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Texas defense focused on improving areas of deficiency

With 20 days in between games, the Longhorns have also had a chance to bank some more reps in defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s scheme.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Baylor at Texas Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Chris Ash vowed to fix the team’s tackling problems following an exceptionally poor performance in that regard against the Texas Tech Red Raiders to open Big 12 play, the Longhorns defense has steadily improved from week to week, including in that key area.

As Ash has gained a better understanding of his personnel, he’s made some adjustments to suit the skill set of those players, who have in turn become more consistent as they’ve gotten more comfortable with what Ash is asking them to do on the field.

“It takes 11 players to play good defense and we’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re getting closer, and we’re getting better,” Ash said last week.

After the postponement of last Saturday’s game against Kansas in Lawrence, Ash and his defense received an extra week to emphasize the remaining deficiencies — matching patterns correctly with the inside linebackers, leveraging screens correctly on the perimeter, and finishing better on deep balls at the defensive back position.

Along the defensive line, returning players like senior defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham are working on adapting to Ash’s scheme. Last year, Graham played defensive end, often in the 4i technique favored by Orlando in his tite front. So it’s been an adjustment for the senior, who drew praise from his defensive coordinator for his work ethic on the practice field and in the film room.

“It started just working hand placement and being a more of an attacking player than a read-and-react player,” Ash said. “So he’s had to work on all of those things, as well as pass rush. Pass rush was something that they all needed to improve on and he needed to specifically, but just being able to align in a three technique, have a different visual key, work on his attacking footwork, his blow delivery with his hands. Pass rush taking on double teams is different as a three technique.”

As Ash noted, the contributions along the defensive line don’t always show up in the stat sheet, but Graham does have seven tackles for losses and two sacks this season, as well as the 33-yard fumble return against Oklahoma State that set up a key field goal before halftime.

At the inside linebacker position, junior Mike backer Juwan Mitchell struggled early in the year when he was targeted in coverage on run-pass options — he’s also the main culprit in needing to improve with his pattern matching — while junior Will backer DeMarvion Overshown had to acclimate to his move from safety.

“Yeah, I think we played really well at the inside linebacker position,” Herman said. “There was one game, DeMarvion didn’t have his best game, but of the improvement trajectory of our entire defense, those two guys have continued to get better as they get more comfortable in the system.”

Mitchell ranks second on the team with 46 tackles, including four tackles for loss, and now provides a physical presence at the second level against opposing running games — he’s been an important part of a run defense that has given up only 299 adjusted rushing yards (excluding sacks) at 3.3 yards per carry over the last three games. Since 2010, the 2011 and 2017 season were the only years during which the Longhorns defense performed better against the run in opponent yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Overshown has showcased the range that made him the nation’s No. 52 prospect and No. 6 safety and such a strong candidate to successfully spin down to linebacker. He still needs to add some weight to his 217-pound frame — a project for the offseason — but he’s made plays nonetheless, especially in the passing game. Through seven games, Overshown has broken up six passes and intercepted another, while adding 6.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

At the Spur position, Ash’s version of the nickel, Texas is going through more significant struggles with first-year starter Chris Adimora, a sophomore, and Anthony Cook, a junior who moved from cornerback during the offseason.

“The Spur, we’re rotating for a reason — it has been a bit up and down,” Herman said. “I think both Chris and Anthony have made a ton of plays for us and they’ve had some plays they wish they had back as well. And so that’s going to continue to be a battle.”

If the biggest area for improvement overall at the Spur position is just being more consistent, the more specific area of emphasis since the West Virginia game is how Adimora and Cook leverage wide receiver screens.

Opponents have increasingly targeted the Mike and Spur positions because the defensive front has done such a strong job of making opposing offenses one-dimensional while also taking away most deep throws.

Against Baylor, Charlie Brewer couldn’t challenge Texas vertically and to the outside, so the Bears settled for working over the middle.

West Virginia quickly realized it couldn’t run the football or throw over the top, either, and came out in the second half attacking the perimeter of the Texas defense almost exclusively.

And so while taking away the run and the vertical passing game are significant successes, the next step for Ash and the Longhorns is to leverage those screens better and start taking them away, too. That seems like a more likely bet than Mitchell experiencing a breakthrough in taking the right pass drops and matching patterns correctly — the junior college product simply hasn’t shown a particularly positive trajectory in that area even though it hasn’t cost him playing time with redshirt sophomore backup Ayodele Adeoye sidelined following shoulder surgery and former walk-on Cort Jaquess falling out of the rotation.

Despite the continued areas for improvement — unsurprising for a team in its first year under a new defensive coordinator — Ash is happy with the culture of his defense.

Gains made in defending the run were at least in part the result of players coming before practice to spend extra time with their run fits. They stay late to work on technique and fundamentals. They pursue the ball with effort.

“Those cultural things are what lead you to success way sooner than any scheme will,” Ash said.