The Texas Longhorns secondary has been suspect throughout the past few seasons, to say the least. After ranking 12th in passing yards allowed per game in 2014, the ‘Horns have slipped tremendously in that critical category the last two years, ranking 79th in 2015 (233.4) and regressing once more to 104th in 2016 (258.5). With a quarter of the 2017 season complete, Texas’ passing defense statistically sits somewhere in between its previous two efforts, ranking 82nd nationally after allowing an average of 248.3 yards each time out.
Statistically speaking, there’s two ways to evaluate whether or not the secondary is ready to follow the run defense’s lead, and Thursday night’s Big 12 opener against Iowa State will be an ideal measuring stick.
If the glass is half full, Todd Orlando’s secondary is an improving unit that allowed just 170 yards per game against Maryland and San Jose State, which would ranked 27th nationally. The ‘Horns did allow USC’s Sam Darnold to play pitch and catch to the tune of 397 yards, but it required 51 attempts and it’s quite possible Texas won’t see a more elite gunslinger all season.
However, if the glass is half empty, the ‘Horns allowed Maryland’s Tyrell Pigrome, who hardly boasts a reputation as an upper tier field general, to complete nine of his final 11 passes after a Holton Hill pick-six on his first attempt of the season. The following week, San Jose State compiled only 129 yards through the air, but if it weren’t for a few drops and overthrows, Montel Aaron could have easily surpassed the 200-yard mark.
Then of course, even if Darnold proves to be the nation’s premier passer by season’s end, Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph and even Will Grier are all among the upper echelon, as well, and Darnold’s 397 yards may have been a precursor for what’s to come.
For a variety of reasons, it’s still a bit too early to judge exactly which of these two extremes the ‘Horns secondary may most closely resemble as the season progresses and as noted, an improved Iowa State aerial attack will be a worthy test for Texas.
Through three games, Iowa State quarterback Jacob Park is on pace for nearly 3,800 passing yards and his primary target, Allen Lazard, may very well conclude his career as the greatest receiver in program history.
This isn’t a one-weapon offense, though.
Despite Lazard leading Iowa State in all-time receptions (189) and headlining the nation in consecutive games with a catch (38), sophomore Hakeem Butler actually leads the Cyclones thus far with 321 receiving yards, along with three touchdowns. Standing at 6’6, he and the 6’5 Lazard provide Park with two seizable safety blankets, and complimented by options in the slot such as Trever Ryen, who’s up to 154 yards on the year, Park has plenty of options.
As a result, four Iowa State receivers have recorded upwards of 100 yards this season, with running back David Montgomery just shy at 99 yards as a quality target out of the backfield, as well. A different receiver has led the Cyclones is yards in all three games.
Collectively, the Cyclones rank 18th nationally with 311.7 passing yards per game. Although such an effort stands as one of the better passing attacks in the nation, it’s relatively average when it comes to the Big 12, which is why Iowa State will provide such an intriguing test for Texas.
If the ‘Horns can hold Park and his bevy of options in check, it would serve as a testament to how good this secondary can be this season against a top-20 unit. If it can’t and Iowa State’s wide receivers have yet another field day, then the cause for concern becomes very real with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas Tech all featuring more high-powered passing offenses.