AUSTIN, Texas — Chris Ash is happy about the progress of his defense.
Set to participate in the third and final scrimmage of preseason camp on Saturday, the new Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator spoke with the media on Wednesday and told reporters that his group is ahead of schedule despite not going through spring practice.
“I can tell you right now where we’re at today — I’m very pleased and pleasantly surprised that we are, further along than what I thought we would have been. And that’s a credit to the players,” Ash said.
“They have bought into what we’re doing, they’ve spent an insane amount of time on their learning what we’re asking them to do. They did a lot of work on their own in the summer, leading up to the time that we could get our hands on them with the NCAA rules the way they were, so there’s a lot to the players for me to say that we’re further along than I thought we would be due to some of the challenges.”
One of those challenges was an almost entirely new defensive staff forming relationships with the players in their position room in a virtual environment.
More significant challenges to overcome will be more apparent on the field when the Longhorns open the season — tackling effectively and playing fast and without hesitation in the new scheme.
“Our tackling system and style is different than what they’ve been used to and without any invested reps during spring that was a concern, but I feel pretty good about where we’re at right now,” Ash said.
Ash worked with Herman to devise more one-on-one tackling drills as the coaches sought to minimize the amount of hitting in practice to keep players healthy, especially since the time away from campus during the early months of the pandemic impacted the team’s overall fitness level.
“I think the biggest thing was the players understanding what we were asking them to do in the different type of tackling situations that we’re going to see, and that they understand it,” Ash said. “They can watch film if they miss a tackle. They don’t need me to tell them why they missed it — they understand the fundamentals of it now.”
Most of that learning happened remotely in an unprecedented situation for the coaches and the players. But it’s worked out well so far.
“Have we mastered it? No, we haven’t,” the Texas defensive coordinator continued. “But I know this — in the few scrimmages that we have had, the way we tackle is showing up all over the film. Hopefully that continues as we get into games.”
After former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando wasn’t able to produce a high level of fundamental play last season, head coach Tom Herman turned over every one of his defensive assistants except for defensive line coach Oscar Giles.
Enter Ash, defensive line coach Mark Hagen, linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler, and cornerbacks coach Jay Valai.
Since arriving in Austin, Ash has focused on producing a defense that executes, plays hard, runs to the ball, and creates takeaways.
If all that sounds like coach speak, that’s because it is, but Ash plans to achieve those goals in different ways than Orlando.
Instead of relying on linebackers and defensive backs to blitz and produce pressure, Ash will play with more four-down fronts and allow the defensive ends to play off the edges and the three-technique defensive tackle to play gaps. The key edge player will be Jack linebacker Joseph Ossai, who will spend more time at the line of scrimmage in his hybrid role.
“We’re going to expect him to make a lot of plays — he’s a guy we’re going to lean on both in the run game and in the pass game, but I think he’s got a big-play potential,” Ash said of Ossai. “There’s a lot of work that he still needs to get done before the foot hits the ball against UTEP, but I like where he’s at. And he really likes what we’re doing with him up front.”
With Ossai playing at the point of attack and the defensive linemen playing a more attacking style, Ash wants quarterbacks to feel pressure as quickly as possible, a difficult task under Orlando since the defensive line was reacting to hold gaps to allow blitzers to come from distance.
Beyond the starters — Ossai, senior defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham, redshirt sophomore nose tackle Keondre Coburn, and redshirt sophomore strong-side defensive end Moro Ojomo — Texas has quality depth in sophomore T’Vondre Sweat and the quickly-emerging freshman duo of Vernon Broughton and Alfred Collins.
“I think they’ve got a bright future,” Ash said of Broughton and Collins. “How much are they going to going to help us here early in the season? I don’t know, but I like what I’ve seen from them.
“Again, they’re big and athletic. They can use their hands — pretty disruptive guys. They can rush the passer, so when you get some guys like that you can find a place to use them somehow, some way, and hopefully we can get them game ready sooner than later.”
The defensive linemen should also have more time to get to the quarterback because the secondary will play more press coverage in Ash’s quarters scheme. Doing so places an emphasis on the ability of the cornerbacks to win with their hands at the line of scrimmage and flip their hips to run with opposing wide receivers.
