“Just play. Just play. Don’t worry about what’s going on out there.”
Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is still working to get his defense to start faster, especially in front of big crowds at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Against the USC Trojans last weekend, the Horns gave up 14 first-quarter points before holding the Trojans scoreless for the remainder of the game.
With the TCU Horned Frogs coming to Austin this Saturday, avoiding the type of slow start that quickly buried Texas last season in Fort Worth could define the entire game as Orlando attempts to complete the program’s culture change.
According to Orlando, he’s still coaching out the last remnants of the “Here we go again” mentality that became a defining feature of previous teams.
“When we came in here, it was just changing and making things more positive,” Orlando said on Wednesday. “Okay, we gave up a play. Let’s not all panic. Okay guys, listen — we’re going to win this game. I don’t care what thoughts are in the back of your head from many years ago, whatever it may be, we’re not going to crumble.”
The hope for Orlando is that bouncing back from the early struggles against USC and getting stronger as the game went on will provide a confidence boost to a defense that didn’t perform as well as anticipated through the season’s first nine quarters.
Now it will have to move forward without junior B-backer Malcolm Roach, who is known among his teammates as a player who can help lighten the mood before games. He’s also capable of being one of the most disruptive players for the defense, but he’ll miss the next six to eight weeks after fracturing his foot against the Trojans.
Stepping up in Roach’s place is fellow junior Jeffrey McCulloch, a former top recruit who is still trying to completely find his footing in the college game. Against USC, he did flash with a tackle for loss, his first since the Baylor game last season.
“Jeff stepped up and did some decent things,” Orlando said. “We’ve just got to work on some of the things fundamentally — and I’ve talked to him about it, you know — pad level and things like that. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in Jeff and if we have to go to the Lightning world, we’ll go to the Lightning world.”
The loss of freshman BJ Foster for the first half against TCU due to a targeting penalty against USC could impact that calculus, though redshirt sophomore Chris Brown stepped up as soon as Foster left the field by quickly recording the first sack of his career.
Sending Brown on that blitz was emblematic of Orlando really dialing up his pressure packages against USC for the first time this season, which helped lead to 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, along with four quarterback hurries.
Will the Longhorns defensive coordinator employ a similar strategy against the Horned Frogs and sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson, who can be erratic at times, but also possesses good escapability?
Orlando wasn’t willing to commit to those tactics — he’s worried about TCU being able to get the ball onto the perimeter and then attack lesser numbers with skill position players like Jalen Raegor and KaVontae Turpin, both big-play threats who can take any touch to the house.
In terms of speed, Orlando believes that there’s enough on the Longhorns defense to run with those players, but he’s concerned about “the twitch and the quickness” of the Horned Frogs and whether his defense can tackle effectively in space.
“They’re dynamic and they’re really, really quick, so we’ve got to beat them by running to the football,” Orlando said. “We’re going to miss tackles, no doubt about it, but we’ve got to take a lot of pride in swarming the ball carrier, because it’s going to be really hard for one guy to tackle these guys all day.”
One key will be trying to get the Horned Frogs into long down and distance situations by creating negative plays or incompletions and then perhaps simply allowing senior defensive ends Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager to line up as pass rushers instead of doing the dirty work pinched inside. Omenihu took advantage of an opportunity on Saturday with his first sack of the season and Orlando said that he thinks Hager is close to breaking through.
“Are there some things that I would like to see him finish? Yes, but there’s no one that is harder on himself than Breckyn Hager,” Orlando said. “Breck would like to lead the country in sacks right now and he’s coming up a little short on them. He’s getting frustrated, so to me he knows what he has to do... In my opinion, he’s doing his job and the plays will come to him.”
Regardless of how well Hager plays, the concern is that Robinson can extend plays and scramble to pick up key yardage, so the defensive linemen and any players who are stunting or blitzing will have to maintain pass rush lane integrity to keep Robinson contained.
Last year, the defense wasn’t able to accomplish that task, as Kenny Hill converted four third downs with his legs. In those key moments, the Longhorns weren’t able to get off the field as those plays deflated the defense mentally and hurt overall field position for a struggling offense.
The defense could also use some game-changing plays against TCU. Against USC, senior cornerback Kris Boyd made up for his dropped interception in the season opener by pulling a 50-50 ball away from rising freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Orlando credited Boyd’s determination to make up for that play after taking the drop personally, along with the work of cornerbacks coach Jason Washington, who has gotten Boyd to be more “thorough, disciplined, and fundamental.” Aside from the dropped interception and a key holding penalty against Maryland, Boyd has improved his consistency and played the most complete football of his career as a senior. Opposing teams haven’t even thrown at him much.
The area where the Longhorns really stepped up against the Trojans was at inside linebacker. Senior Gary Johnson missed much of the game against Maryland, while fellow senior Anthony Wheeler missed the first half of that game and a significant portion of the Tulsa game after getting banged up.
Johnson finally broke through with four tackles for loss and Wheeler contributed five tackles and a half tackle for loss, as well.
Orlando likes to say that the defense runs through those two inside linebackers — as well as the safeties — so getting a high level of play from that position is key to the entire defense. And though there were more pressure packages used in the game, it wasn’t the scheme that produced better play from Johnson and Wheeler, it was a combination of several other factors.
“I think they took it personal,” Orlando said. “I mean, I called them out a little bit here in terms of telling people that we need to play better... A little bit of scheme, but to me more personal pride of those two guys saying, ‘We’ve got to pick it up.’”
Of course, Orlando also likes to say that if the three players up front don’t play well, then there’s no chance of the overall defense playing well. So when Johnson received Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors, Orlando said you can tear that award up into four pieces and give a piece to Omenihu, Hager, and nose tackle Chris Nelson.
Nelson, in particular, is key to keeping the undersized Johnson from having to deal with blockers at the second level, freeing him up to do what he does best — slice into the backfield and use his elite speed to close on quarterbacks and running backs to inflict negative plays.
Overall, though, the way that Johnson and Wheeler helped control the running game made Orlando’s job easier, he said, as Texas was able to go to the Lightning package midway through the third quarter. In doing that, the Horns were able to play pass defense and blitz more.
A similar scenario coming to fruition on Saturday seems unlikely, especially if the Longhorns allow a touchdown or two in the first quarter. Some of the ingredients for success remain the same — producing a big turnover or two and the inside linebackers playing at a high level — while Robinson will test the defense with his legs in a way that JT Daniels did not.
Given the struggles last season against dual-threat quarterbacks, and even against Tulsa, whether or not Texas can keep Robinson from hurting the Horns outside of the pocket will have potential ramifications that go well beyond Saturday’s game.