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Tom Herman believes secondary issues are ‘fixable’

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For defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, it’s all about how close his group is to making enough plays to win games.

NCAA Football: Texas Orange-White Spring Game John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

The qualifier on the t-shirts worn by the Texas Longhorns secondary before Saturday’s game against the LSU Tigers in Austin was always important, that “original” in front of DBU.

It turned out to be necessary, too, as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow torched the group, which features plenty of youth and inexperience, to the tune of 471 yards and four touchdowns. When Burrow’s highlight reel plays for NFL scouts at the end of the season, the Texas defensive backs will make plenty of appearances.

Through two games, it’s clear that the group still has some growing up to do, especially at the cornerback position, where sophomore Kobe Boyce is holding tenuously onto his starting job despite his early struggles.

On the other side, sophomore Jalen Green has played better than Boyce, but received his own sometimes rude introduction to playing cornerback in a big-time college football game against the Tigers.

Expect Green to improve quickly, however.

“I think Jalen has a chance,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said on Wednesday. “He really does. He’s very, very close. I think it’s going to take just a handful of making some plays, and then all sudden he’s going to really start to believe, then you’re going to see something elite.”

Orlando plans on keeping Green and Boyce in starting roles this weekend when Texas travels to Houston to face Rice at NRG Stadium. So then the focus turns to the question of how concerned the Longhorns are about some of the frustrating early returns in pass defense.

“It’s very fixable,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday. ‘We’ve got talented players that care. Part of it’s not — when you complete passes, it’s not always on the secondary. We had some linebackers that were out of position in underneath coverage as well.”

For sophomore Joseph Ossai, that means that despite his two interceptions on tipped passes and another that he returned for a touchdown against Louisiana Tech called back for penalty, there’s still room for growth for him as he adjusts to playing more frequently at Rover instead of just B-backer, where he played last season.

Expect him to improve quickly due to his combination of football intelligence, athleticism, and dedication.

Herman also praised the quarterback that he recruited out of high school when he was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State.

“And let’s not discount the fact that Joe Burrow had about as good of a game as I — he threw the ball in spots and in places with the amount of accuracy, it was something to see,” Herman said. “We gotta do better, though. We’re going to face really good receivers and really good quarterbacks in this league.

“We’re also not ready to sound all the alarms just set, knowing the caliber of what we just played and knowing that the improvements are not — like you said, they’re certainly fixable.”

Herman couldn’t recall how many missed tackles the Longhorns had against the Tigers, but wasn’t worried about that aspect of his defense moving forward, either.

“You’re going to miss tackles against elite athletes,” Herman said. “As long as we’re running to the football — you’re always going to get better at tackling, so yes, it is a concern, but nobody that has ever played defense has never missed a tackle. So you’re going to miss tackles, but are your other ten guys running with their hair on fire to get there to have your back? I did see that on Saturday night.”

Similarly, Orlando praised his defense’s effort, too, while pointing out how thin the margins are at times between making a play and getting there a little bit too late.

“I say what can we do to help some of these guys out? But then when you watch the film for the 20th time, and you say to yourself, man, this guy’s an arm’s length away from making this play, he’s really close to doing it,” Orlando said.

“There are a lot of positives.”

Orlando also understands that fans often get caught up in statistics, like early national rankings in passing yards allowed, but the Texas defensive coordinator reiterated that he views Saturday’s game from the perspective of how close the Longhorns are to having success.

“You really dissect the game itself, and there’s just a handful of critical plays that if we come up with, or we get our hand on one, or we get off the field on third down. Even look at 3rd and 17 — we’re just inches away from getting our offense another possession.”

Unfortunately, the hamstring injury suffered by sophomore BJ Foster will keep one of the team’s best blitzers and overall defenders out at least a couple of weeks, forcing junior Josh Thompson into the starting lineup and requiring a replacement at the Joker position as well.

“DeMarvion would be the likely candidate,” Herman said. “The good thing is that’s by far our deepest position on the team. With Chris Brown playing as well as he has, Josh Thompson has played a lot of football and DeMarvion. B.J. was playing a lot for a reason, but there is certainly some good options in that room.”

Texas can use senior safety Brandon Jones at the nickel, too. He’s listed as Thompson’s backup there and Orlando is impressed with his work at the position, so don’t be surprised if he ends up seeing substantial playing time there against Oklahoma State. The safeties just won’t get nearly as much run overall against Rice due to the heavy personnel packages preferred by the Owls.

Even Foster has areas where he can continue to improve when he returns — it’s easy to forget that he’s still a true sophomore early in his second season of college football since he’s already played so much and so well at times.

The same is true for fellow true sophomore Caden Sterns — as evidenced by the mistakes that Sterns made on 3rd and 17 against LSU, he has areas to clean up as well.

The bottom line is that Texas lost three senior cornerbacks from last season who had played in a ton of games for the Longhorns. Burrow was sensational, even though, as Orlando noted, the Texas defense got him to the ground about 15 times in the game, including some hard hits. And Burrow never flinched while running an offense that uses some NFL spacing concepts that the Horns don’t really see in the Big 12.

In other words, Texas will only face one other offense as good as LSU’s attack this season, is unlikely to face a quarterback who plays a game at such a high percentage of his overall capacity, and will likely improve simply through experience.

Until that significant improvement happens, though, the whole DBU thing really needs that qualifier.