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Bohls: Longhorn defense looking stronger than national numbers indicate

  • Texas' defense hasn't posted gaudy numbers but is gradually improving.
  • Other than an Arkansas debacle and a poor second half versus Texas Tech, the defense has been good.
  • Steve Sarkisian singles out defenders like Moro Ojomo, DeMarvion Overshown and Josh Thompson.

Texas has a defense that’s very much a work in progress.

Progress being the key word.

Through the first four weeks of the season, everyone’s talking — and raving — about the Longhorn offense that has put up numbers like a pinball machine and with very good reason. Everyone should be. Casey Thompson and Co. have just been that impressive.

A team doesn’t score 70 points in a single game or 128 points in a span of two weeks without sending expectations through the roof.

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Hopefully the ceiling doesn’t cave in because of a leaky defense, starting with Saturday’s game against TCU.

Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown tackles Texas Tech running back SaRodorick Thompson in the backfield during the Longhorns' 70-35 win Saturday. Overshown has been one of the standouts for the Longhorns defense through four games.

I don’t think it will for these reasons.

Texas has very good players who are fast and athletic, especially cornerback Josh Thompson, nickel back Anthony Cook, linebacker DeMarvion Overshown and up front, Moro Ojomo.

The defense is experienced with 11 upperclassmen starting, including as many as six and sometimes seven seniors.

Texas has been strong in the red zone, ranking 13th nationally although Arkansas did score five times in six such penetrations.

The scheme is sound.

So is the teaching because tackling has been so much better than it was under Tom Herman and Charlie Strong.

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“We got leaky against the run against Arkansas,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday. “We tried to minimize explosive plays, and it didn’t happen against Texas Tech. But last week we played really good red zone defense, and I loved our intent and the way we played in the first half, I was really happy with. We’ve just got to continue that for 60 minutes.”

In short, Texas has shown enough signs and has enough solid players in a good scheme that that unit should grow in confidence as the season goes along. I wouldn’t advise anyone to completely dismiss the horrific defensive showing in Fayetteville or last week’s subpar second half against Texas Tech, but there are far more positive signs than negative.

Texas linebacker Luke Brockermeyer, left, and defensive lineman Alfred Collins take down Rice defender during the Longhorns' 58-0 win over the Owls on Sept. 18.

Overall, it’s been kind of a mixed bag, however.

To recap after four weeks, Arkansas gashed Texas on the ground. Texas Tech had big success through the air. That said, the Longhorns skunked Rice, albeit a very weak Owls team. And they held a ranked Louisiana team largely in check, even if the Ragin’ Cajuns put up 358 yards in the opener.

“I think we’re close,” said linebacker Luke Brockermeyer, who has played well. “The last game we really played well in the first half. We lost a little bit of our mental focus and weren’t as focused as we should have been.”

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Texas has tackled very well for the most part with defenders gang-tackling and swarming to the ball. There have been very few blatant missed tackles, but some.

The Longhorns haven’t always kept the ball in front of it on the passing front. Texas has put pressure on opposing quarterbacks — even knocked the Rice and Texas Tech starters out of the game — but hasn’t exactly shown a ferocious pass rush with only nine sacks so far, and just six from starters. There is talent and athleticism in the back end, but the secondary hasn’t exactly been consistent as of yet. Cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, in particular, needs to pick up his level of play.

"We're taking on the responsibility," Keondre Coburn said. "I'm not making all the plays I want to make, but it'll come. Moro has been balling."

In the Tech game, Texas was extremely stingy until the score became lopsided in the Longhorns’ favor. Over the visitors’ first seven possessions stretching into the third quarter, Texas forced two punts and blocked one in a play negated by an encroachment penalty, picked off two interceptions including Thompson’s runback for a touchdown and stopped Tech cold on a shocking fourth-and-7 try from the Red Raiders’ own 40-yard line.

Texas linebacker Ray Thornton, center, pressures Rice quarterback Luke McCaffrey during the Longhorns' 58-0 win over the Owls on Sept. 18. The Longhorns knocked McCaffrey out of the game in the first quarter in the victory.

Sarkisian sounds more pleased than put off.

“It’s been two straight weeks where we’ve affected the quarterback, moved him off the spot, forced some errant throws and forced some scrambles that maybe don’t always result in a sack,” he said after the Tech game, “but the pass rush is starting to get home.”

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Still, the defense ranks a dreary 86th in the nation, surrendering 405 yards a game. Yet, the defense pitched an impressive shutout against a bad Rice team and kept Texas Tech completely in check for a half until a natural letdown and some deep strikes distorted the outlook from a 70-35 win.

None of the numbers sound very positive, however. Texas ranks 79th against the pass after allowed 392 yards through the air against Tech, most of it against backup quarterback Henry Colombi. Versus the run, it’s even worse. The Horns come in 91st nationally in that category and will have to deal with explosive TCU runner Zach Evans in Fort Worth on Saturday. Cook said Evans is "probably the best running back we're going to face this year."

In truth, Sarkisian and his staff may not know exactly what they have on that side of the ball, but they have an idea and they have depth with strong play from newcomers like Byron Murphy II, Barryn Sorrell, Jaylan Ford and Jerrin Thompson.

They’ve got a number of good players if not All-American candidates on defense. 

No one player has stood out in a defensive line that is strong in numbers but not exemplary with one standout player demanding the offense’s attention. Alfred Collins had a big sack in a most exotic formation named Wild Card that Pete Kwiatkowski brought with him from Washington with three defensive linemen stacked one behind another the other in a defensive version of the I-formation. “Defensively,” Brockermeyer said, “we’ve got some tricks up our sleeves.”

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Linebacker play has been solid although Overshown still misses some tackles. Sarkisian mentioned Brockermeyer and said “the ball always seems to find that guy,” and it has.

In the secondary, cornerback Josh Thompson seems to rise above the rest and playing at an All-Big 12 level. He even gave the defense its first points of the season with a pick six against the Red Raiders.

“Moro Ojomo is playing really good football for us inside,” Sarkisian said Monday. “I like the effort by Coburn the last two weeks. DeMarvion is playing really good football. And I thought Josh is playing a physical brand of football at corner. He’s communicating well and playing at a high level.”

They just need more company in doing so.