UT's Kris Boyd, left, and Holton Hill celebrate after beating Baylor at McLane Stadium in Waco on Saturday December 5, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Kirk Bohls: John Bonney, Kris Boyd are pacing Texas’ defensive reversal

Posted November 7th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • In the last four games, the Texas defense has allowed just six touchdown passes, none longer than 20 yards.
  • Charlie Strong has simplified the defense, played more in the secondary and blitzed more to give quarterbacks less time to throw.
  • The Longhorns rank only 108th nationally in pass defense, but more turnovers and sacks have made a big difference.

Halfway through the season, John Bonney admits he pretty much detested going into hostile territory. Just didn’t like it.

On the road? At Manhattan? In Lubbock? Berkeley?

No, no. On Twitter.

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The hate was too overpowering.

“I had to stop,” the Texas cornerback said Monday. “People are pretty brutal. I didn’t like what I really saw, and I had to stop.”

Many of the ugly posts didn’t bother him because he checked them out and dismissed any of them that had very few followers. With some, he considered taking screen shots of particularly hateful tweets that roasted his play and putting them side by side with those from the same person now praising him.

UT Head Coach Charlie Strong celebrates after the Longhorns stopped the Red Raiders on a fourth down play in the fourth quarter at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT Head Coach Charlie Strong celebrates after the Longhorns stopped the Red Raiders on a fourth down play in the fourth quarter at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There’s definitely been a before-and-after with this Texas defense, which has done an about-face that coincided with Charlie Strong’s decision to demote defensive coordinator Vance Bedford to co-secondary coach after the loss to Oklahoma and to call the signals himself.

Almost to a man, the Longhorn players say there’s been very little difference in the way the defense is being coached up, but the results speak for themselves.

“We’re the same players,” Bonney said. “We still have some stuff we need to fix. The defense has not been perfect.”

So is it a good defense yet?

That’s debatable, since Texas ranks worse against the pass (108th) than it did last year (74th). But it’s been good enough of late.

Good enough is plenty good if it means wins, and the Longhorns (5-4, 3-3 Big 12) have won three of their last four games and four straight against teams ranked in the top 12. As a result, they have a chance to run the table against solid-but-beatable West Virginia at home, against hapless Kansas on the road, and against (until last Saturday) offensively-challenged TCU at Royal-Memorial Stadium the day after Thanksgiving.

Texas has improved for a variety of reasons.

  • Strong allowed Bedford to specialize more with the secondary, and unlike some previous Strong assistants who were demoted, Bedford hasn’t sulked. Strong has spent the majority of practices on the defensive side, and “he’s super animated,” Bonney said. “We feed off his energy.”
  • Texas has played more man-to-man defense.
  • Kris Boyd and Bonney were moved into starting roles, and have played an aggressive style.
  • Strong simplified the defense and has brought more extra rushers in blitzes, forcing 19 sacks and 36 tackles for a loss over the last four games.
  • Texas has been making adjustments. When the coaches saw quickly that Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes II was picking apart the Longhorns’ man-to-man defense and couldn’t hurt them on the ground, Strong switched to zone coverage and stymied Mahomes as his receivers could never gain separation.
  • Texas has played tons of defensive backs, 12 in all last week in Lubbock, to keep them all fresh. Strong rotated in an entire new group in the secondary for the third defensive series against Tech.

As a result, Texas has played Big 12-relative, if you will, respectable defense. Allowing 25 points a game, as Texas has done the last four weeks, represents clear progress.

UT cornerback Kris Boyd, left, makes a game-saving interception in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. UT defensive tackle Poona Ford celebrates the win. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT cornerback Kris Boyd, left, makes a game-saving interception in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. UT defensive tackle Poona Ford celebrates the win. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Strong’s team has reversed its fortunes largely because of the play of powerful running back D’Onta Foreman, precise passer Shane Buechele and a turnaround by the defense that features an attacking pass rush and tighter coverage in the secondary.

“The secondary’s about overcoming adversity,” said nickel back P.J. Locke III, who has been very steady. “We’re coming together. We’re being in the right place. We believe in ourselves and we trust our coaches.”

In the last four games, Texas has surrendered just six touchdown passes, none of which has gone for longer than 20 yards. It helps that Kansas State relied only on quick screens and that 1-8 Iowa State was totally suffocated. But the opponents’ home run ball has gone away, and not because the World Series is over. Three of those six scores came against Texas Tech and covered just 3, 6 and 7 yards.

In the first five games, Texas allowed 15 touchdown passes; five went for more than 40 yards as Sheroid Evans and Holton Hill regularly got toasted and eventually were benched in favor of Boyd and Bonney.

“You get tired of that after a while,” Bonney said. “Letting guys get behind us is something we can’t do with the speed of the receivers in the Big 12. That’s why tackling is so important. I do think we’ve been clicking lately, and our main goal is to keep clicking.”

They’ve given such a good account of themselves that one reporter told Bonney he couldn’t even remember the last time Texas gave up a bomb.

“That’s good,” Bonney said. “I’m glad.”

But all the same, he should still stay off Twitter.

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