How UT is fixing its tackling issues

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas attempted 1,179 tackles in 2012.

The key word being "attempted" because the Longhorns missed on just about 10 percent of those tackles. To chop it up another way, Texas averaged just a smidge more than nine missed tackles a game. Some games -- the 16 missed tackles against Oklahoma, for example -- were obviously worse than others. The Longhorns had three the very next week against Baylor.

And as Texas coach Mack Brown pointed out, the Longhorn tacklers were better in the second half of the season. After missing 76 tackles through six games, Texas only missed 36 in the last seven. For what it is worth, Texas finished sixth in the FBS in missed tackles. Vanderbilt had the most with 119.

Still, Texas is coming off a season in which it had the worst defense in program history. That was largely due to the ineptness of the back seven when it came to wrapping up and taking a player to the ground.

And it appears, at least from public statements, that Brown is still perplexed as to why tackling was an issue.

"I think it's probably the most talked about thing for the teams that didn't tackle well and when they did tackle well, you say you have a good defense," he responded when asked what can be done to fix the tackling problems this spring. "I've done both. And you have done the same drills, basically, when you do both."

Now the coach might have been slightly defensive in his statement there. Nobody likes to be criticized for things that didn't go well and Brown's first pass at explaining the overriding issue for one of the most athletically gifted defenses in the Big 12 could be a reflection of that.

To think that Texas will continue to just "basically" do the same drills and cross its fingers is naïve. While continued fundamental work will be stressed there will be an undercurrent of changes both in the manner in which Texas practice and the players it puts on the field.
Although changing the physical nature of practice will not be one of them.

"I've had coaches come from everywhere in the country and they say we are just as physical as everybody they have ever worked with, so that's a farce," Brown said. "That's a myth. It's a fun one; people have enjoyed it, but it's a myth."

Well, according to players, Texas did start to conduct more physical practices following the OU game. Oddly enough the missed tackles per game went from an average of 11.7 to 5.

But to think Texas is going to jeopardize players' safety in practice by continually banging heads is farcical. The players are too valuable of a commodity for that. Still, a balance does have to be struck, one that wasn't this time last year.

For instance, safety Adrian Phillips, who shouldered much blame for not being able to lower his shoulder and bring down an opponent, had shoulder surgery in the spring, was unable to practice and was still not cleared to tackle in fall practice due to the surgery. Still, Texas counted on him to be ready by the fall. When it was clear he was not, Texas had not prepared an adequate backup.

"We threw him out there and said go, and then wondered why he struggled some early," Brown said. "In retrospect, we probably should have tried to get somebody more ready and let him ease back in instead of jump back in with the speed in this league."

So Texas will be much more concerned with building quality depth at safety and linebacker. Several other factors, including the tempo offense unveiled by co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, will aid that effort.

Although Texas lost Kenny Vaccaro at safety, cornerbacks Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs are back. Both could be playing for NFL money in 2013 and both watched Vaccaro's draft stock rise with his effort in 2012. Additionally, Phillips and safety Mykkele Thompson now understand what it takes to stay competitive and, maybe more importantly, in front of the offense.

"Being in better shape, being older, being more confident, playing more football, being more prepared for tempo, all of those things will help our tackling," Brown said.

As far as shape goes, the shape of things at middle linebacker appears to be infinitely better. Dalton Santos, who is pushing for the starting position, has lost 20 pounds allowing him to be quicker sideline to sideline. Peter Jinkens is nearly a lock for one side and Jordan Hicks is back for the other. Plus, Texas has quality backups.

"So we really have six or seven guys there that have a chance to step up and play and that's by far better than we've been since Emmanuel [Acho] and Keenan [Robinson] left," Brown said.

Now whether or not Texas has a chance to be as good a defense as when Acho and Robinson were there -- the Longhorns were No. 11 in total defense as opposed to 67th in 2012 -- will begin to be revealed this spring.