Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando works with players before an NCAA football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ young defense will be the key to the program’s continued ascension

Posted July 16th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • Tom Herman said he thought the Texas program was on track and trending in the right direction, which it is. A 10-4 season and invigorating Sugar Bowl win over Georgia are testament to that.
  • Texas sealed close wins over USC, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech but it often withered in awful fourth quarters against the Sooners twice, Red Raiders and even the Kansas Jayhawks as Texas held on for victory.
  • Asked if Texas can win a national title with an imperfect defense, Herman said, "I don't think you can win a national championship without an above-average to elite defense."

ARLINGTON — Like any smart coach interested in defusing outrageous expectations from the hungry fan base and the ever pesky media, Tom Herman recalled on Tuesday that success doesn’t always come instantaneously.

Dabo Swinney, for example, won his first national championship in his seventh year at Clemson, Herman pointed out, and Mack Brown did the same at Texas.

He was off by one.

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They didn’t claim their first titles until their eighth seasons. And you could even say it took Swinney nine since he became the Tigers’ interim head coach in midseason one year.

This is Year Three for Herman in Austin. After two winning seasons, he’s just getting started.

Texas head coach Tom Herman walks the sideline during an NCAA college football game against Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
So he wasn’t saying it might not be until 2024 that his Longhorns can win it all and claim the school’s fifth crown. It can be done sooner.

There are examples of early glory like Bob Stoops, who won his only title in his second year at Oklahoma. Heck, Terry Bowden became the first coach to go undefeated in his debut season at a Division I school when he started 11-0 at Auburn in 1993. That said, he didn’t even last five full seasons after that, resigning under fire in midseason of 1998.

Herman did say he thought the program was on track and trending in the right direction, which it is. A 10-4 season and an invigorating Sugar Bowl win over Georgia are testament to that. But fixing an erratic defense that ranked 110th against the pass nationally and struggled mightily in fourth quarters will be the best way to hurry along Texas’ first title since 2005.

“We need to make improvements on defense,” Herman said Tuesday at Big 12 media days. “We have recruited very well on that side of the ball.”

Texas defensive lineman Malcolm Roach (32) celebrates a fumble recovery against Georgia during the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019 in New Orleans. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
So how far away is Texas from having a championship defense?

Quarterback Sam Ehlinger paused, then said, “Our offense is really good.”

Ouch.

That’s an eyebrow-raiser although the junior leader rebounded and said he had the utmost faith in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his staff. Of course, Ehlinger might have been thinking back to last year, when Texas was outscored in all but two fourth quarters and outpointed 148-66 in the final period.

The defense had its moments. It sealed close wins over USC, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech but it often withered in awful fourth quarters against the Sooners twice, Red Raiders and even the Kansas Jayhawks as Texas held on for victory.

Could it have been a lack of conditioning? “Nah,” shrugged defensive end Malcolm Roach. “We’ve got the best strength coach in the country.”

Yeah, but as good as he is, no one’s concerned if Yancy McKnight is in shape.

The defense may not have to be exceptional for a great season, but it can’t be a liability either.

Asked if Texas can win a national title with an imperfect defense, Herman said, “I don’t think you can win a national championship without an above-average to elite defense.”

He’s right. Oklahoma reached the College Football Playoff semifinals the last two years despite a horrendous defense. But again, it didn’t win it all.

Texas defensive back Caden Sterns (7) and linebacker Joseph Ossai (46) wrap up Kansas running back Dom Williams (25) during an NCAA college football game in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
So the cavalry is on the way. That said, it needs to be because Texas returns just three defensive starters — outstanding safeties Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns and Roach — after losing its starting two cornerbacks, its starting two linebackers and the entire defensive line. Probably even the GA who tracks defensive snaps. Seven of the top nine tacklers from last season are gone.

“We’re definitely young on defense,” Jones said, “but I don’t think we’re inexperienced.”

“We’re going to be young. There is no secret to that,” Herman echoed. “But young and talented is better than young and not talented.”

Even then, Herman suggests too much is made of a simplistic stat of returning starters. That doesn’t allow for backups that play a lot of minutes, often at crunch time.

When asked which of his defensive players figure to be playmakers this fall, Herman said, “I hope all of them.”

He went down the list for a few.

Jeffrey McCulloch has played a bunch. So has Gerald Wilbon. Linebacker Joseph Ossai led the team in tackles in the Sugar Bowl. Ta’Quon Graham is reliable up front. Cornerback Chris Brown tore it up in the spring. Watch out for Anthony Cook in that secondary. B.J. Foster is a hitting machine. DeMarvion Overshown’s star is on the rise in the defensive backfield.

None was a full-time starter but they still started 18 games among them. So they’re hardly bereft of experience.

“We’re probably a bit ahead of schedule, to be honest with you, in terms of getting us back to consistently being where we expect,” Herman said. “But I do think there is an element of patience.”

He’s probably right, except for maybe the patience part. Even if it did take Swinney and Brown eight years.

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