On Wednesday, Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando met with the media to discuss the state of his group with the season opener against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs looming on Saturday evening.
One of the most surprising developments during preseason camp was the emergence of sophomore cornerback Kobe Boyce, who struggled last season in his appearances.
“Yeah, he’s playing with a lot more confidence,” Orlando said. “I think beforehand there was a little bit of uncertainty, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the kid, I just think that he had some people in front of him and that’s kind of always been his role.
“But now we’ve put him in the spotlight and I think if you can go out and, in my opinion, cover the guys we have on the offensive side of the ball, and do that consistently, that gives you some confidence. I like how he attacks the football, he’s very athletic, he’s long, and he can make plays. So excited to watch him play.”
While Boyce is still a co-starter with sophomore D’Shawn Jamison, who moved back to defense in the spring after spending last season on offense, sophomore Jalen Green has taken control of the boundary position.
Green has gained confidence with increased repetitions and gotten better at finding the football — he’s tall enough and long enough to go up and contest passes with guys who are 6’6, 6’7, and have excellent ball skills.
He also has the right mentality for the position.
“Well, I think he’s pretty calm,” Orlando said. “I don’t see Jalen get rattled a lot. I think he’s even-keeled and I think that’s part of the position that you kind of need to be. There are times where he’ll make great plays and he’ll get up and he’ll celebrate, but then he’ll let it go. So that’s a good trait to have as a corner — somebody not too high and not too low. Stay in between and keep playing.”
The calmness helps Green overcome one of the major challenges that playing cornerback presents.
“That position is so much about confidence and then letting plays go that maybe you get beat on and moving on to the next one,” Orlando said. “So both of those guys have had great camps, excited to watch them play.”
On the depth chart, sophomore Anthony Cook, a one-time five-star prospect before his stock fell late in the recruiting process, is the back up to Green. Considering the technical savvy that Cook brought with him to campus, that’s a disappointment after a disappointing preseason camp for Cook. Missing time during the spring the last two years due to injury has surely set Cook back a bit, as Orlando pointed to consistency as his biggest issue.
It’s a mental thing for Cook — Orlando referenced the need for Cook to put bad plays behind him, a process that he tries to aid by taking the blame, saying that the coordinator has to do more to help him.
Right now, that’s about compartmentalization and a durable confidence for the young cornerback.
“To me, he’s a super talented guy,” Orlando said. “But that position can be a little bit lonely at times, so if you do give up one, it’s fine. Move on to the next one. We’re all going to make mistakes, myself included. Let it go. Like we say around here, ‘If you go 0-1, just don’t go 0-2.’”
Still, even though Cook was out-competed during preseason camp, Orlando said that all four cornerbacks competing for those two starting jobs performed well in practice. So it might be worthwhile to frame Cook’s seeming failure as playing well, but just not well enough. If that turns out to be the case based on what those players put on film this Saturday, that would be tremendously good news for that young position room.
At the other position of major concern on defense, Orlando believes that the linebackers have sorted themselves out, as evidenced by the depth chart. There will be some rotation during the Louisiana Tech at the Mac position between redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye, who was slowed by a knee injury last season, and sophomore junior college transfer Juwan Mitchell, the final addition to the 2019 recruiting class.
The rest of the linebackers on the depth chart will play against the Bulldogs, but it will most likely be on special teams rather than rotating through at Mac or Rover.
Originally committed to Minnesota as a member of the 2021 recruiting class, Mitchell signed with Rutgers out of high school, but was fully qualified at Butler CC as a member of the 2020 class when Texas started recruiting him following the spinal stenosis diagnosis for freshman linebacker De’Gabriel Floyd.
So Mitchell was recruited to come in and make an immediate impact and he’s done that so far despite arriving during the summer, eventually emerging as a co-starter with Adeoye when Texas released its first depth chart of the 2019 season on Monday.
“He’s physical and instinctive,” Orlando said of Mitchell. “Very proud of him how quickly he picked up this package because there’s a lot of stuff going on — he came in here and he learned it. He has very good vision and that’s one thing that has really impressed me. Instincts and vision will help you and now it’s to get with Yance [Yancy McKnight] — that’s the next phase of this thing because he only had a month or so when he got here to work with Coach McKnight and his staff, so we feel like he’s going to get better athletically, which is going to make him a better ballplayer.”
Since Texas still isn’t where it wants to be from a recruiting standpoint at linebacker and has recruited so well at Texas, Orlando has worked to find ways to get those players on the field — describing it as a need, in fact. Putting six, seven, or eight defensive backs on the field isn’t necessarily a new sub package, but how much the Longhorns can use it will depend some on match ups, but most likely Orlando will call it on long down-and-distance plays against opponents that allow substitutions, though the Texas defensive coordinator was understandably coy about details.
“It’s difficult to sit here — and like I said, it’s a lot of protection of the program and protection of the stuff we’re doing — but as I told you guys beforehand, there are going to be situations where we get our best playmakers on the field,” Orlando said.
Along the defensive line, the youngest standout is freshman T’Vondre Sweat, who will play on Saturday, according to head coach Tom Herman. Sweat has impressed Orlando with his athleticism, twitchiness, physicality, and length, but the staff wants him to redistribute some of his weight — the Huntsville product is currently listed at 320 pounds.
The most impressive thing about Sweat is that he made an impact early in preseason camp and then never let up, eventually becoming the back up to junior Ta’Quon Graham at one defensive end position.
“I know this part of it — he popped for Herm early on in camp,” Orlando said. “Anyone can be good in the first week of fall camp, but Herman was on that quick, like, ‘Hey, we need to see this guy a lot more.’ As we got him in more and more, he’s really performed well. You’re going to see a lot of him on Saturday.”
On the back end, at safety, some of the defense’s best leadership comes from the top players at that position — Orlando said that young players often come in and think they can be successful just by showing up for practice and meetings and then going home. Jones and Sterns, though, lead by example by showing up at the facility before anyone else to make sure their bodies are right on off days and are always the first players in the meeting room.
For young players who are “looking for habits,” in the words of Orlando, that helps those players establish their own routines that eventually start to look more and more like the routines of players like Jones and Sterns.
To get on the field, though, the young players have to prove their physicality in practice — as Orlando likes to say, the effort is non-negotiable, so the final step is to demonstrate to the coaches and to their teammates that they can go out and assert their dominance on the field.
For sophomores like B-backer Joseph Ossai and cornerback Jalen Green, they’re eager to prove themselves to their coaches every day to earn major playing time this season.
Now the question is how all of those young players on defense will respond against Louisiana Tech when they’re faced with some adversity.
“We can’t simulate 100,000 people,” Orlando said. “We can’t simulate somebody in the stands yelling at them. We can’t do that, but we can make practices pretty difficult in terms of the expectation of performance.”
Then, on game day, the coaches tell the players, “If bad stuff happens, let it go. We’re with you. You’ve earned the right to be on this field, so don’t think about the negative part of this, be completely positive because you’ve really earned the right to fail because of all the stuff that put you in a position to be a starter. So go out there and play free — put your foot in the ground and just play.”