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Pete Kwiatkoswki explains the four areas of emphasis for the Texas defense

After missing too many opportunities to create sacks and force turnovers last season, the Longhorns are looking for more game-changing plays defensively.

NCAA Football: Texas-Practice Austin American-Statesman-USA TO

The start of the Steve Sarkisian era with the Texas Longhorns under defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski went exceedingly poorly — after a 5-7 finish, the Longhorns ranked No. 89 in SP+, finishing with the No. 99 in scoring defense at 31.1 points per game while creating only 14 turnovers, tied for 93rd nationally.

Whether the numbers were raw or unadjusted, the Longhorns defense performed poorly as Texas suffered blowout losses to Arkansas and Iowa State in addition to an embarrassing home defeat to Kansas in overtime.

The unit improved considerably in 2022, vaulting to 22nd in SP+ while allowing roughly 75 fewer yards per game on the ground and 12 fewer rushing touchdowns, both second in the conference. The passing defense allowed more yards per game, but reduced opponent’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating.

Continuity within a coaching staff that had little experience working together prior to the 2021 season aided the improvement in Kwiatkowski’s second year leading the Texas defense, as well as better communication, both in the secondary and with Kwiatkowski’s move from the press box to the field.

When Kwiatkowski was in the box, the biggest issue came when coaches would take their headsets off to communicate with players, forcing the defensive coordinator to effort to get the coach back on the headset to discuss potential adjustments between series.

But the physical closeness to the field also helped Kwiatkowski read momentum changes and changes in player’s demeanor.

“Being down on the field you get into the flow of the game as far as the energy that’s going on — good and bad, the ebbs and flows of a game,” Kwiatkowski said on Tuesday.

Continuity is helping the defense become player led, too.

“Once you’ve established where we’re at now, you’ve established the terminology and the defense and most of the guys know what the words mean, what the calls mean,” Kwiatkowski said. “Now, the new guys, the young guys, the Anthony Hills and the Malik Muhammads, all those guys, all the new freshmen when they come in, they’re able to get coached by the players as far as what they’re supposed to do based off of all the different new terminologies these guys have got to learn. And so that helps speed up the learning curve for the younger guys.”

Entering the program’s final season in the Big 12, the goal is to maintain or improve the overall efficiency while making gains in four critical areas emphasized by Kwiatkowski and his staff that contributed to a season during which all five losses came by seven points or less.

Third downs

Opponents converted 41.3 percent of their third downs against the Longhorns in 2022, good for 93rd in the country and only a slight improvement from the previous season. In passing situations, Texas opponents converted on 63.8 percent of third downs while completing 60.6 percent of their passes, including a 145.7 passer rating on 3rd and 4-6.

On the go-ahead drive by Alabama early in the fourth quarter, Bryce Young ran for 17 yards to convert a 3rd and 7 in Crimson Tide territory when the Horns lost some pass-rush integrity with the four-man rush and had linebackers dropping into coverage behind them. It was one of only five third-down conversions in 15 attempts for Bama, the second-best performance on third down by Texas in 2022, but damaging enough to help significantly swing momentum in a game the Longhorns lost on a field goal with 10 seconds remaining.

In the road loss to Oklahoma State, Texas gave up a 40-yard pass on 3rd and 9 in the first quarter that led to a Cowboys touchdown, a 3rd and 8 and a 3rd and 9 on a touchdown drive in the first quarter, and a 3rd and 6 on the go-ahead touchdown drive.

Against Washington in the Alamo Bowl, the Huskies converted 55 percent of their third downs. A 3rd-and-7 conversion in the first quarter led to the first UW touchdown and three more third-down conversions, including a 3rd and 6, helped the Huskies mount a 13-play touchdown drive in the third quarter.

Even in several wins, the Longhorns allowed opponents to extend drives too often — the 41-20 win over the Roadrunners featured a third-down conversion rate of 56.3 percent for the road team in addition to the Mountaineers converting at 50.0 percent in another game that eventually turned into a comfortable victory.

Iowa State converted 9-of-15 third-down attempts in Austin, keeping the Cyclones close enough to go ahead late in the game when star receiver Xavier Hutchinson dropped a potential touchdown pass. Several plays later, Iowa State was able to convert a 3rd and 10 on before Texas safety Anthony Cook helped force a controversial fumble recovered by linebacker Jaylan Ford.

For the entire season, Texas allowed opponents to convert third downs of seven or more yards via the pass at a rate of 30 percent while allowing another four first-down runs on 3rd and 7-9, situations where the Longhorns need to get off the field more consistently in 2023. In 2017, the last time when Texas fielded a highly efficient third-down defense, opponents converted only 19.1 percent of third downs facing seven or more yards to gain.

So the task for the Longhorns isn’t just improving third-down efficiency in 2023, it’s getting off the field when opponents are behind the chains on the money down.

Fourth downs

In too many situations when the Horns were able to get stops on third down, opponents converted on fourth down, with the most notable struggles coming against the hyper-aggressive Red Raiders in the overtime road loss when Texas Tech was successful on 6-of-8 attempts, a full 30 percent of all fourth-down conversions allowed by Texas all season. Baylor also converted 4-of-5 attempts to keep the regular-season finale close until the Bears couldn’t stop the Longhorns on the ground in the fourth quarter.

Those two games contributed to Texas allowing opponents to convert fourth downs at a rate of 57.1 percent, tied for 86th nationally, as only seven FBS teams faced more fourth-down attempts.

