Summer Wish List – Defense

What an unbelievably frustrating weekend for the Texas Longhorns on the baseball diamond. After whipping Tech and shutting out Oklahoma State on consecutive days, Texas needed to win only once on Saturday to advance to the Big 12 Championship Game against TCU… But they couldn’t. A 1-0 lead was blown in the bottom of the eighth when three hits and a walk gave OSU a 3-1 lead, which they held onto and won, forcing a game two. Texas loaded the bases in the bottom of the first in game two, and with no one out they managed NO RUNS. Tres Barrera grounded into double play and ground out followed one batter later. OSU jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but Texas rallied and took a 6-4 lead on a Mark Payton single in the sixth. They held onto the lead into the eighth… And then the fun started again. A 4-pitch walk was followed by a hit batter and a sacrifice, putting runners at second and third with one out. Texas intentionally loaded the bases, but a single plated two runs to give Oklahoma State the lead and a sac fly added another. 6-4. In the bottom of the ninth, Texas got the leadoff runner on and an error by the centerfielder should have put runners on first and second with no outs, but for some reason the runner on second decided to try and go to third on that error, and was thrown out quite easily. NEVER make the first or third out at third base. Ever heard that? If you play baseball you should have. And one run isn’t going to win/tie the game, so WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Texas ended up with runners on second and third with two outs, but a ground out ended the game. Brutally frustrating. Texas could have easily won both of those games, but they didn’t. Credit to Oklahoma State for pouncing on Texas mistakes… And I can’t stand that Junior-from-Reno-911-looking centerfielder for Oklahoma State and his stupid mustache. I’d surely love him if he was on my team, but he isn’t on my team. And he’s good, too. Ugh. A nice run for Oklahoma State, who ran into a buzzsaw in TCU, who won 7-1 on Sunday to win the Big 12 Tournament Title.

And now it’s time to put it all away, because the real post-season is here. Texas is the No.2 seed in the Rice Regional, and the get the No.3 seed in game one. Who is the No.3 seed you may ask? Texas A&M. That’s right, our kinfolk from the country are our opponents in Houston. Expect to hear a lot of “Whoop!” and “SEC!” and other assorted nonsense you’ve likely forgotten/don’t care about. The Ags are 33-23 and were 14-16 in the SEC West, finishing sixth in their division. A&M hits pretty well (.286 batting average) but their 3.54 team ERA could be troubling… IF TEXAS CAN HIT THE BALL. This A&M team is set up just the opposite of Texas with a solid offense and a so-so pitching staff. I am surprised they made it into the Tournament to be honest, but no one asked me who should get invited. The first pitch at Rice’s Reckling Park between Texas and the A&M Aggies is 3 pm. Host Rice plays No.4 seed George Mason at 7, right after Texas/A&M, and the winner of the Rice Regional feeds into No.8 national seed LSU. So the Horns must play A&M, likely Rice and then a trip to Baton Rouge if they are successful.

Texas was close to regaining form in the Big 12 Tournament, but they couldn’t pull it all together. Let’s pull it all together, boys, and ruin the Aggies’ day one more time. I can’t wait.

Let’s get back to the topic, shall we?

Summer Wish List- Defense

As you well remember, the Texas defense was a dumpster fire last year. Manny Diaz was fired after Texas allowed all the rushing yards in the Americas at BYU and Greg Robinson took over. He used bandaids, neosporin and clear scotch tape to hold the Horns together well enough for them to play for a Big 12 Title, but in the end there were lots of issues. Charlie Strong took to addressing those issues this spring and from all accounts is pleased with the defense’s progress and development so far… But until August 30th we won’t know exactly how far the defense has progressed or developed. There are things I want to happen this summer that can aid greatly in ensuring that progress and development. Here are five of those things:

1. Tackling

This is No.’s 1-5, 6-10 and so on. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was last season to watch Texas miss tackle after tackle after tackle… Wait, never mind, you saw the same thing I did. A lot of people last year thought that change from Manny Diaz to Greg Robinson would fix the tackling issues, but the tackling issues didn’t have a lot to do with the scheme. I thought Greg Robinson did a nice job of trying to get guys in better places to make tackles, but at some point you have to, you know, MAKE THE TACKLES. Doesn’t matter the scheme, the stunt or the call if guys are grabbing at air when it’s time to hit. The problem was the habits in practice. Texas didn’t go full contact, to-the-ground in practice. Instead they went with what is called “Thud” tempo, which is contact with the ball carrier, but you don’t take them to the ground, instead you wrap up and then the whistle blows the play dead. I think that’s a perfectly fine idea on Thursdays when teams are in shells (shoulder pads) and shorts and it’s a widely used practice in the NFL, but you can’t do it all the time. The benefit is thud keeps guys healthy with less contact, but the terrible side effect was the tackling efforts you saw the last few years. You cannot get better at something if you never practice doing it.

