Given the recent trajectory of Texas Longhorns defensive coordinators, Chris Ash’s deflections to start his Wednesday press conference weren’t the most positive sign. He’d just coached in his first Big 12 game as a coordinator, after all.
“Can I ask how many missed tackles you counted?”
“I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer,” Ash responded. “There were too many of them.”
“Was that the most you’ve ever had?”
“Oh, it was a rough day.”
Indeed, it was a rough day for Ash’s defense in Lubbock last Saturday.
Allowing 441 yards wasn’t an exceptionally poor performance in that regard and Texas Tech also scored a touchdown on special teams and another from 10 yards out the play after Texas senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger threw an interception deep in his own territory.
However, the tackling was exceptionally poor — a conservative estimate by Burnt Orange Nation’s Cody Daniel put the number of missed tackles in mid 20s, significantly more than the single-digit missed tackles against UTEP in the season opener.
Most of the missed tackles against the Miners came in the backfield, an area of the field where team speed and pursuit can keep those mistakes from resulting in explosive plays. Against a Red Raiders team that used the quick passing game effectively to get their skill position players the ball in space, the missed tackles did result in explosive plays and touchdowns.
None of those touchdowns loomed larger than the 75-yard run in the fourth quarter by Texas Tech running back SaRodorick Thompson, whose spin move and overall elusiveness made him difficult to contain when he wasn’t running into the Texas defensive line between the tackles.
Several missed tackles here when Thompson appeared corralled in what seemed to be the game-clincher. pic.twitter.com/vXtXxg001k— Joe Cook (@josephcook89) September 28, 2020
On that play, which put Texas Tech up 15 with just over minutes remaining, Thompson broke three tackles near the line of scrimmage before bursting into the open field. It accounted for nearly 65 percent of Tech’s total rushing yards in the game.
With better health in the secondary and Ash’s rugby-style tackling technique, Texas was supposed to improve its tackling this year.
According to Ash, improvement was exactly what showed up on film as the Longhorns prepared for the 2020 season.
“I never would have seen that coming, to be honest with you, from the work that we put in in training camp and the way we tackled in our four scrimmages — I think it was four or five scrimmage opportunities in training camp — and then the way we tackled in game one. I didn’t see that coming,” Ash said.
The Texas Tech players deserve credit — Thompson is hard to bring down and wide receivers TJ Vasher and Erik Ezukanma both provide different challenges. Vasher is 6’6, 215 pounds with remarkable elusiveness for someone his size. Ezukanma is 220 pounds and physical after the catch.
Ash made it clear that he wasn’t going to make excuses, but the limited offseason surely had an impact, too, keeping Texas from holding the 15 allotted spring practices that culminate in a normal year with the high-profile live tackling opportunities provided by the Orange-White game.
In the two weeks leading up to the season opener, head coach Tom Herman’s team also did what most teams around the country do — backing off from live tackling in practice to preserve player health.
The lack of reps clearly hurt the Horns last weekend, as the team was roughly a month removed from regular live tackling in practice.
UTEP wasn’t able to threaten Texas defenders in space, either, providing a season-opening opponent that probably didn’t provide much more resistance than the scout team for the Longhorns.
“It’s about reps — it’s like anything else,” Ash said. “If you haven’t done something for a while, you get rusty with it and how you fix it and clean it takes a lot of reps.”
As Ash evaluates what he could have done better before the season started, the reality now is that the Longhorns will largely have to figure it out during live action on Saturdays. He’s already gone back to the basics with drills in practice in an effort to provide some of those necessary reps away from the consequences of mistakes that lead to touchdowns.
“We’ll get it fixed. I promise you that,” Ash said.
While the tackling issues were a massive disappointment — and helped put Texas in a position to lose a game in which they were heavily favored — there are several other factors that give Ash confidence about the overall direction of the defense.
The first is that the experienced Longhorns secondary hasn’t suffered from the type of assignment mistakes and communication issues that often defined other Texas defenses that struggled during the last decade.
“We’ve had none of that,” Ash said.
The second is that the players remain bought in — Ash doesn’t just feel confident about the culture established by Herman in the nearly four years since he took the job, he feels confident about the culture he’s established defensively since January, a belief buoyed by Herman’s feedback to him.
In the past, “here we go again” moments quickly transitioned into players pointing fingers at each other and assigning blame. In the post-game press conference, redshirt sophomore nose tackle Keondre Coburn pointed to the team’s willingness to remain confident and supportive of each other as a key factor in the comeback. Ash saw a team that recognized mistakes in real time and didn’t need tough coaching on Sunday in film review.
“They didn’t need us to coach them on Sunday off the film — they knew it on Saturday watching it, and they kept trying to coach each other on the sideline, ‘Okay we need to do this better, we need to do that’ using all the coaching points,” Ash said.
Now the tackling needs to translate from practice to games once again like it did against UTEP.