Since Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman dismissed defensive coordinator Todd Orlando two and a half months ago — and even before, to some extent — it’s become clear just how much defensive line recruits and players disliked the front used by Orlando in his 3-3-5 defense.
Eventual Florida defensive end signee Princely Umanmielen cited the three-man front as one of the reasons why he decommitted from Texas back in October. Bastrop Cedar Creek defensive end Alfred Collins said new defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s even front as a reason why he signed earlier this month.
Among current players, defensive end Ta’Quon Graham was something close to ecstatic about the potential for rushing the quarterback in Ash’s defense following the Alamo Bowl win over Utah.
And now former defensive end Malcolm Roach, as he prepares for the NFL Combine, reflected on how much he would have liked to play in Ash’s scheme and how much he thinks it will benefit the 2020 Longhorns.
“I would have loved to be in a 4-3,” Roach told Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth-Star Telegram. “I think it’s a smart move. You have pass rushers out there, Ta’Quon Graham, Marqez Bimage, Joe Ossai — guys that can get after the quarterback. You have to use those guys. That was the biggest thing that we got caught up in, not using our weapons to our full advantage. Now they brought in a new staff, giving those guys the opportunity to rush the passer and show what they have.”
Herman clearly agrees. After all, he fired Orlando and brought in Ash as an agent of change. The numbers back up that decision, as Texas tied for 66th nationally with 27 sacks in 2019, down five from 2018.
However, although Hill called Orlando’s scheme “gimmicky,” that’s not really true — Baylor and Iowa State both had highly productive defenses in 2019 with similar schemes. Odd-front defenses with nickel and dime packages on the back end are en vogue across college football.
And Charles Omenihu won the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year award in 2018 with 9.5 sacks playing in the same scheme that ultimately limited Orlando’s last defense in Austin.
The real issues went beneath the surface. Orlando lost both of his starting inside linebackers after the 2018 season and both were productive in his scheme. In fact, Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler combined for 10.5 sacks, nearly a third of the team’s total.
Texas also got produced seven sacks from the secondary because the experienced group on the back end was able to cover long enough for those deep blitzes to get home.
In 2019, that all fell apart. Gone was Omenihu, who proved himself capable of producing in Orlando’s scheme. Gone were the inside linebackers who were so effective as blitzers. Gone were the experienced players in the secondary who could force the quarterback to hold the ball for an extra second or two.
Then the injuries and attrition reduced depth at linebacker while inexperienced players tried to fill in, resulting in Orlando moving his best natural pass rusher, B-backer Joseph Ossai, to multiple positions around the field that kept him from attacking downhill. When interim defensive coordinator Craig Naivar finally allowed Ossai to play that role, Ossai produced three of his five sacks in the Alamo Bowl.
Injuries limited the two best blitzers in the secondary — safeties BJ Foster and DeMarvion Overshown — while the inexperienced cornerbacks also struggled with injuries and the baptism by fire in the pass-heavy conference.
The result was a defense that failed to take advantage of the pass-rushing talent of players like Graham, Ossai, and Roach because once the scheme that Orlando spent the offseason developing was no longer effective, it’s extremely difficult to make those changes once the season begins.
However, Orlando was stubborn in keeping his defensive ends playing heads up on opposing offensive tackles instead of giving them early-down opportunities from the five technique like James Lynch enjoyed at Baylor. Playing defensive end Marqez Bimage in a similar role produced better results for Texas late in the season.
Put together, bad luck and some poor choices cost Orlando his job, in no small part because the defensive line wasn’t positioned for success.
Roach believes that the changes will produce better results on the field and better position future defensive lines to make the jump to the next level.
“We understood the reason why we were running what we were running,” Roach said. “That style of play didn’t transfer to the NFL and the NFL didn’t understand what type of player this guy was. Or what type of player they would be getting because of the scheme we ran. I just feel 3-4 didn’t let us showcase our abilities the way we wanted to. But we understood why we were running it. I feel the 4-3 will help those guys to show their talents and more people will come out of Texas.”
[Update 6:01 p.m. Central]: Roach clarified his comments in a Twitter post:
That interview was taken way the wrong way ... I love TO he’s one of the smartest defensive minds I ever played for.. I said I understood why we we’re running what we ran.. that headline is click bate..but I’ll learn how to word things differently so my words can’t be mixed up— HENDRIX ROACH (@Officialmalcr32) February 14, 2020