Even in the Alamo Bowl, when Washington had two fourth-down conversions, both were on touchdown drives in a game eventually decided by seven points as the Texas comeback fell short.

Against opponents that opt for aggressive fourth-down strategies, the Longhorns would benefit from forcing more busted drives instead of allowing teams to gain the yardage necessary to get into the areas of the field where analytics support taking those calculated risks.


The 14 turnovers forced by Texas in 2022 tied for 104th nationally and marked the second straight year the Longhorns struggled in that category — in every other season since 2009, Texas forced at least 18 turnovers with the 2009 team generating an astonishing 37 giveaways by opponents.

Missed opportunities were a primary culprit as Kwiatkowski counted 21 other times when the Longhorns had chances to make a game-changing play and fell short.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of finishing and taking advantage of those opportunities when they arise,” Kwiatkowski said.

With nine forced fumbles last season, Texas was mediocre in that category, tying for 62nd nationally. Combined with two unforced fumbles by opponents for 11 total recovery opportunities, Kwiatkowski’s defense only secured four fumble recoveries — 36.4 percent — which ranked No. 112 nationally.

There’s some poor fumble recovery luck in those numbers, but there’s also pressure on Texas to improve at getting the ball on the ground and then show a better understanding of the “city or country” philosophy that Kwiatkowski and his staff preach by diving on the ball and fighting for it in traffic (city), as Ford did against Iowa State, or trying to scoop and score when it’s in the open field (country), as nickel back Jahdae Barron did against TCU last season on the only fumble return Texas produced.

Importantly, Kwiatkowski hopes that the increased understanding of the defense will help players move behind thinking about their assignments to playing freely enough to think about punching out a poorly-secured football when they arrive at the ball carrier.

Coming up with interceptions wasn’t a team strength, either — the 10 produced by the Longhorns tied for 68th nationally and did represent a modest improvement from the seven interceptions by Texas in 2021, but perhaps reflected a lack of focus when the ball was in the air.

“When we get our hands on the ball when it’s in the air, we’ve got to watch it in and that comes back to practice,” Kwiatkowski said. “I think a lot of times we would drop picks in practice and sort of poo-poo it, sort of laugh it off, and there’s got to be a heightened urgency and awareness of how important those plays are for our team.”

If Texas can start creating turnovers early in the season, Kwiatkowski believes those plays could create a positive feedback loop.

“The good teams that I’ve been around that have gotten turnovers, it’s just like a feeding frenzy — it sort of feeds off itself and then the whole group gets that synergy going on and they just they come in bunches,” Kwiatkowski said. “So I don’t think there’s any magic pill or call or anything, it’s just keep working at it and have better awareness.”


Just like creating turnovers, securing sacks for Texas in 2023 is a matter of taking advantage of opportunities and finishing plays better — the Horns tied for 71st nationally and finished fifth in the Big 12 with 27 sacks after leading the nation in pressures and missing 13 sacks, according to Kwiatkowski’s count.

No missed sack loomed larger than corner Ryan Watts coming on a blitz and missing Young on a 1st and 10 at the Texas 37-yard line with 27 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Had Watts secured the sack, the Crimson Tide would have called their final timeout outside desperate to get into Will Reichard’s range or been forced to get to the line of scrimmage quickly to run a play with the clock ticking down.

Instead, Young picked up 20 yards and Reichard was able to kick an easy 33-yard field goal after the ensuing three plays for Bama gained only three yards.

It was a play that haunted a Texas season ultimately defined by close losses and missed opportunities.

“We pressured the heck out of the quarterback last year, but we weren’t able to finish on some of the sacks and then conversely, just playing a little bit tighter coverage and executing better when we’re playing zone, in turn will, in theory, give the quarterback pause, make them hold the ball longer, gives the rush more time,” Kwiatkowski said. “We’ve just got to emphasize it and then at the end of the day, playmakers make plays, so we’re going to put them in a position to make plays and then they just need have the confidence to go out and expect to get the sack.”

Along the defensive line, junior Jack end Barryn Sorrell has a publicly-state goal of reaching double digits in sacks after producing 5.5 sacks in 2022 as a first-year starter.

“When he can get a one-on-one matchup, he’s good and he’s a very powerful guy, and then he uses the quickness that he has to kind of work with the power that he has,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Wednesday. “Inevitably, if he can continue to improve, what does an eight-sack year look like for him and and what can that do not just for him, but for our team and the confidence that we can have to get after the quarterback?”

Opposite Sorrell at the Buck end position, the Longhorns have plenty of young but unproven talent, including sophomore Ethan Burke, sophomore Justice Finkley, redshirt freshman J’Mond Tapp, freshman Colton Vasek, and freshman Billy Walton.

“We feel like we got we’ve got guys with ability,” Kwiatkowski said. “We’ve just got to get them to know the defense so we can trust them, they can trust each other, and we can see what they can do.”

In addition to Watts blitzing from his boundary cornerback position, a call the defensive staff likes because of the size and physicality of the 6’3, 206-pounder, freshman inside linebackers like Anthony Hill, Derrion Gullette, and Tausili Akana are all brimming with talent, too. Hill already flashed his downhill ability in the Orange-White game. Now the task for Kwiatkoski and position coach Jeff Choate is to find situations where Hill can find success.

“We feel like we’ve got enough bullets. We just got to figure out which bullets we’re going to use,” Kwiatkowski said.