AUSTIN, Texas — For Todd Orlando and the Texas Longhorns defense, there hasn’t been much to smile about, especially as injuries have ravaged the secondary for weeks.
On Wednesday, however, a smile briefly creased Orlando’s face while discussing the players now practicing and in position to return to the field on Saturday against Kansas State — senior linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, sophomore safety Caden Sterns, sophomore safety BJ Foster, and sophomore safety DeMarvion Overshown. Sophomore cornerback Jalen Green is also back on the depth chart after appearing in limited action against TCU.
Since the season’s second game, Orlando has tried to stop the domino effects caused by losing key contributors from a defense already hamstrung by inexperience — the need to simplify schemes to avoid confusion, the lack of trust caused by struggles. More than anything else, the biggest emphasis with all the injuries was not completely blowing coverages.
Now, Orlando can benefit from the positive feedback loop created by the returning experience, even if most of them are still youthful, that helps improve play across the board.
“When you have experience and you have guys that really understand the package, you go out there and they make stuff right,” Orlando said. “Really, at the end of the day, you can take a guy like Caden [Sterns], he’s a good example of a guy who can make other guys better around him — a handful of guys better around him.”
After trying to find the balance between adjusting game plans to limit opponent’s strengths without overloading the backups pressed into action by injuries, Orlando can enter Saturday’s game without having to worry about the basics falling apart.
“There’s certain things — there are adjustments off of whatever an offense does and with younger guys you’re always worried about how much you can give them, because nothing in our league stays stagnant,” Orlando said.
“There’s always a handful of things you worry about, but when you give it to a vet, the vet can make guys right. And the biggest thing is, we’ve still got guys at the second level who still need communication even for as much as they’ve played, but to have somebody bark stuff out, you’re going out on the field and you’re not worried about all that stuff.”
Orlando continued by emphasizing the impact that having more experienced players back at practice has on other younger players who are still trying to develop their own practice habits.
There are still plenty of problems to solve, however — Orlando didn’t go on the road recruiting during the bye week so he could hold a meeting with the defense to discuss issues on third down, particularly third and long. He believes the hit rate for opponents in those down-and-distance situations should be under 20 percent.
Instead, for Texas this season, opponents are converting at a 31-percent rate. Overall, the Longhorns are stopping opponents on 41.4 percent of third downs this season — actually an improvement over 2018 — but still ranks No. 89 nationally.
The result is that Orlando believes that in every game, the Longhorns have allowed four or five extra points simply due to the inability to get off the field on third and long.
Orlando addressed multiple other issues during his media availability.
Texas is last in the Big 12 in sacks, for instance, but Orlando believes that the issues are on the back end as much as the front end — the secondary simply isn’t covering long enough to allow pass rushers from the three-man front or blitzers to get home.
“It’s a collection of having some younger guys in the back end, so it’s a little bit of the schematic part of it,” Orlando said. “Then it is a little bit of covering enough that we can allow our guys to get there, too. It just seems like the throw time, and this is not going to be any different than this week, the throw times are like 2.0 [seconds], because we chart all that stuff.”
In Orlando’s belief, quarterbacks have enough confidence against the Longhorns that they’re willing to throw down the field into coverage — in games against the Jayhawks and Horned Frogs, Carter Stanley and Max Duggan were able to find small windows even though Texas defenders were in good position.
“We’ve had situations where we had guys on top of guys, and they’re just throwing it,” Orlando said.
And that’s where the Longhorns secondary needs to demonstrate some ability to play the ball in the air. Several weeks ago, Orlando said that he sees it in practice, but believes that the young players are getting panicky on the field during games.
To be sure, it’s a difficult balance to strike when deciding whether to play through the hands of a wide receiver when the ball arrives or turn and try to play the football in the air. Even a multi-year starter like Kris Boyd, who is now an NFL cornerback struggled with those decisions — he tended to consistently make the wrong choice.