At the outside cornerback spots, both Ash and head coach Tom Herman feel comfortable with the top four players — junior D’Shawn Jamison, the preseason All-Big 12 selection, redshirt junior Josh Thompson, junior Jalen Green, and redshirt freshman Kenyatta Watson II. In the new scheme, Green isn’t currently a starter, as Ash’s defense favors the three other more explosive corners.
As a Big 12 defense matures, the trial by fire for young players gradually morphs into the type of experience that allows a much higher level of production. Injured and inexperienced last year, that group should take a significant step forward this year and become a strength of the defense.
“They’ve had a lot of production throughout training camp and I can’t wait to see what they do on game day,” Ash said. “I’m really pleased about the development that they’ve had and the fit that they have in our system.”
Ash said that there’s confidence throughout the secondary, which makes sense with the return of health of junior safety Caden Sterns, the steady, physical presence of senior safety Chris Brown. With those players starting, junior BJ Foster is working as a back up, an absurd luxury for any program.
Behind the top three at safety, redshirt junior Montrell Estell has drawn positive reviews for his improvement. Recruited as a raw two-way athlete out of Hooks in 2017 class, Estell wasn’t ready to play last season when he was thrown into action due to injuries, but it’s now starting to come together for him as a fourth-year player.
Arguably the most difficult position in the secondary isn’t technically in the secondary — Ash considers the Spur position, his version of the nickel, as a part of the linebacker group. Sophomore Chris Adimora looks like the clear starter there after flashing in the Alamo Bowl.
I'd argue this PBU by Chris Adimora is among the best Texas defensive plays of the season. pic.twitter.com/9BCJCgAHrw— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) January 1, 2020
In fact, it’s remarkable that Adimora looked good enough in his limited action in 2019 that he’s a no-brainer pick as one of the breakout players for this season. And that’s not easy at the Spur.
“In my opinion, because of what we’re asking the guy to do, he’s got to have a really unique skill set,” Ash said. “He’s got to be tough enough and physical enough to fit the run. He’s got to be athletic enough and quick enough to play man-on-man in the slot and there are not a lot of guys that can do that. So we really had to spend a lot of time going through our roster. Identifying individuals that would have that skill set to do both of those things that’s not easy to do — fit the run, play zone, play man, blitz.”
As with other positions, Ash feels confident about the progress there. And so while he didn’t want to single players out individually during the press conference, it’s obvious that if he’s pleased with the position, it’s because he’s pleased with the development of Adimora.
Look at this play against redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Whittington, one of the team’s most explosive players. Just like the break up in the Alamo Bowl, Adimora blankets the wide receiver in man coverage, then times up the football perfectly. How about the discard at the end, too?
Adimora has that dog in him.
At linebacker, redshirt sophomore Ayodele Adeoye recently suffered a shoulder injury when sophomore running back Roschon Johnson delivered him a staggering blow in a drill. So junior Juwan Mitchell is the starter in the middle right now as junior DeMarvion Overshown adjusts to the weak-side position.
“I really like what I’ve seen out of the unit,” Ash said. “We have had some guys in and out a little bit during training camp, but they’re all going to play and they’re all in a really good spot right now, We were able to get a look at a lot of guys throughout training camp... which has helped us develop more depth probably right now today than we thought we would have had at this moment.”
In particular, Herman has praised freshman Jaylan Ford, the late addition to the early signing period who flipped from Utah. Herman already believes that the Frisco Lone Star product is a future starter.
The season opener is now 15 days away and the talent alone on defense is worthy of optimism. So too Ash’s public interpretation of how preseason camp has gone. Whether that translates to the field on Saturday will remain an open question until there’s tangible proof between the lines, but Ash does believe that he’s learned from his unsuccessful head-coaching stint at Rutgers.
“I can tell you right now after going through he three and a half years of being a head football coach in a highly competitive conference and managing people, staff, and players and dealing with all the things that head coach deals with, I’m the best coach today that I’ve ever been.”