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Defensive front improvement bodes well for Texas this season

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In 2018, the Longhorns struggled on third downs, but winning the running downs at the point of attack should help tremendously in that regard.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — By the end of the 2018 season, Texas Longhorns coordinator Todd Orlando sounded like a broken record. Every Wednesday evening, he walked into his weekly media availability and talked about how his defense needed to get off the field, particularly referencing the cratering of the team’s third-down defense, which fell from No.3 nationally at 27.1 percent in 2017 to No. 109 nationally at 44.3 percent.

Predictable blitz packages were partly to blame, but a deeper dive into the numbers revealed that a lot of the issues were the increased prevalence of conversions on 3rd and 6 or less and fourth downs.

Texas D 2017 versus 2018

Texas D 2017 attempts 2017 conversions Rate 2018 attempts 2018 conversions Rate
Texas D 2017 attempts 2017 conversions Rate 2018 attempts 2018 conversions Rate
3rd 1-3 (run) 34 11 32.4 45 25 55.5
(pass) 13 7 53.8 23 12 52.7
3rd 4-6 (run) 18 6 33.3 13 9 69.2
(pass) 35 9 25.7 35 19 54.3
4th down (run) 7 2 28.6 13 5 38.5
(pass) 13 4 30.8 9 6 66.7
Total 120 39 34.1 138 76 56.15

The Texas defense faced those situations only 18 more times in 2018 compared to Orlando’s first season on the Forty Acres, but allowed 37 more conversions, almost doubling the number of total conversions from 2017 to 2018.

To put it frankly, the Longhorns were poor in those situations last season, especially against the run on third and short.

For Orlando, the hope is that improvements along his defensive line will make the difference this season.

“I think we’ve gotten so much better up there and [Keondre] Coburn is a guy I talked to you guys beforehand that’s given us some extra stuff in there and his ability it clog up,” Orlando told Burnt Orange Nation on Wednesday. “I thought Malcolm played really, really well, I did. Like we would expect a captain, a leader to play.

“So when those guys can penetrate gaps and make plays — I think Jeff [McCulloch] and Joe [Ossai] were really good inside — it alleviates a little of the calling from us, where it’s not, ‘Hey, those guys are getting seven, eight yards a run, so we’ve got to load up the box.’ We can actually play some coverage and try to help out the guys in the back end.”

In addition to some predictable calls from Orlando last season, then, there were some deficiencies in the defensive front that made things more difficult, forcing Orlando to commit more resources to stopping the run.

Breckyn Hager, for instance, was a team captain and a player who unquestionably loved the program deeply, but his productivity dropped even before he tried to play through an elbow injury that severely limited him late in the season and resulted in Oklahoma’s Cody Ford abusing him in ways that would be criminal in many other settings.

Chris Nelson was another leader on the team, but lacked the pure disruptive ability of Poona Ford. To be sure, Nelson turned in a commendably solid season, he just doesn’t have the mass, twitchiness, or upside of Coburn, who could eventually become a first-round draft pick. Guys who can carry 340 pounds that well and still possess the quickness to be disruptive in the backfield in addition to playing two gaps are just extremely rare.

There was a reason why Orlando was raving about Coburn before the season and continues to sing his praises after his first start.

Even Charles Omenihu lacked some advantages possessed by Roach, notably leverage and mass — Roach is listed as three inches shorter, but 15 pounds heavier, which helps him play with better pad level and anchor more easily with his thick lower body. In fact, Roach had the best run-stop percentage among all Big 12 edge defenders last season even though he missed five games with a broken foot.

Compared to Omenihu, there’s almost certainly going to be a net loss with Roach this season as a pass rusher, but that might not end up mattering that much because Roach can help the defense get into long down-and-distance situations more frequently, which will in turn allow Orlando to deploy his defensive-back heavy Cowboy package. And that package features a handful of players who can get to the quarterback with Roach providing a pass rush from inside.

Overall, it’s notable to look at the pure weight increase across the defensive front.

The starting group this season weighed 930 pounds total, up 90 pounds from last season, which translates to an individual weight increase of 30 pounds on average.

Texas also has more quality depth with the additions of junior college transfer Jacoby Jones and freshman T’Vondre Sweat, who earned significant playing time last weekend at 320 pounds. So a defensive end who just got to campus this summer was playing at a higher weight than last season’s nose tackle.

“It’s huge,” Orlando told Burnt Orange Nation of the weight increase. “It’s huge. When we first got here, those kids weren’t that way. You know, Malcom is running well, I think he’s at 292, somewhere around there. TQ is up there and Coburn is probably three-something-something, so it is a huge deal for us.”

There may be improvement at the second level, too, as sophomore Joseph Ossai grows into a more versatile role that includes time at Rover.

Ossai and McCulloch have notably both made plays in pass coverage — including the Orange-White game and Ossai’s negated interception against Louisiana Tech, the two have combined for four since the Kansas game. Departed starters Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler never intercepted a pass in six combined seasons at Texas. Wheeler never even broke up a pass under Orlando, while Johnson only had two.

Look out for sophomore Juwan Mitchell coming at Mac, as he may be set to displace redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye in matter of weeks due to his instinctiveness, a quality that was notably lacking with the starters last season.

A lot of the talk this week and in previous weeks defensively was about the Cowboy sub package that uses eight defensive backs — the type of shiny object that catches the attention of fans and writers alike — but if Orlando’s group is going to improve this season, particularly on third down, look for the defensive line to play a huge role in that improvement.