Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson sacks Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer in the first quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sunday September 4, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Texas gathering early momentum with pass rush, sacks

After two games, Longhorns find themselves atop the Big 12 lead with 8 sacks

Posted September 14th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Safety blitzes were key, but Texas generating heat off the end, winning 1-on-1 battles.
  • Breckyn Hager, Malcolm Roach both had success in a new package vs. UTEP.
  • Cal QB Davis Webb threw 72 times last week but struggled under duress.

Just about everything associated with Texas’ 2-0 start comes with an asterisk. It’s still too early to say whether anything means anything yet.

Yet the Longhorns’ defensive numbers are trending in the right direction, especially one key category that generated plenty of preseason hand-wringing. The Longhorns lead the Big 12 with eight sacks.

“Did I expect that at this time of the season? No, I didn’t,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “The guys are playing hard, and that’s the key. When you give great effort, especially when it’s a chance to get to the quarterback, good things can happen for you.”

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Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire tries to avoid the oncoming sack by Texas safety Kevin Vaccaro(18) during a NCAA football game at Darrell K. Royal?Texas Memorial Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American Statesman)
Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire tries to avoid the oncoming sack by Texas safety Kevin Vaccaro(18) during a NCAA football game at Darrell K. Royal?Texas Memorial Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American Statesman)

Texas defenders must keep finding their way into the backfield this week against California. Quarterback Davis Webb attempted a staggering 72 passes last Saturday against San Diego State. Cal, like Texas, runs a quick-release style of offense; Webb gets rid of the ball in a hurry.

“I saw last game, Davis Webb had some trouble in the pocket whenever there was pressure,” linebacker Malik Jefferson said. “That always makes a difference in any game when it’s a passing quarterback.”

The Golden Bears say they want to establish their ground game. But a team that averages 481.5 passing yards per game isn’t likely to change its DNA in a seven-day span.

“Even if we don’t sack him, just harass him and make it very uncomfortable for him,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said.

Texas has had success the first two games with safety blitzes. Kevin Vaccaro and DeShon Elliott both came screaming through the line of scrimmage for big takedowns. Jefferson blew up Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer on third-and-13. P.J. Locke III also took down Kizer on a second-and-8 play late by blitzing off the corner.

The defensive coaches unleashed Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach against UTEP. Both had impressive sacks in a new package UT will likely keep using.

In it, Hager lined up as a linebacker, crept to the line of scrimmage, beat his blocker and came around behind UTEP quarterback Kavika Johnson for the sack. Bedford estimated that Hager rushed 25 times and dropped back into coverage on seven plays against the Miners.

“I was so happy for Breckyn when he made that play in the first quarter,” defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “He was high-stepping off the field. This man really came on from last year and wants to produce and wants us to win so bad.”

Bedford said, “We knew if he was out there, he was going to go hit somebody.”

Texas defensive end Malcolm Roach sacks UTEP quarterback Kavika Johnson during the first quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN
Texas defensive end Malcolm Roach sacks UTEP quarterback Kavika Johnson during the first quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN

Roach drifted deep into pass coverage on one play. The next down, he beat tight end Kent Taylor around the end for the first sack of his career.

“I love Roach. He’s special,” Hager, a sophomore, said of the freshman. “That guy’s not a freshman. He’s somethin’ else. He’s hilarious. He’s a big boy.”

The statistics do not truly indicate how well UT’s defensive tackles are holding the point of attack. Paul Boyette Jr., Poona Ford and Chris Nelson have piled up five tackles for loss so far. But their ability to clog up the middle in the Horns’ 3-3-5 scheme is what allows for pass rushers to have success.

Junior Naashon Hughes has yet to truly get going, while Omenihu and Bryce Cottrell also can rotate in and generate heat off the edge.

Coaches appear comfortable giving freshmen D’Andre Christmas, Gerald Wilbon and Jordan Elliott playing time, too. “They’ve got to give us more, between 10-15 plays every game,” Bedford said. “They’re big, they’re talented and you have to put them out there to play to get better.”

Again, it’s early and Texas’ defensive pressure could wilt as easily as it could strengthen. The Horns feel a big test against Webb and the Bears is just what they need to get ready for Big 12 action.

“We have a big task up front this week, to go out and get pressure and get hands in his face and make him feel uncomfortable,” Boyette said.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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