until the summer, but he’s a player who was evaluated as a potential outside linebacker in high school and showed a striking ability that matches that of Hall, Brown, and Foster.
And unlike the two players currently on the roster, Overshown would bring more height and length to the position as a blitzer, which would help him more effectively deal with and overcome any running backs, H-backs, or even offensive linemen tasked with blocking him in Orlando’s schemes.
How much Texas eventually decides to use the Lightning package is difficult to determine with only one spring practice in the books and Herman progressing more slowly with the defensive installation this spring.
However, it will almost certainly remain an important tool in Orlando’s arsenal, with its deployment dependent on evaluating the best 11 defenders available compared to the needs produced by a schedule that won’t feature the same level of quarterback play and overall opposing offensive playmaking as last season.