For Texas Longhorns defensive coordinators, history tends to repeat itself in three-year cycles of failure.
Manny Diaz was fired two games into his third season in 2013 and Vance Bedford was relieved of his duties four games into the 2016 season.
Now, in 2019, the narrative of Todd Orlando’s tenure in Austin, at the least, is hanging on the brink as the Horns struggle in particular to make tackles or otherwise achieve in traditional metrics.
I conservatively counted 21 missed tackles for #Texas vs OU. As a result of those missed tackles the #Longhorns allowed 195 additional yards, along w/ 7 additional first downs & 2 additional TDs. This season vs P5 teams Texas’ defense is now avg over 15 missed tackles per game— Rod Babers (@rodbabers) October 13, 2019
“The answer is, yes, they were glaring,” Herman said of the tackling issues against Oklahoma. “Really good athletes. We’ve got good athletes too that need to be able to tackle better, and we’ve got to teach them how to do that. Even though we weren’t in pads yesterday, did spend a good 10, 15 minutes working — there’s still drills you can do in tackling in terms of angles and leverage and all of that. And we’ll tackle live in practice tomorrow.”
Herman admitted that backing off on tackling following all the injuries in the Oklahoma State game ended up hurting the team.
“Again, so banged up defensively, it was not a great decision on my part, in retrospect, to limit the tackling these last few weeks in practice, and it showed. We’re going to have to find a way to keep our guys healthy but also get some quality reps because we need to improve in that area.”
The injuries aren’t just a factor on the defensive side of the ball, either — ever since the Horns were temporarily decimated by injuries at the running back position, those players have been non-contact in practice. In other words, Texas defenders haven’t tackled a running back in practice since preseason camp.
Stop and think about that for a minute.
Losing so much experience in the secondary hurts, too — Davante Davis made 26 starts over four years, Kris Boyd made 33 starts over four years and had close to 200 career tackles and 40 passes defended, and PJ Locke III had 31 career starts and finished third on the team in tackles last season.
So Brandon Jones was the only returning player among the top five tacklers for Texas last season.
The result of losing eight defensive starters from last season’s team is that the Horns ranked No. 121 in the returning production metric of S&P+. Longhorns fans hated that metric entering the season, but the numbers didn’t just come from nowhere.
Then the injuries hit — the high ankle sprain for sophomore safety Caden Sterns that led to his knee injury, the hamstring injury for sophomore safety BJ Foster and then his stinger, the shoulder sprain that sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai has played through, the fractured foot for junior defensive back Josh Thompson. The shoulder separation for sophomore cornerback Jalen Green. A vertebrae injury suffered by sophomore safety DeMarvion Overshown kept him out for three games. Now the fractured forearm suffered by junior safety Chris Brown.
As a result, two players are now gutting their way through shoulder injuries — Foster was wearing a brace on that shoulder even before his stinger — and other players are learning new positions. Some players are seeing the first extended playing time of their respective careers, like both starting cornerbacks and sophomore safety Montrell Estell.
Should the Horns be able to play through these type of injuries? Sure. Has recruiting in the secondary been historic? No doubt. Do those two realities ensure that Texas can survive so many injuries with a youthful group without some struggles? No. Absolutely not.
On Thursday, Herman reiterated the renewed focus on live tackling in practice.
“We’ve emphasize it more — the old coaching adage is that you get what you emphasize,” he said. “We allowed the rash of injuries to affect the way that we prepare and obviously that showed last Saturday. But I thought our guys had a renewed focus. Put yourself in those guys’ shoes. They know what that looks like and it’s not a good look.
“They were hungry to be coached. Hungry to be taught. We got a lot of good work in this week.”
“It wasn’t one week — it was trying to protect our players. Not near as physical in practice for a couple weeks and, again, I’ve said it maybe in my press conference, said it today on the radio show, first time in a long time I can remember us getting out-physicalled. Call a spade a spade. We were.”
The message that Herman delivered to his team is that nothing matters more than tackling on defense and moving people on offense — freshness is secondary and so is availability.”
Orlando echoed Herman in saying that the missed tackles were glaring. To address the issues, Texas did a lot of live work during practice on Tuesday, often known as “Bloody Tuesdays” under Herman because the practices feature full pads and happen at full speed in an attempt to establish a culture of physicality.
“There are technical things, angle things, like any fundamental or technique, we’re going to rep the heck out of it until it gets resolved,” Orlando said on Wednesday. “I did see flashes at times, I liked the spurts that we had, especially second quarter, third quarter, I thought we stepped up. There was a little bit of a short field where the game could have gotten a little bit out of control, but I didn’t like what we did in the fourth quarter when it was on the line.”
Orlando was explicit in saying that he wasn’t making excuses, but the reality is that Texas is putting significant stress on its players having to learn multiple positions. Any element of hesitance due to a lack of familiarity with the position or scheme tends to contribute to missed tackles.
It’s not a coincidence that the Horns only missed a small number of tackles against the Tigers when healthy and then fell apart against the Sooners playing a number of backups and those two players with shoulder issues.
So some of the veteran players on the team believe that there’s some hesitancy from the young players who are unsure of themselves.
Orlando didn’t outright deny that claim, merely pointing out that the staff is trying to simplify the defense and has been doing so for the last several weeks, while getting back to focusing on the basics.
“It’s a fundamental and technique thing,” Orlando said. “There’s guys that are throwing too early, the quote-unquote gator tackle, going at somebody. If I go to tackle you, and I launch at you from this, I don’t bring much power to you. You’ve literally got to get through a guy. If you throw a little bit too early, and you got a dynamic guy that’s strong in his lower half, he’s gonna break right through that stuff.
“You watch the film, and you critique it to them, it’s all technical. There’s not a kid out in the field that can’t do that. If a guy is so much better of an athlete, or so much stronger, and you’re kidding yourself like it doesn’t matter what this kid does. It’s not that. It’s getting through a near hip. Not running in front of a guy. As you contact, running your feet instead of launching yourself because you don’t get any power that way.
“You put the film on, and the majority of these guys they’ll tell you. It’s not like this is the first day we’re teaching tackling. I mean you come into spring ball, you do it all the time. You come into fall camp, you go through it. But then when it’s live bullets, and you’re going against some good guys, it better be exact. That’s what we want. We want to be exact.”