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Steve Sarkisian says Texas will play more man-to-man coverage in 2022

The Longhorns head coach shared the shift in philosophy during the Texas Fight Tour in San Antonio on Monday.

NCAA Football: Texas Spring Game Austin American-Statesman-USA TODAY NETWORK

In an attempt to improve upon an historically bad Texas Longhorns defense in 2021, head coach Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, and Gary Patterson, Sarkisian’s special assistant, are undertaking a shift in philosophy to more man-to-man coverage this season, Sarkisian said on Monday during the Texas Fight Tour in San Antonio.

After leaning heavily on zone coverages during Sarkisian’s first season on the Forty Acres, producing a defense that finished 80th nationally in opposing passer rating, tied for 104th in interceptions, and tied for 102nd in passes defensed, Sarkisian wants a defense that more closely resembles his “All Gas No Brakes” mentality on offense.

“I’m an aggressive-minded guy in play-calling, attacking style, the types of players we recruit, and we were just too passive,” Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian wants the Longhorns to play more aggressive man coverage, moving super senior nickel back Anthony Cook to the free safety position on the boundary, junior cornerback Kitan Crawford to the strong safety position to the field, and junior cornerback Jahdae Barron to the nickel back position. Cook and Barron are projected starters at that position with Crawford working to overtake junior Jerrin Thompson, who started the Orange-White game with the first-team defense at strong safety.

“Why did we do that? So we can play more man-to-man coverage,” Sarkisian said. “I need more people on the field that can defend all these receivers in the Big 12. So we want to be more aggressive. We want to play more man-to-man. We want to have more of an attacking style up front defensively.”

Of course, those moves weren’t all about improving the coverage ability at nickel and at safety — Texas suffered heavy attrition at safety over the year from the end of the 2020 season to the end of the 2021 season, losing Xavion Alford, Tyler Owens, BJ Foster, and Chris Adimora to the NCAA transfer portal and Brenden Schooler to graduation.

But regardless of whether those moves were made more out of necessity than as part of Sarkisian’s philosophical shift, the end result is a safety position that gained Cook’s experience playing cornerback and nickel back, particularly his ability to handle run responsibilities and beat blockers on the edge, and Crawford’s speed and physicality as perhaps the fastest member of the Texas secondary.

“I think also defensively we want to be faster, right, and Kitan can really run,” Sarkisian said when spring practice started. “He is a physical player. He played really well for us last year on special teams. So just trying to find him a spot to where he can be the player that he’s capable of being and also allow us to get more speed on the field defensively to eliminate space, right? We’re trying to suffocate offenses, well, to do it, you’ve got to be able to close the distance on people in the run game, in the pass game.”

At cornerback, super senior D’Shawn Jamison returns for a fifth season on the Forty Acres looking to improve his consistency, but the bigger — literally — addition is that of junior Ohio State transfer Ryan Watts, a 6’3, 210-pounder with the length to play press coverage on X receivers.

Sarkisian’s hope is that playing more man coverage will close down the space that opposing offenses exploited last season and in turn benefit a likewise more aggressive pass rush.

“The tighter we are in coverage, I think that that’s going to help and benefit the pass rush and then vice versa — the better the pass rush, the better that helps a corner. We’ve got to get those two things really working well together,” Sarkisian said during the spring.

Following the miss on former TCU standout edge Ochaun Mathis to Nebraska, Texas will be more reliant on tighter coverage helping the pass rush, especially if the Horns opt for heavier odd fronts maximized for stopping the run. Kwiatkowski’s defense only managed 20 sacks last season, tied for 101st nationally.

The addition of Patterson adds high-level scouting ability to the defensive mix for the Longhorns and could eventually result in more versatility than Sarkisian was willing to share publicly during the offseason. At TCU, Patterson’s trademark 4-2-5 attack was defined in large part by his ability to split fronts from coverages, mixing those coverages on the back end, including splitting coverages to the field and to the boundary, and effectively calling the right blitzes at the right time.

Before the Longhorns can expand into those diverse elements that Patterson can bring to the defense, Texas has to get the fundamentals right, including making massive strides in run defense after allowing 5.15 yards per rush last season, 114th nationally, and giving up 26 rushing touchdowns, tied for 107th nationally. Too often, linebackers missed run fits, forcing safeties to clean up the mess.

Sarkisian believes his philosophy shift will help there after Texas spent much of the 2021 season in a conservative two-deep shell that failed to effectively minimize large plays in the passing game and the running game.

“We can play more aggressive, tighter coverage and try to nullify the run better with an extra hat in the box.”