From creating a more natural pass rush to being more stout against the run, the Texas Longhorns defense has myriad areas for improvement heading into the 2022 season after struggling last season under defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
But creating more turnovers — and a better turnover margin overall — has been the top point of emphasis for head coach Steve Sarkisian throughout the offseason.
“Probably the most important thing that I stressed coming out of spring and that we stressed throughout the summer that we’re trying to find every which way to enhance is creating turnovers,” Sarkisian said.
Texas finished tied for No. 93 nationally in turnovers gained in 2021 with only 14, split evenly between fumble recoveries and interceptions, by far the lowest since 2009 (the first year tracked by cfbstats), a season during which the Longhorns forced 37 turnovers, including 25 interceptions. Defensively, the trend line is going the wrong way for Texas and has been since forcing 26 turnovers in 2017, dropping to 20, then 19, and then 18 before last season’s dismal effort.
Expecting any of the Texas defensive backs to match the production of Earl Thomas (eight interceptions in 2009) or Blake Gideon (six interceptions) is a recipe for disappointment — the Longhorns don’t have an All-American anywhere in the secondary or even someone as likely to end up in the right position as often as Gideon did that year.
After all, super senior safety Anthony Cook, who may be the best player in the secondary this year for Texas, admitted on Tuesday that he hadn’t recorded an interception yet to that point in preseason camp. In fact, Cook doesn’t have an interception through four seasons on the Forty Acres, though he was able to pick off quarterback Quinn Ewers during the Orange-White game.
“I need to get my hands on some,” Cook said.
As a whole, Cook estimated the defense had around eight interceptions after six practices with super senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison leading the way.
In 2019, Jamison had three interceptions, including the remarkable one-handed play against West Virginia, but only has one interception over the last two seasons, making the Houston Lamar product one of the foremost players Texas needs to make more of an impact in 2022.
On the other side of the field, boundary corner Ryan Watts, the junior transfer from Ohio State, had two interceptions in 12 games with one start last season for the Buckeyes and has the length at 6’3 that Sarkisian prefers at the position to make plays on the ball.
“I just think that you have length at the point of attack at the line of scrimmage to play tighter coverage,” Sarkisian said on Tuesday. “You have length when the ball’s in the air with the ability to knock balls down. You have size nowadays all the perimeter screen stuff for the ball getting spit to the perimeter to be physical at the point of attack.”
Watts fits that profile across the board, but the question his length and ability to play the tight man-to-coverage the defense will use more often this season will translate into more interceptions.
Other returning players with interceptions include super senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown (three), senior linebacker Luke Brockermeyer (two), junior safety Jerrin Thompson (one), junior linebacker David Gbenda (one), and junior defensive tackle Alfred Collins (one). Including Watts, that means that Longhorns have a total of 14 career interceptions returning for the 2022 season, a number Texas has surpassed in a single season four times since 2009.
The Longhorns also need to be more opportunistic attacking the football, tying for 92nd nationally with seven forced fumbles. A better natural pass rush would help with quarterbacks often vulnerable to fumbles while under pressure in the pocket.
The timing of turnovers often matters, too, like safety Brenden Schooler dropping the game-sealing interception against Kansas before allowing the game-winning touchdown — it was the difference between having a chance to become bowl eligible and avoiding another embarrassing loss against the Jayhawks that will sting for years.
The same is true for the offense in avoiding turnovers following an offseason with a heavy emphasis on football intelligence and situational awareness. Arguably the defining play of the 2021 season — and the fulcrum upon which the season seemingly turned — was the pick six thrown by Casey Thompson on a 3rd and 10 in the red zone with a 17-3 lead against Oklahoma State in the second quarter.
Intent on trying to make a play, Thompson lost sight of the defender sitting in the hole, resulting in a 10-point swing, and, including that play, the Cowboys scored 29 of the final 36 points to rob the Longhorns of an upset and Texas ended up with an eventual six-game losing streak.
On the season, Texas was average in giving away 17 turnovers — tied for 57th nationally — but probably had some fumble luck by only losing seven of the 14 fumbles on the season, so better ball security should be a goal for the Horns in 2022.
And while 10 interceptions thrown doesn’t stand out as a particularly high number, the nine interceptions on 261 attempts for an interception rate of 3.4 percent by Thompson is high. The Longhorns need better decision making at the position and Hudson Card showed some aptitude in that area of game management with one interception in 83 attempts for an interception rate of 1.2 percent. If Texas can manage 400 pass attempts this season — right around the national median last year — achieving an interception rate of 2.0, a strong season for quarterback, would reduce the number of interceptions thrown by two.
Overall, the Longhorns finished 2021 with a minus-three turnover margin, tied for 85th nationally.
“It’s the number one stat in football that pertains to winning and losing,” Sarkisian said. “I always look at the overall season plus-minus ratio of a team and generally teams that are plus-10 or better on the season have really good years. Very rarely do you see a team that’s plus-10 in turnover margin that’s 5-7, right? They’re plus-10 or better, you’re looking eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 wins, right? And those teams that are getting close to plus-20 in the turnover margin, they’re looking at a championship-type season, right?”
Last season, a plus-15 turnover margin for Cincinnati helped the Bearkats make a run to the College Football playoffs and a plus-12 turnover margin helped Baylor win the Big 12. In 2020, a plus-10 turnover margin helped propel Ohio State to the national championship game.
A look at the per-game turnover margin and winning percentage in college football from 2009 to 2012 found that per-game turnover margin explained 37 percent of the win total data and teams that averaged plus-one in turnover margin would expect to win 8-9 games per season.
Another deep dive from 2015 that studied the previous seven seasons found the following:
Of the teams that forced 1.01-or-more turnovers per game than their opponents.....
98.11% had winning seasons
94.33% won at least 8 games
75.47% won at least 9 games
60.38% won at least 10 games
54% won at least a share of a conference or division championship
Between 2007 and the early part of the 2016 season, Football Outsiders determined that “the team that recorded a positive turnover margin went on to win 74.5 percent of the time. That win rate jumps up to 82.5 percent when the turnover margin was plus-2 or better.”
In 2021, Texas was 3-1 with a positive turnover margin, 1-2 with an even turnover margin, and 1-4 with a negative turnover margin with the only win coming against Kansas State to end the season. The minus-four turnover margin against Kansas looms as a handy explanation for that result.
“So it’s two-fold,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got to create more defensively. Offensively, we cannot turn the ball over. We cannot afford to do that. And so it’s been a huge emphasis for what we’ve done in camp and will continue to be.”
To reach eight or nine wins this season, a reasonable goal for the Longhorns, the data from 2009 to 2013 suggests Texas needs to improve its per-game turnover margin from -0.25 to somewhere around 1.00, a difference of about 15 turnovers, a hefty challenge.