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Can the Texas Longhorns secondary hold up in 2017?

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Breaking down the Texas secondary under Todd Orlando.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent interview with Longhorn Network, Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said his defense must have three key players to be successful. The first two listed were Mac and Rover inside linebackers (in previous posts, I called the Rover the Will, but Orlando uses Rover). The second was the cover corner. To run his defense, Orlando needs an elite cover corner who can shut down one side of the field.

This player will line up to the boundary and will be tasked with man coverage on the number one player (numbered from the sideline in), usually a split end or flanker (also known as the X and Z, respectively) to that side, especially when the offense aligns in a trips formation. This allows Orlando to use a variety of blitz packages, which he loves to do while still playing a less risky cover two zone look to the wide side of the field (what we call blue coverage).

Before we get to breaking down the Texas secondary and how this split coverage works, lets get up to date on Orlando’s terminology. Until now, I have used my own terminology, which is similar to Orlando’s, but there are some differences. On the line, Orlando uses a nose and two ends, who he claims are both 4i players in base, but they move around alot, and I have rarely seen both in a 4i (although he does use the 4i to the boundary quite a bit, in addition to the three like I have said before).

This works if you have two players who are suited to play both the inside (3 technique) and outside (5 or 7 technique), but from my experience, it’s rare to find one player who can really excel in both positions, much less two on a single team. That’s the reason I had the tackle, my 3 technique and end, the 5/7 technique switch sides depending on the play call. They can each play to their strengths. From film, I think Orlando does that too, but this could not be confirmed through any interviews I’ve been able to access with the new defensive coordinator.

The B-back is what I refer to as the rush backer, being a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who often aligns in a 6 or 9 technique. The nickel is the equivalent to what I call the Buck backer. He does more in coverage and is the force player against the run usually to the wide side of the field, also known as the field side. We already mentioned the Mac and the Rover, who are the inside backers (what I refer to as Mike and Will with the Will being the equivalent to the Rover).

Here is what a base 3-4 from Orlando’s defense looks like. Last year, Orlando called this Houston base:

A true “Houston Base” would involve a traditional Cover 2 look, with both corners playing about seven yards off the line of scrimmage, but notice that the boundary corner is in a press position while the field corner is in a seven yards off by one yard inside number 1 to the field. That’s because the coverage in this insert is what’s called a Blue Coverage or a Split Cover 2 (or the defense is disguising it as such in order to make the quarterback think blitz). In base, with a true Cover 2, the b-back would rush, just like a defensive end with the corners taking the flat coverage zones (less than 15 yards and from the numbers to the sideline), the rover and nickel taking the hook to curl zone (between the hash and the numbers and 15 yards from the sideline) and the mac covering the “low hole,” or the underneath area in between the hash marks. Of course, the Cover 2 means that the two safeties have deep half responsibilities.

A variation of this is the Tampa 2, in which the Mac would drop on the snap and play a deep third, helping the safeties between the hashes, while the corners, rover, and nickel would all essentially play a quarter of the field underneath, overlapping the “low hole”. You can also accomplish this with the b-back dropping off the line, playing a hook to curl and the rover (who is likely better in pass coverage) taking the deep third role and the mac staying in the low hole, spying the quarterback, or running a blitz. As you can see, there are many variations that can be used in a simple Cover 2 out of this multiple 3-4 look.

Orlando will also use a variety of other basic coverage like Cover 3, 1, and even 0. Against trips, he will use man on the single receiver side and zone to the trips, as many teams do, and he will mix in some Cover 4, depending on the opponent and game situation.

Now, back to blue coverage. What is it, and why is it so important to the Texas defense? Basically, an offense has five offensive linemen, who are ineligible receivers. With 11 men on the field, this leaves five eligible receivers and the quarterback. If a defense brings five men on the pass rush, that leaves six to cover the five eligible receivers. Most of the time, defensive coordinators like to keep a safety deep, to minimize the risk should one of their man defenders need help, also known as Cover 1.

So bringing five rushers, essentially led to defenses playing Cover 1 in traditional defenses. Another tactic often used before the spread was to abandon or combine the boundary side flat when bringing pressure (still playing Cover 2). Offenses became privy to this, and began to exploit it as soon as they saw pressure (especially with the bubble and quick screens or a back in the flat), so there was a need to change, defensively to adjust to the spread offenses. Hence the birth of split coverage.

Blue is a “read” type split coverage. In Blue, any combination of two of the linebackers can provide the pass rush, with the other two providing middle of the field coverage. to the field side, the nickel (or mac if the nickel is on a blitz) plays the hook to curl zone. The rover, buck, or mac will provide coverage to the boundary side middle in order to support the boundary safety and boundary corner.