So far under Charlie Strong, Texas has been going full speed, full contact, or what is called in football “going live.” We won’t see the results until the fall, but it HAS TO BE BETTER. HAS TO.

I know that can’t actually tackle this summer, but the reps in the spring are still on everyone’s mind and the muscle memory is still there, I hope. Remember it, fellas. Keep it fresh and on your mind this summer.

2.    Linebackers

When I think about the Texas linebackers in 2013, the one game I keep coming back to is the Oklahoma State game. As the secondary focused on the Cowboys receivers, OSU absolutely abused the Texas linebackers with quarterback Clint Chelf running draws. At times there wasn’t even a linebacker to block as they ran themselves completely out of the play. I know it wasn’t their entire fault; safeties also must play run support and the defensive line has their own responsibilities, but the fact was the Texas linebackers were not very good last year. Manny Diaz was asking his guys to do far too many different things, things they were unable to do, and by the time Greg Robinson took over and simplified it I think the unit was completely scarred. Robinson had to go to extremes to make the linebacking corps productive, oversimplifying everything to the point the lbs were almost in a “if this happens, do this and only this” place at times. And as the season wore on, teams like Oklahoma State took advantage of that and the result was that memory I have of them.

It isn’t all on the players at all. Their heads were swimming from a scheme that had them doing far too many different things and then the polar opposite at the end of the season. It’s impossible to cut loose and be 100% in when you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, and that’s exactly what they looked like last year. Now under Strong, Vance Bedford and Brian Jean-Mary the unit is learning a new system with new coaches, their third position coach and third DC in eight months. That’s the bad news. The good news is this is a technically sound staff that has worked together for years and is all on the same page as far as what they want. This spring they started over, going back to the basics: assignment football, form tackling, reading and reacting, being aggressive. The result is a better unit that understands the scheme, understands the principles of the defense and knows where they are going when things happen. I hope.

It’s one thing to look better and more confident against your own offense in practice; it’s quite another to be playing against an opponent that is scheming and game planning against you. I think they’ll be better this year for a few reasons: 1. Jordan Hicks is back. He’s been back before, but he’s the rock that keeps it all together and gets the unit lined up and 2. The scheme won’t change mid-season, and the scheme they are currently running is geared toward their strengths and not asking them to things they simply don’t do well.

But we still need to see it to believe it. Dalton Santos looked much more aggressive and comfortable in the new scheme in the spring game and he could be in for a big year, but I need to see it happen. I want to see it. It is my wish that the summer is when the lb’s polish their game, improve in their coverage and prepare to unleash hell on 2014.

3.   DBU

I don’t usually like calling out college kids, because they are kids. They aren’t pros, they aren’t getting paid to do this and they are trying to figure out what’s going on… But this is big time college football and big time kids that crave this spotlight, this attention and this opportunity. Duke Thomas and Mykkele Thompson have got to be better for Texas to get where they want to be. I think Quandre Diggs is an NFL talent and can more than hold his own in the secondary and it’s time for Thomas and Thompson to take their game up a notch. Thompson is long, lean and as athletic a safety as there is in the country. That’s no hyberbole. At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds with 4.4 speed Thompson has the size and speed that the NFL covets. He has the range to cover sideline to sideline, the speed to stay step for step with any receiver in the Big 12 and the size to defend the run and intimidate receivers coming over the middle… But he has to be more physical. There were times over the last few years when it looked like Thompson didn’t want to tackle. I am sure that isn’t true, but that’s how it looked. Even if that intent and desire were completely misinterpreted and he was as aggressive and physical as he needed to be, too many times Mykkele Thompson just missed the tackle. That has to be better.

