Texas defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway reaches and misses California's Khalfani Muhammad as he races for a 74-yard touchdown during the second half of Saturday's 45-44 loss at Royal-Memorial Stadium. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Football

Excitement over Jerrod Heard dampened by Texas’ run defense

Heard's 527 total yards sets new school record, but Longhorns getting gashed on the ground

Posted September 20th, 2015

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Story highlights
  • Texas' run defense now ranks 119th nationally, according to NCAA statistics.
  • Charlie Strong's problems stopping the run may only be solved through recruiting.
  • Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma all have similar or better offensive numbers than Cal.

Malik Jefferson feels so positive about Texas’ future, he’s unafraid to poke fun at its past. Last week, with Longhorn Network cameras rolling, the freshman linebacker said it’s time to look beyond Vince Young.

It’s not that Jefferson is disrespectful. But he wonders will new players come in and make a name for themselves?

“No offense to him, but we’ve gotta get his name outta here,” Jefferson said.

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Redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard started that process in Saturday’s 45-44 loss to California. Heard’s 527 total yards was the most in school history, knocking Young from the No. 1 spot in the record book. With Heard at the controls, Texas had 650 total yards, the eighth-highest total in school history.

Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard rushes in the second half against Cal Sept. 19, 2015 at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin, TX. JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard rushes in the second half against Cal at Royal-Memorial Stadium. (JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

All the excitement over Heard, the offense and the future is negated by Texas’ defense and what everyone can see here and now. The Longhorns have been atrocious at stopping the run. In three non-conference games, UT has allowed 240.7 rushing yards per game.

Big 12 play begins this week against Oklahoma State (3-0), then comes third-ranked TCU (3-0) and 15th-ranked Oklahoma (3-0). All three teams have offensive numbers similar or better than Cal’s.

Texas coach Charlie Strong said he’s excited about the direction of the offense, “but it is negated by how poorly we’re playing right now on defense.”

When asked what’s going wrong, Strong said, “Guys not doing what they’re coached to do. It’s gap control. It’s coverage principles. It’s so many things.”

In a nutshell, it’s a numbers game. UT’s defensive tackles aren’t good enough to hold their ground against double teams. Or worse, they’re getting beat one-on-one. The tackles can’t shed blockers quick enough to plug the holes. It then becomes easy for offensive tackles to push defensive ends out wide, leaving gaping holes.

Texas is using nickel defensive formations a majority of the time, which means deploying a fifth defensive back. The safeties give incredible cushion deep. Jefferson and linebacker Peter Jinkens can’t make all the tackles, hard as they try.

Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford will continue using five defensive backs a majority of the time against Big 12 opponents. The league is full of pass-happy opponents, but they’ll be eager to get easy yards on the ground.

“We know guys are going to try to run it down our throat now, after they’ve seen three games,” Jefferson said Saturday night. “Now the job is to stop the run.”

Go back and look at one drive against Cal, and you’ll see how little, correctable mistakes lead to busted plays. Cornerback Kris Boyd came up to stop Khalfani Muhammad at the line of scrimmage. Muhammad made a move, avoided Boyd, then Jinkens missed a tackle and it was an 18-yard gain.

On the next play, Muhammad ran right by Hassan Ridgeway at the line of scrimmage. Cal center Dominic Granado had a straight path to seal off Jefferson. Muhammad turned on the jets, blew past a diving Kevin Vaccaro and raced 74 yards for a touchdown.

There’s no rocket science here.

One reality is Texas simply needs better players. That’s addressed only through recruiting. The program missed on defensive tackle prospects in recent years. One Strong’s staff liked, Du’Vonta Lampkin, didn’t want to complete the enrollment requirements and went to OU instead.

The Horns must work with who they have. At least UT has a potential equalizer in Heard. And considering how Texas stormed back from a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the players in the locker room believe they can probably overcome anything.

Heard said he felt good on UT’s final drive, when Cal’s lead had dwindled to only seven.

“I told them we’re going to get this ball in the end zone,” Heard said.

Receiver Daje Johnson said, “We’ve been saying throughout the whole week that we can score with any team, if we just execute and believe and play hard.”

Texas will keep doing just that, only it might be frustrating to watch at times.

“It’s a conference where teams can score a lot of points,” Strong said, “and offensively, we can match them if the quarterback continues to play well.”

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