The boundary secondary personnel are in both reading number 2, or the second eligible receiver from the sideline. This could be a slot, a back, a tight end, or even a split end if the offense uses a flex formation. Number 2 can do four things, really. He can run outside, inside, release deep, or he can block. The most basic reaction is if number 2 goes deep. This results in the safety taking number 2 man, and the corner playing a combo technique, with primary responsibility on number 1. Depending on the route run by number 1, the corner will position himself to interrupt the throwing lane to number two on popular combination routes while keeping primary focus on number 1.

One such popular combination is the smash, where the corner will stay deep off the underneath curl route, and the boundary safety will take number 2 on the corner route. The corner can still break to make a play on the curl route, but by staying deep, he’s in position to force a higher, looping throw to the corner route, allowing the safety to better position himself to defend that route, like this:

If number 2 provides an inside release, he becomes the responsibility of the linebackers, who are in zone coverage. The boundary corner and safety can both concentrate on covering whatever route number 1 runs. I like to use a high/low technique in this situation, with the corner pursuing an interception and the safety playing over the top to prevent the big play. Below is an example of how this works with number one running a post route:

The third option number 2 has is to go outside. If number 2 goes outside, the corner has him man-to man, and the boundary safety will pick up number 1. The corner is taught to stay with number 1 until number 2 begins to cross his face, preventing the damage on a slant or curl combined with a quick out by number 2. The boundary safety will stay deep on the potential double move by number 1, then press into position to cover number 1 once the play has developed. Below is how a curl/flat combo looks in Blue coverage:

If number 2 blocks, it’s indicative of either a screen play or a run. The safety must stay deep, and follow the rule “don’t go until you know” to avoid potential go routes off of this look. The corner should focus on either playing his secondary contain run duties or making a tackle if the screen is thrown.

So, how do the current secondary players for the Longhorns fit into this scheme? We can start by looking at the nickel. D’Juan Hines was listed as the starting “nickel” for Houston last year, but the Cougars mainly stayed in their nickel package, with cornerback Brandon Wilson. In the pass-happy Big 12, expect more of the same, although both Malik Jefferson (who Orlando has stated is playing rover) and Edwin Freeman are interesting possibilities in this role. I still like how Jason Hall fits into this position quite well. It allows him to fit into the run and be physical while occasionally blitzing the passer. Most importantly, it gets him out of deep coverage responsibilities, which he struggled with last season.

I really like the combination of PJ Locke and Brandon Jones at safety. Locke is a hard worker who enjoys the weight room and film as hobbies. Based on last year’s performance, and the fact that he is maybe the hardest worker on the team, there’s no reason to think he’s not ready to step up and take a role as a leader on this defense. I like him as the field safety, because one mental mistake in that position can be EXTREMELY costly. Of the secondary players, I have the most trust in Locke to minimize those errors.

Jones is extremely talented and athletic, but he’s young, and we still don’t have a good idea of where he is mentally. What we do know is that he can get after it, and he’s excellent at rushing the punter. I believe this will translate well into the boundary safety position, because while this position is used in deep coverage, Orlando will also blitz from this position frequently. In this position, Jones could be a real play maker for the ‘Horns.

That brings use to cornerback. While the Horns do have some solid 2017 recruits at this position, nobody strikes me as an immediate impact player. I expect both Josh Thompson and Kobe Boyce to redshirt in 2017 — though they both have the potential to help this team in 2018 and beyond. Because of that, the ‘Horns will be left with the better of Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, Devante Davis, and John Bonney. All four have the potential to be the impact corner that Orlando says he’ll need to field a solid defense, but the group has not performed to their potential thus far.

Last year, Bonney really impressed me with his play, and he may be just the man that Orlando needs for the boundary corner position. Then again, Bonney struggled at times, especially late in the season, so he needs to improve to fully grow into a role as the elite cornerback Orlando needs. Davis, Boyd, and Hill all could also play either cornerback spots, but all three need to improve. 2016 ESPN 300 recruit Eric Cuffee is a name to keep an eye on if the above four cannot put themselves in position to secure one of those spots.

So, how will the Longhorns secondary perform? This is by far the biggest question mark on the entire team. In fact, some may argue that the Longhorns could have been an eight-win team or better had their secondary been less like swiss cheese in 2016 (I wouldn’t go that far, but they were definitely a consistent question mark throughout the season). Looking at the depth chart, I think the play at safety will be much improved, with either combination of Jones and Locke playing the two deep safety positions. I also like Hall at nickel, relieving him of the deep coverage duties he struggled with and allowing him to play his more physical style of play.

If the cornerbacks can step up and perform to their potential, this defense could be scary for Big 12 offenses, instead of the Big 12 offenses being scary for the Longhorns.