Commentary

Depth and pressure lacking for Texas defense

Manny Diaz's unit has performed well in the first half of the season

Updated: October 19, 2011, 11:54 AM ET
By Carter Strickland | HornsNation

Editor's note: Texas has reached its second bye week and has six games remaining. HornsNation will analyze each of the Longhorns' position groups on defense and look ahead to the rest of the season.

AUSTIN, Texas -- The first thing Manny Diaz had to do was win the room.

Will Muschamp was an exceedingly popular defensive coordinator with the Texas players before he was hired away by Florida.

In walked Diaz, a fast-talking, quick-scheming, blitz-loving coach who has only lived the game for the past decade. Diaz didn't play college football, and he worked in television production before getting into coaching.

Now he is all in. This opportunity at Texas represents his biggest job to date. So far his career has been filled with mostly ups -- Texas is 30th nationally in overall defense [338 yards per game] -- but one huge down, a 55-17 loss to Oklahoma.

Texas doesn't face another team this season like Oklahoma, but there are some potential problems looming. Before looking too far ahead, here is a look back at what Texas' defense has done this season.

Linebackers

When all three have been on the field together they have been solid. The problem is that formations and opponents have kept them from consistently being in the lineup at the same time. Since the UCLA game, Texas has played high-powered passing attacks and had to resort to playing nickel packages or going with three down linemen and six defensive backs.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Smith
Erich Schlegel/Getty ImagesJordan Hicks is Texas' most athletic linebacker. Manny Diaz will need to find ways to keep him on the field.
This hurts Texas, primarily against the run, because Jordan Hicks is by far the best athlete the Longhorns have at linebacker. The sophomore does not know all the calls and schemes yet, so Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson remain in the game in most situations. Furthermore, Hicks has been slowed by a hamstring injury. But Texas is better when he is on the field. Clearly, the run defense is better with all three on the field. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State had runs of 30, 64 and 74 yards.

Diaz will have to figure out a way to incorporate Hicks more as the season progresses.

Texas does not have a tremendous amount of depth at linebacker, and was affected earlier in the season by the injury to Demarco Cobbs. That has put a lot of pressure on the starting three. Cobbs is back now, and freshmen Steve Edmond and Tevin Jackson have played some spot duty as well.

Defensive line

Not only have the sacks not been there, but the tackles for loss are lacking as well. In the last two games, the Texas defensive line had a combined 11 tackles for loss for 26 yards. Opponents had 32 tackles for loss for 174 yards.

"I know that sometimes you get sacks and sometimes you don't. Diaz has said that they are going to come," defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. "We are working and we have plenty of guys trying to get sacks though, so they are going to come. As a unit, we have been doing well and we've got to keep playing hard."

At issue is that no one has stepped up to rally the starters. At the ends, Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor are playing well in spurts, but typically they come out strong and fade fast. At tackle, Kheeston Randall has been held in check. And the second tackle position is one at which neither Calvin Howell nor Ashton Dorsey has been able to establish themselves.

There is also a lack of depth, particularly at the defensive end position. Dravannti Johnson, Chris Whaley and Reggie Wilson have all seen time along the line, as has freshman Desmond Jackson. But only one of the four, Johnson, has a tackle for loss.

Diaz continually points out that it is not about stats, that his defense wants to affect the quarterback and pressure him into bad decisions. A perfect example was Brandon Weeden's throw from the back of the end zone. There, the pressure was good as Weeden was forced out for a safety. But those pressures, at least against the better offensive lines in the Big 12, have been few and far between.

Secondary

Texas is thin all over the field, but the secondary is downright emaciated. Christian Scott is playing with a cast on his right hand. Adrian Phillips went down with a right arm injury against Oklahoma State. The extent of that injury is not yet known, but it didn't look good. Nolan Brewster had to quit because of concussion-related issues.

That has left Texas with four able-bodied, reliable players in the secondary -- Blake Gideon, Quandre Diggs, Carrington Byndom and Kenny Vaccaro. Of that group, Vaccaro and Byndom have been the two best players. Vaccaro has transformed himself from a hard-hitting safety into a player with coverage skills as well. He still gets lost when he has to cover over the top sometimes, but the improvement has been dramatic. Byndom is the best cover corner Texas has. The sophomore locked up Justin Blackmon, holding him to just 74 yards.

In total, the secondary held Oklahoma State, one of the top passing attacks in the nation to 218 yards. The Longhorns yielded only 46 passing yards in the second half while the offense was trying to come back.

That bodes well. What needs to be improved is the tackling. Particularly against Oklahoma, it was evident the Sooners' wide receivers were more physical and tougher than the Longhorns' defensive backs. Time and again the catch was made and the tackle was either missed or the wide receiver was able to drag the defender for extra yards.

Texas will work on that during its bye week. The Longhorns will also have to put in work getting freshmen Sheriod Evans and Mykkele Thompson time at the safety position. Both are going to be needed as this season progresses, and could be thrust into possible starting positions next year.

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas football and recruiting for HornsNation

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