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Texas players and coaches break down the Oregon defense

Strong cornerback play has defined the Duck defense, according to Major Applewhite and his players.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns have now finished practice preparations for the Alamo Bowl against the Oregon Ducks and a defense that features multi-year starters across the secondary, a defense that play caller Major Applewhite and multiple players described as capable of providing a great deal of disguise and throwing multiple looks at the Texas offense.

What happens down on the field at the Alamodome won't include Applewhite, however, as the co-offensive coordinator has been back up in the booth for some time after starting the season on the sidelines to communicate more closely with injured quarterback David Ash.

"I like the booth a lot better," Applewhite said. "A little bit more calm up there than it is down on the sidelines. You want to be down there at certain times for certain players, but then there are other things you can be up in the booth. Especially working with Case, I feel better working from the booth. With my eyes up there, I don't feel like I need to be out on the field with him. I like being up there in that environment."

When Applewhite peers down for his perch, he'll see an Oregon defense keyed by the play of junior cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

"They've done a great job outside," Applewhite said. "They have great players, very athletic and fast."

Ekpre-Olomu isn't a one-dimensional cornerback either -- he's second on the team with 78 tackles in 2013 and was named first-team All-Pac 12 for the second year in a row. A possible early entrant to the 2014 NFL Draft currently rated the No. 3 cornerback and No. 28 player overall by CBS Sports, Ekpre-Olomu was magnificent against Oregon State and star wide receiver Brandin Cooks, registering 12 tackles, three pass break ups, and an interception.

Meanwhile, Mitchell has taken advantage of opponents targeting him by recording five interceptions of his own, along with 11 passes defensed. At 6'0 and 190 pounds, he has the physical ability to get up in the face of opposing wide receivers and control them at the line of scrimmage when Oregon plays in man coverage.

It wasn't just Applewhite who was impressed with what he saw, though, as Mike Davis echoed the sentiments of his coach.

"Yeah they are real good," said the senior wide receiver of the Oregon cornerbacks. "I watched film of them against Oregon State and both of them are long. One has really good instincts as a corner, aggressive, good player, and they are good corners."

Heck, even offensive guard Mason Walters noticed the play of MItchell and Ekpre-Olomu on film.

"Another thing that you know even as an offensive lineman that by watching film their corners play great football so you can't let that make you too one-dimensional, you have to do a great job running the ball so they are just not playing the man coverage in the back," Walters said.

"Their safeties are good players, too," added Applewhite. "They can play well in man coverage. It kind of reminds me a little bit of the way Coach [Duane] Akina tries to train our secondary, to where all four of them can play man coverage if need be. There's not one guy that's a tackler that's down in the box. They're all pretty versatile. So when you look at third down, they can be effective and get some turnovers. I think that's why they got so many this year."

In fact, the Oregon defense has been solid on passing downs without being anywhere close to dominant -- S&P+ has the Ducks as the No. 46 defense in the country in that regard. The Texas play caller was right about the turnovers though, as retiring coordinator Nick Aliotti's defense has forced 27 turnovers in 2013, with 15 of those takeaways coming via interceptions.

Experience helps the Oregon cornerbacks put themselves in the right positions to make plays.

"As Case and I were talking, one thing about the secondary, other than being athletic and trusting their guys in man coverage, there's a lot of ball," Applewhite said. "There are two seniors and two juniors back there. A lot of football between those four guys."

A three-year starter, Mitchell is the longest-tenured defensive back in terms of time spent with the opening 11. The two senior safeties and Ekpre-Olomu have been playing together with Mitchell since the start of 2012, providing a ton of continuity for Aliotti.

All that experience helped the Ducks draw a favorable comparison from Applewhite.

"It reminds me a lot of Oklahoma State's defense. So when you talk about [Justin] Gilbert and [Daytawion] Lowe, all those guys that have played back there for Oklahoma State, you understand why their turnovers or take away numbers are high. They've seen a lot of routes, they've seen a lot of pass concepts, at the same time they have a lot of instinct."

Quarterback Case McCoy sounded like his coach in sharing his own opinion of Oregon.

"They're incredible athletes out there, played a lot of ball. For the most part looking at them, they play together very well," McCoy said.

"They put those guys on islands out there, trust their safeties to make plays, but also get down in the box and make plays. Definitely you can see when you watch them on film, they played a lot of ball together and they know what they're doing back there."

Aiding the secondary in producing interceptions is a defense that can show a number of different looks in addition to mixing and matching coverage.

"You really see, Oregon's multiplicity throughout the season. When you watch a 12-game season, you can see all the different fronts and coverages they get into," Applewhite said on Friday.

"[They play] a lot of man coverage. They're multiple in the back end. They'll play man, zone, match patterns. [They] do a lot of things up front in terms of the front game, disguising their blitzes. Those guys are difficult to get ahold of."

Offensive guard Trey Hopkins, who may play some right tackle due to the absence of academically ineligible Kennedy Estelle, knows the offensive line will have to be on the same page to deal with the changing Duck fronts.

"I mean all four up front are great players. They're great athletes. They show a lot of looks for the front four up there. They have different ways of disguising their blitzes, making sure you don't get up to their linebacker level."

Running back Malcolm Brown started out with praise for the Oregon defense in his assessment before expressing confidence in going against a defensive front that hasn't always held the line of scrimmage this season.

"First of all, they do have a great athletic defense," said the junior running back. "They have a great front, great linebackers. The 3-4, we feel like we can do a great job of running the ball right at them. Like you said, past teams have had a whole bunch of success in regular zones, powers, things like that. Just got to be more aggressive. I know our offensive line is going to do a great job."

Walters broke out a comparison to another defense the Horns saw this season that played out of the 3-4.

"The challenges are there but at the same time I think of a similar defense like OU and believe we can still have success against them," Walters said after joining everyone else in praising the speed of the Ducks defense.

Even with Brown's favorable impression of Texas' chances on the ground, Hopkins was focused on an Oregon defensive tackle during his film study.

"I spent a lot of time watching [Taylor Hart]. He's a great player," said Hopkins. "He's shown he can be physical. That's something that's set him apart from people we've played before."

The leading tackler on the defensive line with 64 stops, Hart also has five tackles for loss and three sacks on the season. And when Brown and Joe Bergeron are in Hart's vicinity, they need to be careful about protecting the ball, as Hart has forced three fumbles on the season, too.

"The bottom line, when it comes to looking at lines of scrimmage, it's who can be the most physical for the longest throughout the game," Hopkins said. "It's something we've focused on. We have to finish blocks, we have to extend drives through being efficient on first and second downs in the running game."

The strength of the Oregon secondary may mean that Texas is even more reluctant than normal to test Marshall and Ekpre-Olomu against a front that was taken advantage of by Stanford, Arizona, and Oregon State.