Texas Tries to Build a Defense That Can Survive in Air Raid Country
- From new pressure schemes to color-coded pee charts, the Longhorns will try anything to get their defense ready to stop the Air Raid.
AUSTIN, Texas — Naashon Hughes points at the jug he’s carried into the room. “I’ve got a full gallon here,” the Texas linebacker says. “I’m probably going to refill it and get two gallons in. I probably should have some Championship Level urine right there.”
Like all the Longhorns, Hughes pays special attention at the urinal. The Texas pee chart was a minor Internet sensation in April, and Hughes wants to make clear—not bright yellow and definitely not orange—that he’s chugging enough fluids to avoid being a selfish teammate or a bad guy.
Hughes, a fifth-year senior, uses the drinking and making of water as an example of the small details Texas players must mind now that Tom Herman is running the program. By this point, Hughes is quite accustomed to new coaches and their varying points of emphasis. An Army brat, Hughes moved nine times after his family returned to the United States from Germany, where the family was stationed when Hughes was born. Since coming to Texas, Hughes has had three head coaches. He has had three defensive coordinators—four if you count when former head coach Charlie Strong assumed playcalling duties and essentially demoted Vance Bedford last season.
Hughes doesn’t mind these most recent changes. Nothing anyone has done since he got to Austin has helped make Texas a national power again, so he and his teammates are open to any new ideas Herman and company have. “The best way to sum it up is being sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hughes says. “When the coaching staff got here, there was no resistance. … The other way we did it got us five wins and seven losses. We were all pretty much open to what he had to say.”
One thing Herman has said recently is that if Texas is going to move from the seven-loss plateau upon which the program is currently marooned, it will be because of the defense. The Longhorns have the kind of athletes who should be able to slow Big 12 offenses, but those athletes didn’t cover well enough or make enough open-field tackles last season. Texas ranked 93rd in the nation in yards allowed per pass attempt (7.7), and during a three-game stretch that included losses to Cal, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, the Longhorns allowed an atrocious 11.9 yards per attempt.
There is only one way to truly shut down the Air Raid offense that seven of the Longhorns’ nine Big 12 rivals run. The corners and the nickel player must be able to cover one-on-one, and the front four must be able to regularly beat the offense’s five linemen without help from a blitzer. Even the best defenses can’t do that every play against the more talented teams in the Big 12, so a defense must take some risks. It must try to disrupt the quarterback before he can throw to a receiver with a favorable one-on-one matchup. It also must get penetration up front to narrow rushing lanes that naturally open when defenders spread out to match up with receivers scattered across the field.
Texas has the talent to do both. Last year, the Longhorns ranked 16th in the country with 7.6 tackles for loss per game. But the pressure came at a cost. The Longhorns couldn’t cover if the offense blocked everyone. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s challenge will be to find ways to get players in the backfield without leaving the secondary exposed. The good news is his past history suggests he does that quite well. “It’s pressure, but there’s some low-risk stuff too,” Orlando says. “To me, it’s about utilizing your athletes—keeping them on the move and trying to expose matchups.”
In other words, Orlando may regularly run two rushers at the weak link on an offensive line. Or if he sees that opposing offensive linemen don’t communicate well—as he did last year in an 11-sack game against Louisville while working at Houston—he’ll call blitzes designed to force those linemen to switch and pass off rushers with the hope that one or more of the blockers gets crossed up and blocks no one. It may be satisfying to watch a defensive tackle toss a guard into a quarterback’s lap, but it’s still easier for that tackle to get to the QB if no one blocks him at all.
The key, Orlando says, is not to get scared and pull back on the reins when an offense does break a big play. “You have to work at it every day,” he says. “A lot of the time, I think defenses will go away from a lot of pressure because they’re afraid to screw it up themselves.” Offenses—especially those in the Big 12—will gain yards and score touchdowns, but the defense can’t try to change its personality midstream. “You get split on big runs. Somebody throws a deep ball and you get beat,” Orlando says. “But my opinion is that if you’re committed to this part of it, you have to be committed all the time. You can’t sprinkle it in.”
Hughes will be the linebacker who rushes from a standing position the way Tyus Bowser did in Orlando’s Houston defense. Breckyn Hager (13.5 tackles for loss in ’16) will come screaming off the other edge. Orlando doesn’t have human wrecking ball Ed Oliver anymore, but he does have a similarly sized—read: kind of short for an elite defensive tackle—disruptor in senior Poona Ford, who probably still shows up in Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield’s nightmares after spending most of the ’15 Red River Shootout in Mayfield’s face. When Orlando watched video of the players he inherited shortly after taking the job, he knew Ford played bigger than he looked. After coaching Ford in the spring and the preseason, Orlando is confident Ford can help create some of those same low-risk, high-reward scenarios Oliver created at Houston.
The key to keeping the big plays to a minimum might be junior linebacker Malik Jefferson, who occupies the spot in Orlando’s defense that was held by volume tackler Steven Taylor at Houston. Former five-star recruit Jefferson’s athleticism is undeniable. In an interview earlier this year, TCU quarterback Kenny Hill explained how difficult it is to mentally process that a player Jefferson’s size (6' 3", 240) can move so quickly. But the new staff has been especially tough on Jefferson because Herman and Orlando don’t feel Jefferson has maximized his gifts. They want him to be tougher, and they want him to shed blocks better. He could be the difference between three-yard gains and six-yard gains by opposing rushers, and that changes the math on second and third downs. The better Jefferson plays the run, the more likely Texas is to find itself in a situation where Hager and Hughes can get to the quarterback, rather than watching as he catches and throws within a second of the snap because the offense only needs to gain three or four yards.
Jefferson understands the pressure he’s under. It isn’t new. He has felt pressure since joining the Longhorns in 2015. As the highest ranked recruit Strong signed, Jefferson was supposed to be one of the program’s saviors who pulled it back to national contention. “I’m fine with the pressure,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me anymore.” When Strong was fired, Jefferson understood. “I’ll love coach Strong until the earth ends,” he says. “Things just happened that way.” Jefferson also worked to keep the Longhorns together after Strong’s firing by reminding younger teammates that it wouldn’t be the last time they have to keep going after the person who brought them aboard leaves. “The way I explained it to the people that struggled was this,” he says. “It’s like your boss gets fired or your boss gets a better job and leaves. Are you going to quit?”
The chunks ripped from the skin on Jefferson’s forearms suggest he has followed his new coaches’ orders to mix it up more with offensive linemen and join in on more tackles, and the willingness of Jefferson’s coaches to praise him now suggests those coaches believe Jefferson can do what they ask in games. If he can, Jefferson might finally be able to do what the coaches who recruited him promised he could. “You can come here, and you can change things,” Jefferson says, recalling the sales pitch from Strong and his staff. That, Jefferson says, has been his goal since he arrived on campus. “I want to bring this program to where it needs to be,” he says.
All the Longhorns’ defenders want to be remembered as the group that made Texas a contender again. But they can’t just talk about it. They have to back it up those words with stops that lead to wins. Otherwise, they’re just distributing Championship Level urine into the wind.