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Todd Orlando’s aggressive approach should maximize the Longhorns defensive versatility

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If what Todd Orlando was able to do at Houston is any indication, guys like Malik Jefferson, Gary Johnson and Malcolm Roach should thrive this coming season.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If you happened to have your television tuned into ABC on September 3 and ESPN on November 17, you’ve witnessed the capabilities of a Todd Orlando-coached defense.

Last year, Houston opened the season by holding Baker Mayfield and No. 3-ranked Oklahoma to just 393 yards and 23 points. Months later, Orlando’s defense simply swallowed up eventual Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson en route to 11 sacks as part of an effort that left No. 5 Louisville’s NCAA-leading offense with just 10 points.

Simply put, despite the defensive cupboards being less than overflowing with elite talents, the product on the field was quite palatable for essentially any defensive fanatic’s taste.

As Tom Herman famously said, “I’ve seen Todd Orlando make chicken salad out of some lesser parts,” and now at Texas, Orlando hopes to cook up a similar recipe for success with what can largely be considered as a collection of superior ingredients.

When pondering what Orlando’s seemingly maniacal schematic preference looks like in burnt orange, it’s quite easy for the imagination to run wild as Orlando’s defense so often did in Houston.

For example, in the same roles Naashon Hughes and Malik Jefferson have essentially secured as the B-backer and Rover, Tyus Bowser (B-backer) and Steven Taylor (Rover) racked up 98 and 166 tackles the last two seasons at Houston, respectively, in addition to 33 total sacks.

Such was the byproduct of an aggressive attack built around blitzing and manipulating an offensive line and quarterback’s pre-snap reads.

Now implementing his defensive identity in preparation of a explosive, pass-happy Big 12 offenses, Orlando may construct things a bit differently at times, but the overall foundation remains the same.

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There’s a few things to bear in mind when it comes to how Orlando will utilize what can, by some, be considered an abundance of weapons on the defensive side of the ball.

For starters, versatility reigns supreme and specific positional labels will often be tossed aside in order to assure the best 11 players are on the field at any given time. This won’t necessarily always be evident along the defensive line with minimal depth and the secondary appears to be locked in place, but what Orlando’s able to do with the talent throughout the second level is where things can get not only interesting, but quite dominant.

In most cases, the Texas defense will be lined up in either a 3-3-5 or 3-4-4 scheme depending on situational circumstances and Orlando’s desire for pressure on the quarterback. As was the case at Houston, Orlando was nearly always able to dial up successful pressure, regardless of which of the two packages he deployed, but coaching against Big 12 offenses is a fairly different story. As Orlando’s defense will often face offenses featuring four and five receiver sets, the strategy may alter a bit towards defending the pass — including some dime packages at times — but Texas’ lack of overall defensive depth won’t allow for a passive approach.

Rather, whether it be the 3-3-5, 3-4-4 and what will even be a 3-2-6 at times, you’ll see Orlando aiming to disguise blitzes from all over the field and overwhelm an offense, which he should be able to do quite successfully in Austin due to Texas’ aforementioned versatility.

Consider the most basic 3-3-5 for example. Chris Nelson and Poona Ford will occupy the defensive tackle roles, while Malcolm Roach will serve as the 4i defensive end and senior Naashon Hughes will serve as the stand-up rusher, now called the B-backer but essentially the Fox end position under former head coach Charlie Strong.

The added benefit of having Roach and Hughes — a pair of DE/LB hybrids that will both be standing rushers at times — is that they both have the athleticism to rush successfully, delay and play the run or drop into coverage.

In a nutshell, this versatility will allow Texas to manipulate an offense’s pre-snap reads just based on the sheer fact that a quarterback and his line often won’t have an idea of what Roach and Hughes are going to do — will one or both rush the edge, will the rush be delayed, will either drop back into zone coverage?

Considering most of the offenses Texas will see will aim to run close to 100 plays per game, something as simple as having to take time to account for Roach and Hughes on every single play could either result in offenses slowing the game and playing into Orlando’s hands, or continuing at their own frenetic pace and chancing a game-changing mistake.

The second level is where things get much more complex and thus, complicated for an offense to comprehend what’s coming and from where — this is also where Orlando can get creative with his packages and personnel.

In the 3-3-5, Hughes is, as noted, the B-Backer and primarily an edge rusher — Bowser racked up 14.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 22 games as the B-backer at Houston — leaving Jefferson (Rover) and likely Anthony Wheeler (Mac) as the linebackers primarily working at the second level.

While Wheeler will blitz at times, he’ll serve as a run stopper more often then not, leaving Jefferson with a level of freedom to roam and blitz extensively that he hasn’t yet consistently enjoyed on the Forty Acres. For an example of the kind of productivity that can come from the Rover, consider the 18.5 sacks Taylor notched the last two seasons at Houston in this role.

It’s the kind of scheme that will make it unsurprising for Texas to show a full front six rush and dial up a wide variety of stunts and twists and disguises, because as noted, how deceptive Orlando has proven to be will make it tremendously difficult for a quarterback to gauge who’s actually blitzing and from where pre-snap.

Not to mention, Orlando won’t be shy about blitzing other defenders like nickelback P.J. Locke III or either safety in the 3-3-5 to overload one side of the ball.

Having a rangy linebacker like junior college transfer Gary Johnson now in the fold will help make the 3-4-4 a reliable package, as well, despite taking a defensive back off the field in most cases.

For example, Orlando previously said that the goal is to have the best four linebackers on the field in this situation, regardless of specific labels. In this case, Texas would likely swap out Locke for Johnson — a freak athlete and arguably one of the fastest players on the team — so the ‘Horns won’t sacrifice much in coverage while adding another legitimate threat to rush the edge.

Furthermore, Orlando likes to operate with a nose tackle and two 4i defensive ends in the 3-4-4, so instead of a guy like Ford or Nelson, the end opposite of Roach would be someone like Hughes, Jeffrey McCulloch or Breckyn Hager, giving Texas more speed than any offensive line wants to take on.

And while it won’t happen too often, there’s also the option of keeping Locke in the game as more of an outside linebacker and bringing a bigger safety such as DeShon Elliott closer to the line of scrimmage, replacing Hughes as a ‘linebacker’ for however many plays. Someone like John Bonney would then slide into Elliott’s spot at safety.

Essentially, this becomes a 3-2-6 dime package — Orlando regularly used this at Houston last season — with bigger, reliable tackling defensive backs serving at outside linebackers without sacrificing a bit of coverage competency. And make no mistake about it: Orlando will blitz without hesitancy from this package, with at least five players rushing the line on most occasions.

With basically everyone except for Ford and Nelson capable of man-to-man or dropping into coverage, it’s virtually impossible for the quarterback to get a read on who’s coming and identifying mismatches because, well, there probably won’t be any.

Simply put, the idea is to utilize Texas’ versatility in a tremendously aggressive manner through a wide variety of exotic blitzes and disguised coverages, and do all of it in a way that’s quite difficult to accurately anticipate pre-snap.

If it sounds confusing, it’s because that’s exactly how Orlando wants it to be for the offense.