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FROM THE STANDS: 2014 Defense

Traveling the next two weeks, closing out summer on the beach. I’ll keep this short and sweet.

A few notes:

- Miles Onyegbule has torn his ACL and will miss the entire season. Tough break.

- Jaxon Shipley and freshman running back Duke Catalon will miss (likely the remainder of fall camp) time with hamstring injuries.

- Jonathan Gray is a beast.

- #AskJameis might be the single worst marketing idea in college football history.

- oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon has been suspended for the entire season for his role in a pending sexual assault investigation. No charges have been filed, but the university brought him under disciplinary review for sexual misconduct and the school president passed down the suspension. He has the opportunity to appeal and, until the appeal is heard, the suspension is not enforced. He is participating in practice. For now. A HUGE blow for ou if, no, when the suspension is upheld.

- I can’t get my head around the O’Bannon ruling yet. Everything is about to change.

- Goodbye, Robin Williams.

 

Let’s keep the breakdown of the 2014 season going with a look at the Texas defense.

 

2014 Texas Longhorns- The Defense

How unsteady has the Texas defense been? Fifth year senior Jordan Hicks is now playing for his fourth defensive coordinator. Even more sensational, Texas is on their third defensive coordinator in the last 11 months. Three DCs in 11 months. The good news is the merry-go-round of DC’s is now over with the new coaching staff. Taking over is Vance Bedford, the former Texas Longhorn defensive back, and, oh yeah, head coach Charlie Strong was a pretty good DC in his day as well. Joining Bedford (who will coach safeties) on the defensive staff are Chris Vaughn (from Memphis, coaching corners), Chris Rumph (defensive line, from Bama) and Brian Jean-Mary (lb’s, from Louisville). A challenge to mix new coaches in with the Strong/Bedford philosophy, the two coaches have done a great job of getting everyone on the same page. The next task was getting the players to buy in, both physically and mentally. It seems they have done that, at least on paper. Pat Moorer, the Texas Strength and Conditioning Coach, cranked up the misery to unseen levels this off-season and transformed the bodies of the team, all the while doing football-centric drills to work on the mental aspect of the game. With the off-season over and fall camp going on, the team is prepared physically for the fall and the staff is installing the defense in preparation of that. Let’s get this out there right now — I think the Texas defense is going to be outstanding this year. OUTSTANDING.

The defense will be asked to carry the load while the offense works through some things, and I think they are more than up to the task. Let’s break it down by unit and I’ll explain why I feel that way. And we’re off!


Defensive Line

The dominant unit on the dominant side of the ball is the defensive line. These guys are, in my opinion, the absolute strength of the team when you look at the athleticism, experience, talent and depth they have. It starts with the two sure-fire next level guys, Cedric Reed and Malcom Brown.

The senior defensive end Reed had an outstanding season last year opposite Jackson Jeffcoat, earning several All Big 12 Honors (including 2nd Team by the coaches) and finished second on the team in sacks (10), pressures (16), tackles for loss (19), and third in tackles (76) and fumble recoveries (3). He led the team with five forced fumbles. At 6-foot-4, 276 pounds with a basketball wingspan, Reed is projected as an NFL first rounder next spring. His ability to get into the backfield and make plays and force turnovers make him an absolute nightmare for offenses to deal with. Expect to see similar numbers this fall. Also returning is junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown. Mr. Brown is about to explode onto the Big 12 scene. At 6-foot-2, 320 pounds, Brown is a beast to handle inside. He has unbelievable quickness for a man so big and his first step is as sudden and fast as anyone in the league. He reminds me of a shorter Shaun Rogers, who was so physically imposing that his ability to move quickly caught everyone by surprise. That’s the same skill set Brown has. He’s going to dominate this fall after spending the entire year starting last year and learning the game. I love Brown. Sometimes he has braids, sometimes has a blond mohawk, sometimes he cracks an upperclassmen acting a fool. He enjoys himself, but he takes his team and his job seriously. I expect big things from him this season, and I expect he has to make an NFL decision this Christmas. But this dl is more than just Brown and Reed.