Getting Sterns and Foster back should help serve as a deterrent, as both have proven ball skills, especially Sterns, who last season tied the freshman Texas record set by Earl Thomas with five interceptions. If quarterbacks feel less comfortable making those throws into coverage, then they might start hanging onto the ball long enough for the pass rush to get there. Or the Horns will have more opportunities to come up with interceptions.
The difference in being able to record a sack and opposing quarterbacks bombing throws down the field into the coverage or to open receivers is an extra second. Wonder why those blitzes from distance look so terrible so frequently? Because the secondary is allowing open windows 33-percent faster than it should. In a game that happens in quick, intense flashes of action, that extra second might as well be an eternity.
Forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the football for that extra second sometimes relies on ensuring that they don’t know what coverage they’re looking at. So when those quarterbacks are going against an inexperienced defense populated by backups in the secondary, it’s difficult for Orlando to run enough coverages effectively or even disguise them to the extent that opposing quarterbacks are kept guessing.
The extensive use of look-back calls and dummy counts that force young defenders to show whether they are blitzing or dropping into coverage only complicates things for defensive coordinators in the Big 12. As Orlando mentioned, an inexperienced safety group featuring third- and fourth-string players simply can’t handle a high number of responses to pre-snap movement, which simplifies reads for opposing quarterbacks.
In the Sugar Bowl, by contrast, Texas installed sub-packages that featured a position-less defense and simulated pressure. Georgia’s lack of offensive game plan and consistent substitutions made things easier for Orlando, but the Texas defensive coordinator also said that he didn’t think those sub-packages are impossible to use in the Big 12.
“To me, it’s about your personnel,” Orlando said. “To me, at the end of the day, for us, is are those sub-packages going to utility guys? So, you might take your third corner, you might take your third linebacker, but what if your third corner is your starting corner?”
As the Longhorns get more players back from injury, Orlando will have more opportunities to use sub-packages like the Cowboy look employed earlier in the season.
The absence of the two best blitzers in the secondary — Foster and Overshown — has also limited Orlando, especially in regards to the effectiveness of the pressures that he chooses to bring. As Orlando put it, those are his hybrid players who can credibly play around the box to diversity the defense again the run and the pass.
“I will say this — we’re getting some of those guys back and it sure makes it easier to go in and do some of the stuff that we’ve done and feel comfortable that if they do something a little bit different, they can figure it out,” Orlando said.
The other frequent topic is the three-man front run by Orlando and other programs across the country, including SEC powerhouses like Alabama and Georgia and the inverted Tampa-2 defense run by Iowa State. Orlando said that hasn’t lost faith in that front — it’s all about better execution.
The time to make changes, Orlando believes, is when the defenders with enough experience to execute those changes come back from injuries.
“What can we play, get better at it, start to figure out an identity with the guys that we were playing with? And now when these guys start to come in, I know what we can do with them,” Orlando said. “If you’re going to change things up, that’s the time to do it, when you have guys out there. You can’t sit there and try to make corrections, ‘Okay, these are the answers to the questions that you got wrong and, guess what, here are the new questions each week.’”
For now, it’s all about executing, whether it’s the three defensive linemen or the group as a whole. After all, the Texas defense has had success under Orlando running the same three-man front and overall scheme that he’s using right now.
“Once again, I will say that when you’re dealing with guys that are learning, that are doing things with it, my experience with things has been to get better at what you’re doing,” Orlando said. “We’ve got to get better at executing, we’ve got to get better at tackling, we’ve got to get better at all the fundamental stuff. And eventually what’s going to end up happening is these kids are going to show up and and play huge.”
So pushing the panic button isn’t the message that Orlando wants to send to his players — an admission that he doesn’t have faith in the scheme that he’s been running.
Perhaps the offseason will bring changes, but for now, Orlando is focused on staying the course, an understandable decision given the incredible youth on his defense and room for improvement within the scheme that he’s already running.