Want a recipe for defensive struggles?
Take a defense that ranked No. 123 in the SP+ returning production metrics, pit it against the No. 15 schedule in defensive opponent adjustment through 10 weeks, according to FEI, then throw in a rash of injuries at linebacker and in the secondary.
Here’s how bad those injuries have been for the Texas Longhorns — eight key contributors, including five starters in the season opener, have missed 20 of 64 total possible games and were injured or limited in 20 others.
In other words, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has gotten 24 healthy games from those key players, only 37.5 percent. Eighteen of those games came in the first three contests — 75 percent.
The chart doesn’t include a stinger suffered by senior safety Brandon Jones against Kansas that caused him to leave the game or a “significant” elbow injury suffered by sophomore linebacker Juwan Mitchell that resulted in him sitting out the first half against the Jayhawks.
Those are the small ones, even though Mitchell’s injury resulted in true freshman David Gbenda starting at linebacker not long after moving back from running back, the position on offense decimated by injuries.
And losing Jones wasn’t exactly ideal as the Longhorns tried to hold on late.
Here’s the perspective, though — defensive coordinator Todd Orlando entered the season after losing eight starters with the No. 123 defense nationally in returning production and has only gotten three combined games of full health from sophomore safety Caden Sterns, sophomore safety BJ Foster, and sophomore cornerback Jalen Green.
Stop and read that sentence again.
If you were told before the season that a defense that lost eight starters would only have those three players available for three games of full health out of 24 possible appearances, would you bet on the Texas defense matching last year’s results?
That’s is an easy question.
The answer is no. Of course not.
All three players were expected to take significant steps forward and serve as the present and future of the Longhorns on defense. Instead, it’s essentially been a lost season so far for all three. Throw sophomore safety DeMarvion Overshown into that mix, too.
With those players missing games or playing through injuries, the next men up also got injured — Overshown, junior safety Chris Brown in the midst of his breakout season, and the team’s most experienced cornerback in junior Josh Thompson.
Thompson entered the season with three career starts.
Stop and think about that.
In the last three games, players from that group of nine players who have suffered injuries this season, which totals 27 possible player games, have only been close to or at full health in one of them. One in 27 — 3.7 percent.
The injuries to Green and Thompson, who had moved from nickel back to cornerback to help with inexperience there, left Texas with a group at cornerback that combined for 50 career tackles and three starts entering the season.
Arguably the most promising player from that group at the moment, sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, played offense last season as a true freshman and has had his own fair share of mistakes.
As a result of all those injuries, the season-opening depth chart against Louisiana Tech at linebacker and in the secondary was decimated by the time the Horns traveled to Fort Worth last week to face the Horned Frogs.
Of the 28 starts entering the season from that entire two-deep chart, senior safety Brandon Jones possessed 23 of them. Third-year safety Montrell Estell (essentially third string) and freshman safety Tyler Owens (not listed) were the only healthy scholarship safeties left on the roster with Jones playing in the nickel. If Orlando had wanted to pull either one during the game, he would have inserted a scholarship cornerback with no experience at one of those positions or a player who arrived at Texas as a walk on.
That’s the result of limited depth caused by a transition class when head coach Tom Herman arrived and a 28-man 2016 class that was cut in half by attrition.
The bottom line is that the Longhorns lost that game and the defense struggled at times, especially in slowing down true freshman quarterback Max Duggan, but go back and look at that final column on the injury report and then consider that Texas held TCU below its season averages in scoring and total offense and well below its season average in rushing yards.
The difference in that game was junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger throwing four interception, the Horned Frogs scoring 13 points off of those interceptions, and Gary Patteron’s defense forcing the Longhorns to kick field goals in the red zone or just outside of it three times.
And Duggan made some good throws to good receivers late in the game, the type of thing that a maturing player who was ranked as the consensus No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the country last season has a tendency to do more often with more game experience.
Even outside of all the injuries, it’s worth wondering how the defense is performing compared to the other 10 defenses that ranked at the bottom of the FBS in returning defensive production this season.
The answer is actually relatively heartening, especially when viewed in context with the injuries.
There are certainly defenses that have performed significantly better than Texas despite losing even more production, like Kentucky and Washington, but it’s also extremely unlikely that either program has suffered the type of injuries that the Longhorns have on defense.
Moreover, Mark Stoops is in his seventh year with the Wildcats, while Chris Petersen is in his sixth season with the Huskies — both coaches have already dealt with the impacts of taking over those jobs. They’ve had enough recruiting classes to build depth on top of depth with their own recruits.
Ultimately, despite the unsatisfying nature of results on the field for Orlando in recent weeks, Texas still ranks as the median defense from that group in SP+ and the No. 4 defense from that group in FEI.
Both unequivocally support the argument that the Texas defense is not one of the worst in the country — in fact, it’s well better than average in FEI, despite all of the injuries.
Is any of this up to the Texas standard? Of course not, and Herman and Orlando and every single one of the leaders on defense have said that publicly and will continue saying it publicly until the group improves or the season ends, whichever comes first.
The bottom line is that no other defense in the country has likely dealt with the same combination of limited returning production and extensive injuries. Feel free to try to find one if you want.
And firing the head coach won’t solve those problems — almost certainly, it would create attrition in the high-quality recruiting classes from the last two years and result in a subpar transition class. Consider that not only premature, but also a recipe for continued mediocrity.
As for Orlando, does it make sense to fire a defensive coordinator whose group ranks, at worst, just outside the bottom third nationally despite the limited returning production and all those injuries and, at best, better than average, especially when compared to the defenses facing similar issues entering the season?
That doesn’t make sense, either.
Sometimes the answer is just patience.