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Oklahoma Sooners Football: What has changed for the Texas defense?

Chris Ash is attempting to take the Longhorns back to basics.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2016, Austin Kendall, a freshman reserve quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners, made waves nationally by remarking that the Ohio State Buckeyes had a “basic defense.” It sounded like a dig, but it actually described the Silver Bullets to the letter. The Buckeyes didn’t do anything exotic, but that simplicity worked in favor of a team with so many talented, well-schooled players.

Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman mined his OSU lineage when searching for a new defensive coordinator after the 2019 season. Enter Chris Ash, who served as co-defensive coordinator of the Buckeyes in 2014 and 2015 before an unsuccessful stint as head coach at Rutgers. Not surprisingly, Ash appears intent on getting the Longhorns to play a similar version of Ohio State’s no-frills D.

Unfortunately for Ash, he received the unenviable assignment of installing a brand new defense amid the disruptions of COVID-19 and without the benefit of spring practices. To date, Texas has seen a mixed bag of results from the new scheme. Here’s a look at what the Longhorns have done so far on D ahead of the Red River Showdown.

Hasta la vista, Orlando

Todd Orlando presided over the Texas defense In the first three seasons of the Herman regime. A member of the Utah State defensive tree, Orlando possesses a reputation as an innovator in the field of blitz packages. As Cody Alexander of wrote of Orlando, “one thing is clear, the man can create pressure.”

Orlando molded the Texas defense into an attacking unit that usually based out of a three-man front. Frequently, you’d see the Longhorns in a Tite front with a space-eating nose tackle like Keondre Coburn directly over the center in a zero technique. Two defensive ends would flank the NT playing 4i techniques across from the inside shoulder of the offensive tackles.

The other eight players nominally consisted of three linebackers, two cornerbacks and three safeties. As a result, UT fielded a hybrid-heavy side with players on the second and third levels able to bring a variety of pressures from different depths and angles.

Of course, one major drawback of Orlando’s approach is that it is difficult to generate a pass rush organically from the three-man front; hence his emphasis on creative blitzes. Ash’s approach, on the other hand, relies more on the pressure coming from the usual suspects.

Ash has UT basing out of something closer to a standard four-man Under front. The NT shades the center to the field side of the offensive formation, with a five-tech DE joining him on that side. On the boundary side, a defensive tackle plays a three technique between the guard and tackle, while the JACK OLB lines up on the edge.

Behind the front are:

  • Two ILBs – a MIKE to the field and a WILL to the boundary;
  • Two cornerbacks;
  • A strong safety and a free safety; and
  • The SPUR, which is essentially the equivalent of a nickelback.

In practice, this generally looks like a standard 4-2-5 defense.

Familiar faces

TCU v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Despite the scheme shift, not much about the personnel on the field for the Longhorns has actually changed from a year ago. Eight starters return, although some have taken on different roles.

Coburn is still playing the nose spot, with 2019 holdover Ta’Quon Graham at three-tech and Moro Ojomo at five-tech DE. Meanwhile, pass-rusher extraordinaire Joseph Ossai has settled in at JACK, which means he’s around the line of scrimmage almost full-time.

At ILB, a slimmed-down Juwan Mitchell is manning the MIKE position after dropping 10 pounds from his playing weight of 240 a year ago. Conversely, former safety DeMarion Overshown added seven pounds to his frame to facilitate a slide from safety to WILL.

In the defensive backfield, Ash kept standout Caden Sterns and Chris Brown at the safety spots and installed Chris Adimora at SPUR. D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson are holding down the two spots at corner.

Familiar results

A new defensive scheme doesn’t automatically cure players of old habits. The Longhorns are still seeing some of the same problems that bedeviled them last year.

OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch can sympathize with Ash when it comes to UT’s chief issue so far: tackling.

In fact, two of the worst tackling teams in the country will be taking the field at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday:

Take the over.

Moreover, the UT pass rush still looks anemic through three games. In ‘19, the Longhorns finished the season in the middle of the Big 12 pack with 27 sacks in 13 games. Through three games in 2020, they have a total of three.

How to attack

In terms of vulnerabilities, Texas’ first two Big 12 opponents, Texas Tech and TCU, found success attacking the Longhorns in different ways.

The Red Raiders took their customary aerial approach, as quarterback Alan Bowman completed 31 of his 52 throws for 330 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Bowman repeatedly took advantage of size mismatches between UT coverage players and big-bodied Tech receivers such as Erik Ezukanma and T.J. Vasher. In particular, the Red Raiders hit the Longhorns with routes towards the middle of the field that allowed the Tech receivers to shield Texas defensive backs from the ball with their size.

TCU, on the other hand, leaned on a multi-faceted rushing attack to put together sustained drives.

A combination of draws, jet sweeps and inside halfback runs were augmented with read plays for gritty QB Max Duggan, who didn’t hesitate to run for daylight when the seas in the middle of the field parted on passing plays. Of Duggan’s 20 completions for the game, most came on short timing patterns that produced consistent gains.

So what does that mean for the Sooners?

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

OU could potentially steal a few elements of TCU’s game plan, including involving the receivers more in the running game. Keep in mind, though, that the Horned Frogs built off of Duggan’s skills as a runner. OU QB Spencer Rattler hasn’t shied away from keeping the ball in the Sooners’ first three games, but making that a staple of the rush attack? Terrible idea.

Watch what OU is doing in the middle of the field instead. Rattler actually seems more comfortable keeping the ball between the hash marks, and his favorite target, Austin Stogner, tends to hang out in that area. H-back Jeremiah Hall could also do some damage inside.

Lastly, UT’s tackling woes bode well for any skill players with a knack for making defenders in open space. Freshman receiver Marvin Mims could be in for a big game if Rattler can find him in on quick-hitting routes for catch-and-run opportunities.