Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, seen here wearing a face shield as part of COVID-19 precautions, inherits a defense that was eighth in the Big 12 in 2019. Photo by Texas Athletics

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ Ash is detailed, dedicated enough to upgrade Horns’ defense

Posted September 30th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Ash seemed far from beaten down at his normal mid-week online press conference and was neither evasive nor defensive. He made no excuses.
  • Heck, if Ash makes this place right, he’ll get another crack at head coaching and, as an Iowa native, might be a perfect replacement in Ames if Matt Campbell’s star keeps rising.
  • “The bottom line is you got to win,” TCU’s Gary Patterson said. “It’s all about scoring defense.”

Cancel that all-points bulletin for Chris Ash.

There’s been a sighting.

Some might have wondered if the new Texas defensive coordinator would stay holed up in his home or be seen in his neighborhood wandering aimlessly about, given his unit’s largely abysmal performance in the Texas Tech game that the eighth-ranked Longhorns somehow found a way to win in overtime.

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Mike Yurcich, Tom Herman’s new play-caller on offense, just knows his defensive counterpart is in full-style correct mode and said, “I don’t know what color truck he drives, but if it’s the white one, he’s the first one in and the last one out.”

That dawn-to-dusk work ethic of the 46-year-old Ash may be needed after Texas came back from a 15-point deficit to beat the Red Raiders 63-56 in spite of his defense, and that wouldn’t be far from the truth.

“The speed of the game got us,” Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said this week about the Longhorns’ 63-56 overtime win at Texas Tech. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

Ash seemed far from beaten down at his normal mid-week online press conference Wednesday and was neither evasive nor defensive. He made no excuses.

“The speed of the game got us,” Ash said, accepting full responsibility.

But there were acts of omission as well, namely the many tackles that the Longhorns missed. And there were plenty of them.

Asked how many, Ash said, “I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Too many of ‘em. It was a rough day.”

That’s hardly unusual for defensive coordinators plying their trade in the Big 12. In many respects, the sheer definition of good defense needs to be reconstituted in a league that sends quarterbacks galore like Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield to the NFL and receivers aplenty like Marquise Brown, Allen Lazard, Devin Duvernay and Tyler Lockett as well.

But the great coaches don’t dilute their standards.

How many missed tackles are acceptable?

“Zero,” TCU’s Gary Patterson told me Monday. “There’s no standard for missed tackles. You’re not supposed to miss tackles. Zero.”

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer hugs his former assistant, Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, following their 2016 game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The Buckeyes won, 58-0. (Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch)

Patterson, of course, is the defensive guru of this league, but the Big 12 has its share of talented defensive coordinators like Oklahoma’s Alex Grinch and Ash as well as new Baylor head coach Dave Aranda, who probably rivaled Clemson’s Brent Venables for the title of best DC in college football until he got his promotion in Waco, and Texas Tech’s own Matt Wells.

Ash came highly regarded from none other than Urban Meyer, Tom Herman’s former boss at Ohio State, who recently said, “He’s not a good defensive coach, he’s an elite defensive coordinator with an elite reputation and can develop players.”

OK, so Rutgers didn’t work out well for Ash, who clearly picked the wrong first job and was let go after just five games into his fifth season at the Big Ten hideaway where only Greg Schiano has been able to win, albeit after four years with a 12-34 mark of his own.

New Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash has been a head coach at Rutgers and a defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Wisconsin. (Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch)

Herman sure has faith in Ash as do his players, who are adamant that Texas fans shouldn’t throw out the Ash with the bathwater.

“Coach Ash holds us to a high standard,” defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham said. “We’re very disappointed in how we played.”

Ash is shooting for zero mistakes, but near-perfect defensive games in this part of the country are elusive, at best.

This, of course, isn’t Ash’s first rodeo.

But it is when he’s the one front and center and tasked with trying to tame a wild bronco that is Big 12 offensive football. He worked as defensive backs coach at Iowa State for six years — two more as a grad assistant — and has been a coordinator at national champion Ohio State and also Wisconsin. Heck, if he makes this place right, he’ll get another crack at head coaching and, as an Iowa native, might be a perfect replacement in Ames if Matt Campbell’s star keeps rising.

Ash can come across as stoic and standoffish, but officials call him “engaging” and “friendly,” and his players rave about him and in particular his reputation for obsessive attention to detail.

How obsessive?

His players constantly refer to it, and a rumor persists that Ash once instructed his players on the proper way to eat and once kidded Caden Sterns about it. Asked for its veracity, Ash joked and deflected it, saying, “I don’t eat very often. I’m a picky eater.”

He probably eats — and sleeps — even less these days.

But he’s fully vested in a philosophy of rugby-style shoulder tackling popularized by Pete Carroll versus the launching method preferred by his UT predecessor Todd Orlando and press, man-for-man coverage. That takes time to develop after the Longhorns were one of the worst tackling teams in the nation, averaging 12 misses a game.

Ash stood up and took the blame Wednesday. He’s not one for excuses.

“I need to do a better job of being more creative,” he said. “But I never would have seen that coming. We had plenty of opportunities to practice our tackling in camp.”

The Texas defense missed tackles. Lots and lots of them.

By his own measurements, former UT All-American cornerback Rod Babers said in an interview for our “On Second Thought” podcast that he charted 19 missed tackles but said the number easily could have been as high as 25. He put most of the blame on Texas’ young linebackers, including raw, former safety DeMarvion Overshown.

Babers, a talented sports radio talk-show host on The Horn, said it reminded him of the infamous BYU meltdown in Provo. “That’s the game that got Manny Diaz fired,” he said. “I’m not sure coach Ash has had time to implement his system.”

The lack of spring practice and limited time in August didn’t help, but Ash didn’t lean on either as an excuse for poor play.

“I thought we had plenty of opportunities for the time we had,” he said. “Our first game, we tackled well. We’ve got to make some one-on-one plays. Our whole back seven didn’t tackle well. Our players are very frustrated, but they’re not down.”

In his defense, his secondary came away with three interceptions, two of them after sudden-change plays like an onside kick and a blocked punt. The Horns also had five three-and-outs and had held Tech’s offense to 21 points through almost three entire quarters before the wheels came off.

“The bottom line is you got to win,” Patterson said. “It’s all about scoring defense.”

Wells echoes that sentiment and defended Ash.

“Chris Ash is a very good defensive coach,” Wells said, “but this league is an offensive league.”

Ash learned that only too well.

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