The new Texas defensive coaches bent over backward last week to avoid criticizing their predecessors, and frankly, that’s an unwritten rule in the profession. You just don’t do it.
“The past is behind us,” defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “You know, it’s about the players, not the plays. And we want to make sure that our system puts our players in the best position to be successful.”
But team captain Malcolm Roach, now training for NFL interviews, laid bare his thoughts about the Longhorns’ three-man defensive front under former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
In an interview last week with two reporters covering the Dallas Cowboys, Roach praised UT’s move back to a four-man defensive front. The four-year letterman at defensive end said the previous scheme “just didn’t let us showcase our abilities the way we wanted to.”
Roach’s comments seem to solidify Texas coach Tom Herman’s gut move to switch back to a 4-3 base defense in 2020 after dismal production out of the 3-3-5 “stack” defense last season.
“I would’ve loved to be in a 4-3, me personally.” Roach told reporters. “I think it’s a smart move they’re making to have pass rushers out there. Great pass rushers with Ta’Quon Graham, Marqez Bimage, Joe Ossai, guys that can get after the quarterback. You’ve got to use those guys.
“You didn’t bring a lot of those safeties in to blitz and things like that,” Roach said. “You brought them in to drop into coverage. You brought defense linemen to get sacks and things like that. That’s what we got caught in, not using our weapons to our full advantage.”
Reporters had weekly access to Roach at UT, but the Baton Rouge, La., native and son of a high school coach never said anything remotely close to this while in Austin. In fact, Roach admitted last week “we understood why we were running it,” but said the 4-3 will be a better fit going forward.
In some respects, Roach has to defend his limited production to NFL scouts and general managers. He had eight sacks and 22½ tackles for loss in 47 career games. He started all 12 last season as Texas went 8-5.
Orlando was fired at Texas on Dec. 1 as part of a major coaching staff overhaul. He is now the defensive coordinator at USC.
It’s not fair to simply blame Orlando’s scheme, either. Roach played in the same three-man front that turned defensive tackle Poona Ford and Charles Omenihu into Big 12 defensive linemen of the year. Ford played nose guard in 2017; Omenihu had 9½ sacks at defensive end in 2018. Both now have blossoming NFL careers.
Last season, the Longhorns had the third-worst defense in school history. Texas allowed 431.5 yards per game and was sixth in the Big 12 with 27 sacks.
Texas actually ran some four-man front in a 27-24 win over Kansas State on Nov. 9. The Horns had three sacks and six tackles for loss as the Wildcats finished with 51 rushing yards. “I don’t call the plays,” Roach said the following Tuesday. “What I saw? We just went out there and played.”
Texas fans saw how productive a four-man defensive front with this team’s current personnel could be in the Alamo Bowl. Ossai had three sacks and six tackles for loss. The Horns had 13 tackles for loss as a team and stomped the Utes 38-10.
Next season, Ossai and fellow linebacker Byron Vaughns will move up front to a hybrid “jack” position to let them rush off the edge more. Graham is likely to move inside to play next to returning starter Keondre Coburn.
“When I look up front, there are a lot of big, strong, physical players that are coming back that played a lot of snaps last year,” Ash said. “We have to identify who are going to be our primary pass rushers. I think Joseph has an opportunity to be one of those types of guys.”
It should be noted that Baylor ran a similar three-man defensive front last season and reached the Big 12 title game with the league’s third-best defense. But LSU won the national championship, and coach Ed Orgeron said afterward that the Tigers would be switching back to a four-man front in 2020, too.
Beauty, it seems as far as a base defense is concerned, is in the eye of the beholder.
“I’ve been on teams with some good defenses and teams with some not-so-good defenses,” new Texas defensive line coach Mark Hagen said last week. “The ones that tend to be very, very good and elite always have a good D-line — period.
“You might be great linebackers and great in the secondary,” he added, “but if you don’t have guys in front of you that can create negative yardage plays in the run game and make the quarterback uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable. That’s ultimately what Herman is going for. Texas did not make life miserable for Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Baylor’s Charlie Brewer or even TCU’s Max Duggan last season.
“Certainly, you’ve got to be able to disrupt the quarterback, and I’m not just talking about sacks,” Herman said. “I’m talking about just make him uncomfortable, especially in this conference.”
Frankly, 17-year-old recruits dream of playing college football and sacking the quarterback, not holding up offensive linemen so linebackers can make the play.
Insiders believe that’s one reason Manor’s Princely Umanmielen backed out of his Texas commitment last October and ultimately chose Florida. Bastrop’s Alfred Collins was ultimately sold on Texas because of the switch back to the four-man front.
Herman and Ash might not be looking back. But they definitely know what they do not want to do going forward.
“I think we have the talent on this side of the ball to improve significantly that helps us win games,” Ash said.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.