After Texas’ upset of Notre Dame, Longhorns defensive coordinator Vance Bedford gave his defense a “C” grade, citing the team’s difficulty in the third quarter. It was a rating that at the time seemed harsh — after all, Texas’ 47 points allowed were in part due to the 10 given up in two overtimes, and the Fighting Irish often had fantastic field position, such as when they intercepted Shane Buechele and returned it inside the 20. Amidst the celebration of what at the time felt like a signature win, any concerns about the defense were quickly disregarded.
Bedford didn’t give a grade for his defense after the Cal game, but it would likely be closer to an “F” than a “C”. Texas’ struggles in that game have been well-documented, and though the meltdown could simply be an outlier, the unit honestly looked like that of a bad defense, not an adequate defense on an off night.
Here’s a breakdown by position of our grades for the Texas D.
We’ll begin with linebackers because while the Longhorns are most certainly not DBU at the moment, the middle of the defense is stocked with some of the best talent in college football. Of course it’s only fair to bring up Malik Jefferson when discussing the position.
Unfortunately, the sophomore has demonstrated his stardom the most when he is preventing big plays from becoming touchdowns, rather than making big plays of his own. Perhaps Jefferson’s best moment against Notre Dame was when he chased down running back Tareon Folston on the second play of the game, stopping him for a 54-yard scamper rather than a touchdown.
With only a single sack between Jefferson and fellow sophomore talent Anthony Wheeler, it’s clear that defenses are preparing for the best defensive position Texas has. Still, the two are leading the team in tackles, as Wheeler has 23 and Jefferson has 19.
The reason Wheeler and Jefferson haven’t seemed to take over the game yet may be in part due to a lack of help behind and in front of them, but Charlie Strong and Bedford must continue to find ways to make the pair known on the field.
Other linebackers who have received their share of snaps are Edwin Freeman and Jeffery “the Shark” McCulloch. McCulloch in particular could be an intriguing guy to watch in the coming weeks, as the highly touted freshman is too talented to play. He has three special teams tackles thus far but has only seen two snaps on defense.
Defensive end is a tricky position to grade due to the emergence of second team players Brecklyn Hager and Malcolm Roach. The sophomore and freshman, respectively, are both known for their extreme motor and work ethic and it’s showing on the box score.
Hager is third on the team in tackles with 17 and tied for first in tackles for loss with 2.5. Roach wasn’t expected to be a significant contributor in his first year but has already recorded two sacks in his first three games.
But though Texas has depth and a potentially promising future at the defensive end position, the first team is not carrying the weight expected of them. Bryce Cottrell and Charles Omenihu have both been serviceable, but not terrific by any means. Omenihu was predicted as a candidate for a breakout sophomore season, but though his first two games were strong, he went missing against Cal.
The fox end position in the Longhorns’ defense is expected to make a huge impact on the game as a hybrid of linebacker and defensive end. However, though junior Naashon Hughes has the tools to be an NFL prospect, he didn’t made enough noise in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Hughes had two missed tackles against Cal and has only recorded three solo tackles all season, which is too low for someone receiving so much playing time.
It should be noted however that Hughes did have a sack and a massive field goal block against Notre Dame. The latter was a little talked about factor that may have resulted in the Longhorns’ win.
Defensive tackle was anticipated to be the Longhorns’ weakest position on defense, but the unit has actually been serviceable. Against an offensive line that was touted as one of the best in the nation, Texas didn’t exactly hold Notre Dame in check (they ran for 206 yards), but the performance was far short of a disaster.
Freshman Jordan Elliott has lived up to his recruiting rank and was a solid contributor in the first two games for Texas. He didn’t record any snaps against Cal, but look for him to bounce back in a big way against Oklahoma State.
Getting pressure on the quarterback is challenging when receivers have been so immediately open, but the defensive tackles are still lacking in this category. No defensive tackles have recorded a sack thus far, much less hurried opposing QB’s.
Still, Poona Ford, Chris Nelson, and Paul Boyette have all recorded at least 1.5 tackles for a loss each, and Texas has youthful depth at the position. The group isn’t full of superstars yet, but the unit hasn’t been exposed in the way the secondary has.
The most common takeaway for the safety position at this point is that freshman Brandon Jones is simply too talented to not get significant reps. The former No. 1 overall high school safety has already notched two beautiful punt blocks, and has looked mature beyond his years on special teams.
Despite the promise of Jones, the rest of the safeties haven’t done much to reverse the criticisms that have been thrown their way over the years. Dylan Haines was one of the many Longhorns with crucial missed tackles against the Golden Bears. The senior is due for tacking onto his remarkable eight career interceptions, but his liabilities have perhaps outweighed his leadership thus far.
Nobody picked up Cal's Jordan Veasy and a Dylan Haines missed tackle gives Cal 11 more yards. Open field tackles a major concern right now pic.twitter.com/emu4yMuGuX— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) September 19, 2016
Jason Hall was Texas’ other projected starter at safety, but instead it has been Kevin Vaccaro who has received most of the snaps at the position, while Hall has been moved around on the field, including at linebacker. Vaccaro recorded a sack against Notre Dame, and Hall correctly read a screen for a big loss in the same game.
However, both have had their downfalls as well. A busted coverage by Hall against Cal resulted in an easy touchdown, while Vaccaro has had missed tackles unfortunately consistent with the rest of the defense.
There is no reason for opposing teams to attempt to put the ball on the ground against a competent Texas run defense. Why? See Chad Hansen. The former walk-on caught a ridiculous 12 catches for 196 yards against the Longhorns, exposing Texas’ serious problems at the cornerback position.
Sophomores Holton Hill and Davante Davis were expected to be a lockdown duo, but both were torched numerous times in the non-conference schedule. Both have been beat for crucial touchdowns, whether it be from being beat or from blow coverage. It’s harsh, but the two’s performance may be the biggest letdown of the team thus far.
Furthermore, the second unit hasn’t fared much better. Sixth-year senior Sheroid Evans has a tremendous story, but was consistently beat from the very beginning of the Cal game to the end. Kris Boyd has made several bad plays (some of which were bone-headed), from terrible kickoff returns to missed tackles.
At Nickel, P.J. Locke recorded a sack against Notre Dame but has otherwise been quiet. It usually isn’t a good sign to be quiet on a defense that allowed 396 pass yards last game.
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It has certainly been understated that the defense is in part challenged simply due to the fast pace of Sterlin Gilbert’s offense. However, some of Texas’ best recruiting gems have been on the defensive side of the ball, and it has been extremely concerning to see a group of former blue chip prospects look lost, out of position, and straight up beat by opposing offenses.
Allowing 47+ points to both power five non-conference opponents is clearly unacceptable, and the signs points to the problems not being a clear and immediate fix. Still, if Texas can get back to a consistent “C” grade as Bedford once said (and maybe make a turnover or two), the Longhorns should still be able to win games. It’s a long season, and the youthful group will hopefully begin to gel as they better understand the X’s and O’s of Bedford’s defense.