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Chris Ash discusses how Texas DBs are taught to play the football

The Longhorns defensive coordinator explains when defensive backs are taught to turn and play the football and when they’re taught to play through the eyes and hands.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma State Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it takes the form of a contested catch made on a defensive back with their back to the quarterback or a pass interference penalty on an underthrown ball, the scene is all too familiar for Texas Longhorns fans.

Over the last several seasons, Texas defensive backs have seemingly struggled to identify when it’s the correct time to try to turn and play the football in the air or simply play through the eyes and hands of the opposing pass catcher.

As a result, over the last two weeks, defensive coordinator Chris Ash has addressed the topic in his media availabilities.

There are some variations in the “finish rules” that Ash and cornerbacks coach Jay Valai teach to the defensive backs based on whether they’re in man or zone coverage or press versus off coverage.

Generally speaking, though, it’s pretty simple.

“They’re allowed to turn and look for the ball whenever they have vertical control on a wide receiver,” Ash said last week. “If not, then we’re going to play the eyes and the hands of the wide receiver and make sure that we’re in position to always finish every play with the tackle. So if the receiver catches the ball, we want to make sure that we can finish and make the tackle and complete the play.”

So if it seems like the defensive backs this year have mostly been playing through the eyes and hands of opposing pass catchers, it’s partly a result of Ash employing more press-man coverage — because the cornerbacks are more likely to be turning and running with wide receivers rather than affording a cushion and then driving on the football in the air, they’re more likely to be in a trailing position when the ball arrives.

Why doesn’t Ash want his defensive backs turning and trying to find the football if they don’t have vertical control?

The natural inclination for defensive backs is to slow down when they turn to look for the football. Doing that while trailing the opposing wide receiver is a recipe for giving up a big-play touchdown — the defender slows down as they turn and the ball simply gets thrown over their head. At that point, the only thing stopping a touchdown is help from another defender or the ability to catch the receiver from behind.

The challenge for the Texas cornerbacks who are playing more press coverage this season is to use the proper technique to make sure that they can gain vertical control in the first place, consistently make the right decision about whether they have vertical control, and then execute to finish the play. Against Oklahoma State, there were several situations where the defensive back didn’t make properly identify whether they had vertical control or made the right decision, but failed to execute. The result was a handful of pass interference penalties.

“There were a couple situations where we should have located the ball and when you watch the film, they were trying, but there was too much contact at the top,” Ash said. “There was one in particular, a penalty where we didn’t even attempt to turn, the flag was thrown, and it should have been thrown.

“We have to continue to work with our guys on getting control, being on top of the receiver, having vertical control of the receiver, minimizing the amount of contact at the top, and getting their eyes back around to play the ball.”

The reality is that playing press coverage means that cornerbacks trying to gain vertical control of the receiver on underthrown passes are going to result in pass interference penalties. Ash understands that, but it’s his job to try to minimize how frequently that happens.

“Until we clean that up, teams are going to continue to take those shots because they’re banking on it either being completed or DPI,” Ash said. “They’re looking at positive yards, no matter what. When you play press technique on the outside as much as we do, pass interference calls are going to be a part of the game.”

Right now, those mistakes are still happening too frequently. Lost reps during spring practice haven’t helped. And the fact that Texas didn’t specifically recruit cornerbacks well suited to play in press coverage a majority of time hasn’t helped, either.

There is plenty of highly-recruited talented on the roster, though, so what the current group can fix is playing with more consistent technique, especially finishing on deep balls.

“I think our press technique is inconsistent,” Ash said. “I think there are certain plays, certain games, it’s been very good for us. And when the DBs, a corner specifically, stay within their technique and fundamentals and trust it, it’s pretty good.”

One play against Oklahoma State by junior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison illustrated the teaching points for Ash, who called it a “clinic rep” for his best press corner.

“We need to do those things more consistently,” Ash said.

That certainly applies to Jamison, who also had two pass interference penalties in the game.

The biggest improvement in this area could come during the season’s last bye week, which looms after the West Virginia game. Besides creating big plays like interceptions and pass break ups, one important result of more consistent press technique would be fewer opposing quarterbacks throwing into good coverage believing that they will either complete the pass or draw a pass interference penalty.

If the Longhorns can get to that point, then forcing quarterbacks to either hold the ball longer and take a sack or simply throw it away will allow Ash’s unit to go from decent to really good.