AUSTIN, Texas – Quandre Diggs talks like he plays -- fast, hard and with an edge.
So when the question as to why the defense has not lived up the hype was put to the Texas cornerback he came back with a quick punch: "You think everybody who comes on the field is automatically an all-American."
Well, true. That is the perception of Texas because Texas does recruit and sign so many high school all-Americans. Over the past five years, Texas has had 51 ESPN top 150 players sign. For perspective, Baylor has had three. The Bears are only 25 spots worse in overall defense than Texas this season.
Where the real difference is that Texas was expected to be better. Check that, Texas was expected to be among the best. The players, the ones Texas brought in front of the media in the spring and fall camp, said the defense was better than the 2011 version that finished 11th in overall defense. Linebacker Steve Edmond moved like no big man they had seen before, they said. Defensive tackle Brandon Moore could block out the sun and throw aside offensive linemen with ease, the players said. And the secondary would be better due to a year of experience and the addition of a healthy Adrian Phillips, was the claim.
Then they played. And it was clear from the first 82-yard touchdown pass allowed against Wyoming this defense had issues.
Here then is a breakdown of why Texas has broken down on defense:
Linebackers: To pin all the issues on Jordan Hicks’ injury would be wrong. He was the leader of that group and the leading tackler before injuring his hip flexor against Ole Miss. But not even his play would have been able to mask the deficiencies present in the other players.
First off, Texas had no adequate backup for Hicks. It tried to play with three linebackers and put Demarco Cobbs in Hicks’ spot while bringing Kendall Thompson in to play the other outside linebacker. But it became apparent Cobbs’ speed, his greatest asset, was wasted due to his inability to use that speed to go in the right direction.
In addition, with the proliferation of spread teams Texas needed more defensive backs on the field and therefore would have to play more nickel and dime. So despite Cobbs being a former safety, he had to come off the field. (He did play more of a floater linebacker/safety role against Baylor on some plays and actually was not all bad.)
So now Texas was saddled with having just two linebackers on the field, Steve Edmond and Thompson. Neither played significant minutes before this season. Edmond’s speed and ability to close was vastly overestimated. So too was both their ability to find the right holes and plug them. Clearly both are more suited and more comfortable playing in a traditional three-linebacker set instead of the two.
Complicating the issue is the backups do not have the strength, knowledge or stamina to play for extended periods of time. Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens are true freshmen. They were at linebacker together on James Sims’ 64-yard run and while they were not the entire problem they were not part of the solution either.
The coaching staff only just started to rely more on Tevin Jackson but he has been used as a third down specialist. He is the most natural blitzer -- a role many thought Cobbs would have -- and is able to shed blocks better than the other backers. But he does not have the consistency to be an every down linebacker.
Defensive line: The simplest way to put this is that the defensive line was raved about when it was going against the Texas offensive line. It’s a harsh reality that says something about both lines of scrimmage for Texas.
This was supposed to be a position of dominance because of the depth inside and the skill outside. On the outside Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat did prove they could be very good pass rushers. Those two shut down Geno Smith. And really even on the inside in that game the tackles held their lanes so that Smith could not escape through the heart of the defense.
As for the interior players, the thought was Texas could rotate five guys through the two positions and be fresh throughout a game. Wear teams down. But Texas has allowed 5.3 rushing yards per attempt in the second half of games. That is a full yard worse than the next teams in the Big 12, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Moore, Desmond Jackson, Malcom Brown, Ashton Dorsey and Chris Whaley have not proven that they have the strength to shed blockers or even move blockers for that matter and stop the opponent at the line of attack. Sure there have been times when the defensive line has shown flashes of what it could be. But, by and large, this is a group that gets pushed around by opponents. And this after the big push in the offseason was for the defensive line to get stronger. That might have happened but it is clear they are not strong enough and do not play with enough leverage to be consistently impactful for 60 minutes.
Secondary: This is a position where confidence matters. Carrington Byndom lost his early for whatever reason. Like his teammates there have been moments when he has shown what he could be. But there have been others when he has shied away from contact. Going into the Kansas game he led Texas in missed tackles with nine. There is no way Texas is going to replace him because Byndom still is a good cornerback. He is just not as good as he was during his sophomore year.
On the other side, Diggs continues to be one of the best cornerbacks in the country. He has lived up to the hype.
The safety issues started before this year. Texas knew it was going to be thin at that position because of some key losses not the least of which was Nolan Brewster. A medical condition forced Brewster to give up the game. That put the Longhorns in a bind. The backups, Mykkele Thompson and Sheroid Evans, were not ready. Thompson was a high school quarterback and as such not well versed in all the art of proper tackling and angles. Evans spent some of the spring in track. And Adrian Phillips missed the spring due to injury.
The weaknesses of this position become more exposed when Hicks went down. Without Hicks on the field, Texas had to have a sure tackler near the line of scrimmage when it was in nickel. That meant Kenny Vaccaro had to move up. That left Phillips, a guy who did not tackle or receive instruction in tackling all spring as well as Thompson, a guy who was a high school quarterback, as the last line of defense for Texas. Neither has held up very well.
When Vaccaro is allowed to roam, as he did against Kansas in the second half, the big plays of the opponents can be avoided. But against multiple teams, Texas Tech is such a team, Texas might not have that luxury and have to once again rely on Phillips and Thompson.