Also starting are defensive tackle Desmond Jackson and defensive end Torshiro Davis. Probably. The goggled one they call “Tank” started 11 games in 2012 and backed up Chris Whaley last fall, still starting two games. He’s worked his way back into the starting lineup with effort and power. In fact, I believe Jackson is the strongest player on the team. At 6-feet, 298 pounds, there are bigger options for Texas inside than Jackson, but he’s held off all comers and locked down the starting nose guard spot. As a guy who played center, I can tell you dealing with a short, powerful nose guard — because that guy’s ability to get low (easier when you are shorter than the center, which he will be most of the time) and hold his ground (many times the defensive tackle on the nose is asked to simply roadblock the interior, clogging up the running lanes so there is nowhere to run) — can ruin an inside running game. Jackson has that ability. To deal with it an offense either double teams him, leaving a defender free to make a play, or they run elsewhere. Either way, it means the defense is deciding what the offense can and cannot do. Jackson has that type of roadblock ability inside. He’s maybe not the best pass rusher on the dl, but he had a monster 8-tackle, 2-sack day at West Virginia last year after Chris Whaley went down. Jackson’s role is controlling the line of scrimmage, and it’s a role he does well. Also starting on the dl will be Torshiro Davis. The 6-foot-2, 253-pound junior has linebacker abilities with his speed and athleticism on the edge and in the last year has added weight to bulk up to handle the rigors of the dl spot. A backup his first two years behind Reed and Jeffcoat, Shiro flashed playmaking abilities in getting into the backfield. Now he’ll get more than backup work. So far the staff, per reports, has him dropping into coverage at times, playing more of a 3-4 outside linebacker role than as a defensive end occasionally, because of that speed and athletic ability. His versatility and ability to move around will make him a problem as offenses focus on deal with Cedric Reed on the other side. Probably. I say “probably” because he’s in a battle with Caleb Bluiett, the 6-foot-2, 261-pound sophomore. Bluiett is not a hybrid. He’s a traditional hand-on-the-ground defensive end that has as quick a first step as anyone end on the team according to an insider. His skill set is different than Davis’ and the staff will use him differently as he’s a little bigger and little more physical. Those two have been battling for the job all spring and, at least early on, it looks like Davis has the edge. It doesn’t really matter who starts (well, not to me, it does to them), because both will play and play a lot. I think Davis’ ability to move around can cause more pre-snap problems for offenses, so I expect he gets the nod. I also think you are looking at your 2015 starting defensive ends in Bluiett and Davis. In tandem (Davis, Blueitt, Jackson), I think they do more than enough to take the pressure off Reed and Brown. But there is more.

Texas has a host of young talent trying to fight their way on the field: Hassan Ridgeway, the 6-foot-4, 307-pound sophomore that does look like Shaun Rogers in a uniform; Poona Ford, who you already know I love; Chris Nelson, another four-star incoming freshman (from Florida) looking to make a dent; and vets like Paul Boyette and Alex Norman. That’s just the tackles, folks. Bryce Cottrell and incoming freshman four-star recruit Derick Roberson are looking for pt as well at end. They are realistically five deep at defensive end and five deep at defensive tackle, meaning there is enough depth to keep everyone fresh. Oh yeah, they have NFL talent in several spots.

The biggest news of the most uncertain spot on the defense is the return of Jordan Hicks. The Texas linebackers have been a bit underwhelming the last few years. That’s a very kind way to say that, isn’t it? Dumpster fire would have also worked. Under Manny Diaz the lb’s were terrific in 2011. EAcho and Keenan Robinson were seniors with NFL talent and they understood what he wanted and expected. After they left, the young guys struggled to understand what he wanted and expected and, ultimately, after Texas gave up all the rushing yards in college football to BYU last year, Diaz was clipped. Greg Robinson simplified everything and made it much, much better, but the drastic changes needed to improve the unit required more than a few game weeks for it to be really effective. Enter Brian Jean-Mary, Vance Bedford and Charlie Strong. And Jordan Hicks. The new staff is installing the defense, the philosophy and the mindset, and Jordan Hicks is helping make sure it takes hold. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound senior has missed 18 games the last two years with injuries, getting knocked out in week four last year and week two in 2012. The former five-star recruit from Ohio is back and is vocal on the field, getting everyone where they should be and when they should be there. The scheme isn’t as complicated as it was going into last year, but they need a guy they trust to make the defensive calls and get everyone lined up. That’s Hicks, who is the quarterback of the defense. Oh, and he’s a damn good football player, too. This is a contract year for Hicks, who could be a professional this time next year with a good season.

Joining Hicks as lb starters will be Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos or Steve Edmond. I really, really, really like Jinkens. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound Dallas product is emotional and loves football. Remember, Charlie Strong wants guys who “love football.” Jinkens is one of those guys. He’s lightning quick at outside linebacker and has shown playmaking ability (his coming out party was the 2012 Alamo Bowl) and now he’s beefed up to 237 to stay on the field a bit more. He’s having a great camp so far, picking off a few passes and being physical and active and getting to the ball. If Jordan Hicks is the quarterback, Jinkens is the emotional leader. He’s the energy guy that keeps everyone’s intensity up. In the middle, the battle is still on between Dalton Santos and Steve Edmonds. Both players had their moments last year, but they also were out of position a lot of times as well. That’s not all on them at all, the scheme and the demands were unrealistic, but it needs to be more consistent this year. So far, it is. At 258 pounds, the 6-foot-2 senior Edmond looks more like a defensive end than a middle linebacker. In the past he’s flashed some big play ability (a touchdown vs. Ole Miss in 2012, the game-winning interception at West Virginia last year), but this fall camp he’s producing more consistently and making those sort of plays in every practice (per reports). I expect he’s going to hold off Dalton Santos if that is true. At 6-foot-3, 252 pounds the junior Dalton Santos is the same size as Edmond on paper, but Dalton Santos looks the part of a middle linebacker. He’s a bit more athletic than Edmond, but Edmond’s penchant for the big play gets him on the field first. You’ll see both guys play, but Edmond is the starter. The linebacker position should be better in 2013 with Hicks’ return alone. There is leadership, athletic ability and 500 pounds of middle linebacker inside to deal with the running game. Don’t sleep on Edmond in coverage, though. The big man can drop and make plays, which is why he’s the starter. As for depth, did you hear what I said about the starters? Those guys are good.