What I saw in the spring game was much better. Thompson was flying around, running to contact and lighting people up- ask Montrel Meander. That was a Thompson I haven’t seen. That was an aggressive guy that was using his size and speed to make tackles and make plays. THAT guy can dominate and change games with a line like Texas has in front of him shutting down running games and rushing the quarterback. THAT guy has the chance to be a star. My wish is Thompson turns into that guy this summer.

As for Duke Thomas, his problem has never been about being physical. He’s a big, strong corner that doesn’t mind sticking his nose in the pile and making a tackle. The problem for Thomas is too many times last year the offense played “find 21” when he was in coverage. He would get beat inside, lose track of his man behind him, drift for no reason, etc. He struggled in coverage. With his speed, his experience and his potential, he simply must get better in coverage if he plans to stay on the field. The good news for Thompson is what he needs to work on he will be able to all summer as the 7-on-7 drills the team runs at night are exclusively passing and defending the pass.

Get there, guys. Get Texas back to being DBU.

4.  The Next

The Horns have been on a terrific run at defensive end the since Mack Brown got to Texas. Cory Redding, Kalen Thornton, Tim Crowder, Brian Robison, Brian Orakpo, SAcho, Sergio Kindle, Alex Okafor, Jackson Jeffcoat. Each of those names had a long and storied career at Texas, winning awards and making it to the NFL (JJ is next. He’s going to make the Seahawks and show some NFL teams how stupid they were for not drafting him). The one thing that each also had was an up-and-comer on the other side to take some of the pressure off and help create matchup problems. For Redding it was Thornton and Jermaine Anderson. For Thornton it was freshmen Tim Crowder and Brian Robison. For the Crowder/Robison duo it was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2005 Brian Orakpo. For Orakpo it was Sam Acho and Sergio Kindle, who then were the starters in 2009 with freshman Alex Okafor coming off the bench. For Okafor it was Jackson Jeffcoat and last year for Jeffcoat it was Cedric Reed. Shark teeth. Wave after wave of talented, physical ends replaced the departed and kept the position rolling along. There is little doubt that 2014 will be the year of Cedric Reed. He has the skill and the talent to carry that tradition. The question is, who will be next?

Lots of promising options with Shiro Davis, Bryce Cottrell and Caleb Bluiett as well as some serious talent coming in (Derick Roberson). After the spring game Bluiett had all the buzz, tearing it up in that game, but the job looks to be Shiro Davis’ at this point. It doesn’t matter, really, because all four will play alongside and backing up Reed. Who will it be? It will be someone, I know it. But I am still wishing for it. I think Blueitt is the prime candidate, but don’t sleep on Roberson. Texas will unleash him on passing downs and he could explode on the scene.

5.  Depth

I think the Texas defense is going to be very good this fall, but one thing concerns me: depth. The front four should be outstanding, whatever the Big 12 writers think, and the secondary should be good assuming some progression from a few players. There is talent across the board, but a lot of that talent is very young and very inexperienced. My wish is the younger guys on the roster- Derick Roberson, Hassan Ridgeway, Poona Ford, Andrew Beck, Adrian Colbert, Antwuan Davis, Chevoski Collins, Deondrei Davis and others take to these summer workouts, put in the time and fight their way onto the two deep. Football is violent and physical and guys are going to get banged up and knocked out of games. Texas needs quality players to step up in their place. How different would the Texas/Baylor game have looked last year if there was more depth? A lot different. A LOT. I understand, Steve Edmond.

Find your spot, guys, because spots are there to be found and you are needed.

So…

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have many fears about the defense. I want to see more out of the safety/cornerback spots, but a lot of that is just guys needing to stay on the learning curve and develop. I want Jordan Hicks to be healthy because I think he’s a difference maker at linebacker, but I like the mix of size, speed and athleticism Texas has on the field now. And if you didn’t already realize it, I LOVE THIS DEFENSIVE LINE. I think they can be outstanding this fall… But I do want to see a few things happen. I think a lot of those things happen, particularly Thomas/Thompson and the emergence of the next star at defensive ends. Let’s get some depth and those linebackers up to speed and Texas should be nasty this fall.

See you next week to talk about the Summer Wish List for the offense and (hopefully) a Super Regional.

 

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