For most of the 2019 season, the biggest struggles for the Texas Longhorns came on the defensive side of the ball.
Todd Orlando’s unit gave up more yards than any other defense in school history, edging out Orlando’s 2018 unit by 110 yards, in spite of playing one fewer game. The unit dealt with injury issues, relying on untested players in key moments in games, but the Longhorns clearly needed a change after its two worst defensive years in school history.
With just a few weeks to make a schematic shift in the defense, what questions do we need answered before the season opener for Texas?
1. How much will the pass rush improve with the shift to a four-man front?
Under Orlando, the defense relied on blitzing to generate a pass rush and come up with sacks when opposing quarterbacks dropped back to pass. While it worked occasionally, LSU’s game-winning touchdown in Week 2 of 2019 served as evidence of the problems that arise if the timing is off or the blitz gets picked up. As Texas changes from Orlando to Ash, the defense changes from a 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 to a 4-2-5 with the fourth lineman serving as a hybrid end/linebacker.
Keondre Coburn and T’Vondre Sweat clogging the middle, likely requiring two blockers, creates an imbalance for which opposing offenses will have to compensate. Joseph Ossai is already penciled in at the hybrid Jack position, increasing that imbalance and may require offenses to keep a tight end, running back, or both out of passing routes to compensate. The combination of personnel and scheme will likely tip the scales for the Texas defense, alleviating much of the pressure faced a year ago. Then there’s TaQuon Graham, who quietly finished second on the team in tackles for loss last year with 12. Can he create more disruption playing in a gap at the three technique defensive tackle position instead of heads up on an offensive tackle?
2. Who are the best linebackers?
It seems like a strange question to ask, since all three of starting linebackers from a season ago are returning, but the group may not be as solidified as it seems.
Juwan Mitchell started six games last year and could play at Will or Mike, but Texas still pursued Arizona graduate transfer Tony Fields II. It may be a move for depth, but a graduate transfer doesn’t likely pick a team that doesn’t have legitimate competition for the starting position. Also in the mix is David Gbenda, who played in four games and started one as a true freshman before taking a redshirt.
Ayodele Adeoye also returns after starting 10 games as a redshirt freshman and finishing fifth on the team in tackles with 45. A pure Mike, Ayodele is likely to compete with Mitchell for the starting job inside.
The big offseason move at the position was spinning DeMarvion Overshown down from safety to linebacker, adding speed and depth at the Will position. As long as Overshown can keep from getting washed out too much at the second level, his range at the position could bring a needed dynamic element to the position.
3. What will be the cornerback rotation?
This question stems from a good problem to have — Texas has a lot of talented cornerbacks on the 2020 roster. D’Shawn Jamison, Josh Thompson, Jalen Green, Kenyatta Watson, II and Anthony Cook all come back to the team after seeing their fair share of action last year. Cook will likely be in the mix for the Spur position, the nickel back position in Ash’s system, leaving four players with experience and talent to fill those two spots.
That’s not a problem to solve in a conference like the Big 12, with your corners chasing down some of the best wide receivers in the country play after play. So as Texas starts fall camp, the question really is “who are the first to on the field?” and “who are the guys you want on the field when the game hangs in the balance?” If the ability matches the billing, Texas will likely be fine with any combination that shakes out.
Of note is that Ash’s press-man quarters system requires a different skill set than Orlando’s preference of playing more consistent off coverage — the cornerbacks not only have to get physical at the line of scrimmage, they also have to be able to turn and run with receivers, a development that bodes well for Jamison and Thompson and not so well for Cook and Green.
4. Can Caden Sterns return to his freshman form?
As a true freshman, Sterns proved why he was one of the most coveted recruits in his class. He tied for second in the conference with four interceptions — a mark that also tied the school freshman record held by Earl Thomas — but missed four games of his sophomore campaign due to injury and never was fully healthy. Despite the injury, Sterns was highly productive for the Longhorns, finishing the year as the team’s third-leading tackler with 58, as well as with four tackles for loss and one broken up pass.
Sterns earned his nickname as the Wolf of DKR in 2018 as he prowled the back end of the defense, proving opportunistic when opposing quarterbacks made mistakes. As one of the biggest playmakers returning to a defense that sorely needs playmakers, Sterns will be paramount in that role. If he can recapture the sheer playmaking ability from his first year on campus, the Texas secondary will be better for it and Sterns could fulfill some of the post-2020 NFL Draft projections as a future first round pick next spring.
5. Where will BJ Foster fit?
Foster was the second of the crown jewels in the 2018 recruiting class and has done his best to make an impact as well. Over his two seasons on campus, he appeared in 22 of the possible 27 games, starting 13 of them. He’s been a bit of a multi-tool for the defense, starting seven games a nickel in 2019, as the defense switched Brandon Jones between safety and nickel. He’s been able to produce wherever he landed, but 2020 will likely force the coaching staff to pick where they want him to play.
At his best as a freshman playing closer to the ball, Foster may have to transition to playing in space as a deeper safety, meaning that he’ll need to improve his ball skills and overall technique against the pass playing next to Sterns. Since Ash is going a different direction at Spur, Foster will have to earn the job over Chris Brown, a less-regarded recruit but more proven contributor in the role for which they’re competing.