In the secondary resides the undisputed leader of the defense and possibly the entire team, Quandre Diggs. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior wears his brother’s No. 6 (Quentin Jammer) and has 36 starts under his belt. Whatever pre-season watch list you can think of, he’s on it, along with Ced Reed. Last year he was All Big 12 Honorable Mention and a 3rd Team All-America Selection. He is going to follow in his brother’s footsteps and play in the NFL, that’s all but a lock. But before he does, he wants to clean his house up. We all know he has the talent to be an NFL corner. He’s physical, smart, fast and very talented. He’s also the one Charlie Strong took to Big 12 Media Days and he’s the one that told the media about the Texas program “If you don’t love football, we don’t need you here.” You can be sure he knew about the pending suspensions/dismissals and he was sending a very public message to the fans, the media and his teammates that this is not how things are going to be from here on out. Greg Robinson, in his first stop at Texas, instituted the Not Our Standard for the defense. If someone did something wrong on the field, the entire defense ran because they were not living up to the Texas standard. With Strong, through the team leader Diggs, the Not Our Standard applies to everything. Diggs has embraced this standard and is leading from the front. The guy is going on the wall of Belmont as a captain at the end of the season and he embodies everything a captain stands for. Oh, and he is a helluva football player, too.

Joining him at corner will be Duke Thomas. The 5-foot-11, 178-pound junior has tremendous skills, but he struggled mightily at times last year, losing his man or drifting out of position. Again, not all his fault as the scheme put a lot of pressure on him, but he has to be better to hold onto his job. He’s been a lot better this summer and into camp. As of today, he’s got the job and I expect he’s a lot better this fall. He was thrown into the very deep, pass-happy Big 12 pool very early in his career and he struggled, but as long as he’s developing and growing he’ll be fine. An interesting development in the summer was the use of starting safety Mykkele Thompson at corner. The 6-foot-2, 191-pound senior can fly and might be the fastest player in the secondary. You don’t see guys that big that are that fast very often, and Thompson has played a lot of football. He wasn’t as physical as the staff wanted last fall, but he certainly seemed more physical in spring practice (ask Montrel Meander). I think the move to corner is experimental and it is to see if Thompson could play that nickel role, picking up a third receiver in man coverage, which he seemed to do well. I think Thompson holds on to his safety spot, but look for him to line up at corner to give offenses a different look.

The big news of camp is at the other safety spot. It was thought that Josh Turner was surely the starter there, but after his dismal-turned-suspension, the job has been opened up. Lots of candidates applied, but as of it right now the job goes to … Dylan Haines. The 6-foot-1, 194-sophomore walk-on from Lago Vista is big, smart, physical and unafraid of the moment or the stakes. He was an all-district safety in high school and, looking at him on paper, he’s a big kid that moves well. I have no doubt Josh Turner will have a say in whether or not he holds onto the job, as will others like Edwin Freeman and Adrian Colbert. But today, right now, it’s Haines’ job. And that is fantastic for many reasons. First, it means Charlie Strong is giving everyone, EVERYONE, a fair shot at playing time. If you do the work, do it well and follow the rules, you can get on the field. Secondly, it means there are no favorites. No elite getting preferential treatment, just one big team. I am rooting for you, Dylan Haines. Good luck.

There’s so much talent in the secondary in young guys like Freeman, Colbert, Antwuan Davis, John Bonney, Bryson Echols, Jermaine Roberts, Jason Hall … All are in the mix behind the starters. Two names to watch (aside from Turner working his way out of the dog house and back on the field): Edwin Freeman and Jason Hall. At 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, Hall is a monster. The true freshman will see time somewhere. Same for the true freshman Freeman, who at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds could play some sort of linebacker/safety hybrid and defend the run.

All in all, I really like the Texas secondary, as long as Duke Thomas progresses like he should. There is depth and talent everywhere and an undisputed leader in Diggs keeping everyone together and on the same page. I think DBU is back in business.

 

So …

As I said, I really like this defense a lot. The depth on the line should provide the NFL talent enough rest and offer enough weapons for them to be lethal this fall. With Hicks back and a technically sound scheme, the Texas linebackers should be a truck-ton better. The secondary is going to be excellent with Diggs running the show, as long as a few things develop as they should. See? Dynamite.

 

Back next week with the offense.

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