Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz
It's been five months since Oklahoma's annihilation of Texas in the 2012 Red River Rivalry. A 63-21 spanking doesn't go away quickly, and unfortunately for Longhorn fans, neither does the video of the game.
Of all of last season's opponents, Oklahoma was the one who exposed Texas' defense the most. There were other games in which the Longhorns' defense showed glaring inadequacies, but the meltdown against Oklahoma had so many key moments which highlighted a season-long problem that we're going to use that game to deconstruct Texas' defense.
There were three key areas of concern in the defense last season: linebacker play, tackling technique and giving up big plays.
In the second quarter, Oklahoma had a first-and-10 on its own 23 when quarterback Landry Jones zipped the ball to a wide open Trey Millard in the flat. Millard didn't do anything fancy because two Longhorn defenders, Mykkele Thompson (No. 2) and Adrian Phillips (No. 23) didn't make much of an effort to tackle Millard.
Thompson and Phillips are both safeties (we will get to that problem later on) and both had great opportunities to stop Millard. Thompson laid out on the ground to ostensibly serve as a small speed bump for Millard and Phillips slowed up somewhat when Thompson hit the ground—did he assume the play was going to stop? Watch the play here:
Poor tackling is a problem that can be fixed in practice drills, but fixing the mentality of a player is another. No defender should ever pull up (even slightly) if he assumes a tackle might be made—Phillips never finished the play.
Missed tackles also kept the Sooners' drives alive. On a third-and-nine, Oklahoma converted on third down due to two defenders not showing urgency in their tackling. Watch No. 44 make a meek attempt at an arm tackle toward the end of the play here:
One of the biggest problems for Texas has been its linebacker play. The Longhorns went with a faster defense against the Sooners and that didn't work well—Trey Millard is a load to bring down, especially for a smaller defender. Damien Williams is no scat back either—at 6'0", 208 pounds, Williams is an excellent North-South, between-the-tackles runner and he gashed the middle of the field all day.
Kenny Vaccaro is a safety and that very position implies one thing—he's the last line of defense against a ball carrier. With a suspect linebacker unit on the field, a cheating safety—if the ball carrier gets past the line of scrimmage—will not be able to back up the linebackers once he commits to a gap.
In the next video, watch Vaccaro cheat in the box and commit to the outside while Williams goes inside. In a 4-3 defense with a cheating safety, there are only three defensive backs left to defend about 90 yards of turf.
Oklahoma recognized the weak play from Texas' linebackers and made some great adjustments. In the first quarter, on a second-and-10 on their own 50, the Sooner coaches noticed the defense showing blitz from the right side. Fullback Trey Millard scampered to the left for a 15-yard run. Why was it successful? Nobody was home on the left side.
Shoddy tackling isn't going to win you games but what's more concerning is that the Longhorn safeties were continually making tackles that their linebackers should have been making.
In this next video, watch how many consecutive plays in which the defensive backs, not the linebackers, are making the tackles on the rusher—the Longhorn linebackers were either out position or not able to free themselves from engagement.
The problem with Texas' defense isn't the talent—there is plenty of talent. So what about the coaches?
Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has had a lot of experience at coaching linebackers both at North Carolina State and Middle Tennessee State but unfortunately, the linebackers were one of the biggest weak spots last year.
On one hand, you can have the safeties crowd the box to help strengthen the rush defense but if a running back gets past the line of scrimmage, it's going to be a big play. In 2012, Texas gave up 93 runs of 10 yards or more—it was the worst performance in the Big 12—compared to the TCU, who was ranked first in the league with only 35 plays.
But it wasn't just the linebacker play that elicited so many long rushing gains, it was the lack of physicality. Granted, the Sooners ran an upbeat tempo offense and Texas looked tired late in the second half, but the Sooners offensive line man-handled the Longhorns' front seven.
Case in point: In the third quarter, freshman middle linebacker Dalton Santos (No. 55) was completely taken out of a play by Adam Shead (No. 74) at the line of scrimmage. In the next play, Santos can't break free from center Gabe Ikard's block. Two plays later, Williams literally runs right over Santos.
Exhaustion can cause reaction times to slow—so can inexperience. But the sheer amount of capitulation in that game by the Longhorns shows that the strength and conditioning coaches need to do a better job—the defense looked whipped in the second quarter.
Diaz needs to focus on the linebackers squaring their shoulders and finishing a tackle—it's a simple concept but sometimes gets overlooked. We're not picking on Santos—the 4-star linebacker rated No. 5 at his position in the class of 2012 was playing as a true freshman. But a 6-3, 240 4-star linebacker getting pancaked on rushing plays means although he's talented, he's not developed.
In ESPN's most recent report from Carter Strickland, Manny Diaz seems to understand that very problem. More:
"The mistake I made last year was that I was aware that expectations were higher for our team than they should have been," the Texas defensive coordinator said. "I think there were too many assumptions made. We said, 'Well, this guy is bigger and faster than the guy who graduated, so he must be better.'"
Expecting blue chippers to have the kind of results as they did in high school is a gamble and Texas lost big when it all in on expectations.
If Diaz can work heavily on one-on-drills over the spring and work on techniques, the talent will develop. Once the linebackers improve against the run, the safeties won't have to crowd the box to help out the rush defense—instead, they can do their jobs of helping out in middle-to-intermediate pass plays as well as stop the opponents' long gains. The linebackers also need to understand their area of responsibility and not over pursue—in the videos above, you can see linebackers completely out of position or at a poor angle because they didn't maintain lane responsibility.
Discipline in both the weight room and on the field should show a marked improvement in Texas' defense. Will we see a meaner, nastier and more mature defense in better condition this fall?
It all starts and ends with the Longhorn linebackers.