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Why the Texas defense is still struggling with a lack of depth

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Attrition, holes in recruiting classes, injuries, and lack of development have all played a role.

Texas v West Virginia Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Three years into the Tom Herman era in Austin, the Texas Longhorns program is seemingly at a crossroads with fan confidence cratering following two losses in the last three games and the narrow victory over the Kansas Jayhawks.

There are now calls for Herman’s job or for changes on the coaching staff during the offseason, with most of the ire currently directed at defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, whose group ranks in the 110s nationally in total defense.

So how did Orlando get to a point where his third season features a defense with so many flaws?

The story starts with the downfall of Charlie Strong and the ripple effects caused by the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes.

The 2016 group closed with a flurry, eventually landing at No. 7 nationally due to numerous National Signing Day additions, including No. 1 safety Brandon Jones, No. 5 outside linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, and a flip by No. 7 outside linebacker Erick Fowler from LSU to Texas.

Then, during the summer, when scandal gripped Baylor and head coach Art Briles was forced out, the Horns inked No. 5 wide receiver Devin Duvernay and No. 2 offensive guard Patrick Hudson, as well as Duvernay’s twin brother Donovan and JP Urquidez.

The issues started with the coaching change from Strong to Herman — attempts to instill a new culture often necessarily leads to transfers. For Strong, it The Purge of 2014 that resulted in double-digit dismissals from the program. For Herman, there was an exodus of players in 2017.

Fowler left. Offensive tackle Jean Delance left. So did defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. Defensive tackle Marcel Southall. Defensive tackle Chris Daniels. Cornerback Eric Cuffee.

Linebacker Demarco Boyd was suspended last year following an arrest for misdemeanor assault and quietly left the team during the offseason.

The departures left Texas thin at every level of the defense — Cuffee was the only cornerback take in the class, McCulloch is now injured after becoming the only remaining linebacker from the group, and neither of the two remaining defensive tackles are contributing this season.

As a result, the roster matrix features critical gaps at linebacker and in the secondary.

In fact, McCulloch’s injury and the injury to junior safety Chris Brown, who was finally making an impact for the first time as a fourth-year player this fall, have left Jones and senior defensive end Malcolm Roach as the only defensive contributors from the 28-man recruiting class split evenly between offensive and defensive players.

Not only did those losses reduce depth, but the absence of players like Elliott and Fowler has hurt the defense’s ability to inflict negative plays — Elliott had eight tackles for loss and three sacks for Missouri last year and has seven tackles for loss and a sack this season, while Fowler had 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks for Sam Houston State in 2018.

And though it isn’t surprising that Donovan Duvernay never became a contributor, not having any cornerbacks from that class has hurt Texas. Some of the recruiting decisions made by Strong and his staff didn’t work out, like waiting to offer Charles Oliver until after he committed to Texas A&M, but it was just a remarkably weak year in the state of Texas for cornerbacks.

Strong also had Southlake Carroll’s Obi Eboh flip to Stanford weeks before National Signing Day and wasn’t able to replace him in the class. Eboh has been a career back up for the Cardinal, so missing on Eboh didn’t turn out to be an especially big deal beyond the fact that the Longhorns could use a fourth-year back up capable of stepping into a starting role due to injuries — that’s exactly what they haven’t gotten from Duvernay.

Eventual attrition in the 2016 class put more pressure on the ensuing recruiting classes, including Herman’s 2017 transition class. The strategic decision in that class to save scholarships for a talented 2018 group that eventually ranked No. 3 nationally was the right choice in the long term, but also contributed to the gaps that are now apparent on the roster matrix.

From a wide-angle standpoint, the biggest harm caused by the transition class was missing on the state’s top prospects, especially on defense. In a normal year with at least a reasonably healthy Texas program, the Horns would have had a shot at landing several of the top five defensive players who ranked among the top eight players in the state.

The state’s top player was defensive tackle Marvin Wilson from Houston, who signed with Florida State. After a breakout sophomore campaign that featured 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, Wilson has 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks this season.

The state’s No. 2 player was South Grand Prairie’s Jeffrey Okudah, now a standout at Ohio State who was ranked No. 1 on the 2020 NFL Draft’s Big Board from CBSSports.com earlier this month.

Texas also missed on linebacker Baron Browning, the No. 3 player who plays with Okudah at Ohio State, and on Texas A&M’s Anthony Hines.

Some decisions also backfired.

The biggest mistake was Texas letting LSU cornerback commit Kary Vincent accompany key outside linebacker target K’Lavon Chaisson on his official visit. While negatively recruiting against the Longhorns on the Forty Acres, Vincent ended up convincing Chaisson to sign with the Tigers after Chaisson looked like a Texas lean at times leading up to National Signing Day.

Herman and his staff also failed to sign a linebacker out of high school in the 2017 recruiting class, so although landing top junior college inside linebacker Gary Johnson was a significant coup, it didn’t solve long-term depth issues.

The most perplexing decision in that regard involves Mohamed Sanogo, a Plano West product who committed to Herman and Orlando at Houston, but signed with Ole Miss after re-opening his recruitment and failing to receive an offer from Texas. A true inside linebacker, Sanago is perhaps a questionable fit in the Big 12, but he was incredibly productive for the Rebels last season, finishing fifth in the SEC with 112 tackles.

So It’s not just the secondary that is thin — including former walk ons, there are 11 scholarship linebackers on the roster, but sophomore Joseph Ossai is the most experienced healthy linebacker on the team after playing sparingly until late last season. He’s being asked to play multiple positions and play through a painful shoulder injury.

Sophomore junior college transfer Juwan Mitchell and redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye are learning on the fly in their first significant college playing time. The only other healthy linebackers who were recruited as scholarship players are redshirt freshman Byron Vaughns and freshman David Gbenda, who was playing running back just weeks ago.

Herman’s assistants also deserve some blame, however — there are players that Texas did sign in the 2017 class who have enough talent to become bigger contributors than they have been, especially in the secondary.

The two main disappointments are cornerback Kobe Boyce and safety Montrell Estell. Both have largely been passed by younger players and have struggled when forced into action. Estell in particular has struggled in coverage even though he’s now in his third season at Texas and was ranked as a consensus four-star prospect and the nation’s No. 11 athlete — he has enough talent to contribute, but he hasn’t converted that talent into consistent production yet.

“I think guys that have been here for two and three years should be able to play man-to-man coverage and quarters coverage,” Herman said last week. “So that’s, the coaches, we need to up hold our end of the bargain in terms of the techniques and the players need to up hold their end by employing those techniques on gameday.”

The rampant injuries in the secondary have forced players like Estell into action, as well as freshman safety Tyler Owens, who struggled in one-on-one coverage against TCU, but have also contributed to other issues on defense as things have spiraled.

“To be quite honest with you, one of our biggest issues right now is there’s some guys that try to do too much and you got to say, ‘Hey, just do your job, just do it the way you’re coached to do it and you got to trust that the other 10 guys that are out there are doing that as well,’” Herman said.

So as the coaching change cratered the 2016 recruiting class, Herman and his staff have been scrambling to fill holes on the roster, but have suffered from poor injury luck at linebacker and in the secondary while compounding those problems with inadequate coaching and the ripple effects of players losing confidence in their teammates.

As a result, it’s clear that the rebuilding job undertaken by Herman has now hit a significant detour. To some extent, that’s understandable — losing eight starters from last season and the early nature of Herman’s rebuilding efforts means a limited margin for error that was fully removed due to injuries.

It’s a truism that progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line, but for a fan base that saw its expectations increase dramatically following the Big 12 Championship game appearance and subsequent Sugar Bowl victory, that’s not good enough.