Football

Texas spring wrap-up: The defense sees its confidence growing by leaps, bounds

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando had to rebuild the unit's confidence, then the Longhorns had the second-best defense in the Big 12

Posted April 21st, 2018

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Story highlights
  • As for the Texas Bowl win, “That’s when they said, ‘We have the ability to do this. Let’s just cut it loose.’”
  • Minor injuries gave Orlando a chance to experiment with Ta'Quon Graham, Malcolm Roach
  • Three freshmen DBs have been impressive, but don't forget about Brandon Jones, Kris Boyd

Nobody inside the Texas football complex will say it publicly, but some were overjoyed with the defensive performance against Missouri in the Texas Bowl. It’s because of who wasn’t on the field.

Safety DeShon Elliott pulled out to protect his draft status. Linebacker Malik Jefferson tried, but ultimately couldn’t play because of a toe injury. Cornerback Holton Hill was watching from the stands after getting suspended for violating team rules. All three should get drafted next weekend.

That didn’t stop the Longhorns, who were revved up from a series of perceived slights by Tigers players in the run-up to the game. A defensive thumping in a 33-16 win boosted the unit’s confidence like never before.

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“The crew was a little bit wounded when we first got here. It was still wounded after the Maryland game, to be honest with you,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “We had to change the stuff we were doing. But I think when they had success and just cut it loose and played without any hesitation, that’s when they said, ‘We have the ability to do this. Let’s just cut it loose.’”

Texas linebacker Anthony Wheeler (45), center, celebrates his scoop and score touchdown with defensive back Antwuan Davis (7) and linebacker Gary Johnson (33) in the first half of the Texas Bowl NCAA college football game in Houston, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

When the final numbers were tallied, Texas had the second-best defense in the Big 12 last season. The Horns were second against the run (106.9), fifth against the pass (258.8) and third in points allowed (21.2).

Those were practically signal flares to opposing head coaches wanting to steal Orlando. Alas, credit UT athletic director Chris Del Conte for signing off on Orlando’s pay raise to $1.7 million annually. “I’m not losing anyone over money,” Del Conte said.

Orlando and his defensive assistants have already cleared the most difficult hurdle — getting the players to believe in the system. Now, it’s time to start building and growing.

“I just think anytime you lose pros, there are losses so other guys have to develop,” Orlando said. “But we’re at Texas, so we should do a good job recruiting. There are some backups that actually played toward the tail end of the year, guys that we trust and guys that know our package to be seen. Athletically, I think we’ll be in the ballpark to replace those guys.”

A look at where Texas’ defense is after spring workouts:

Texas defensive lineman Chris Nelson (97) celebrates his fumble recovery with defensive lineman Poona Ford (95) during an NCAA college football game against West Virginia in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Defensive line: Post-Poona possibilities

Not many quiet, reserved defensive linemen could generate the fan enthusiasm that Poona Ford did. He simply put his head down and went to work. Now, he’s NFL-bound, too.

Even without Ford, the line still has intriguing athleticism and potential. Chris Nelson, who’s working his way back from elbow surgery, should be rid of that green non-contact jersey by August. Nelson, Ta’Quon Graham and D’Andre Christmas could all be anchors in the middle.

The two who need to make a serious impact are Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu, two outside pass rushers who will move into spotlight roles this year. Together, they racked up eight sacks last season.

“I think Charles just has to keep working on the run game,” Orlando said. “He’s gonna have a future at the next level, there’s no doubt about it. But they’re not out there drafting third-down specialists. What he can do elite in the pass-rush game, we’ve got to make that the same in the run game.”

Hager, possibly the most passionate guy in the locker room, said he won’t cut his hair until Texas wins the Big 12 title.

Texas linebacker Gary Johnson (33) asks for more crowd noise in the first half of a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Linebackers: Banged up, but intriguing

Sometimes it’s hard for junior-college players to win over the locker room. Not Gary Johnson. He wowed teammates with his speed and simple aw-shucks demeanor. He’s a perfect fit to replace Jefferson at the Rover linebacker position.

Only problem was Johnson suffered a strained groin early in camp. Then his backup, Edwin Freeman, aggravated an old triceps injury.

That opened the door for Orlando to experiment. Defensive end Malcolm Roach, a coach’s son who knows more football than anyone really knows, tried out the Rover position and turned some heads. Maybe he sticks there, maybe not. But Orlando is looking for the “three best linebackers,” not necessarily one who plays strong side or weak side. Everyone cross-trains.

A linebacker group with veteran Anthony Wheeler, Johnson, Freeman and Roach sounds awfully appetizing. Keep an eye on freshman Ayodele Adeoye, too.

Defensive back Anthony Cook smiles after running a drill during a Longhorns football spring practice at the Frank Denius practice fields in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 22, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Secondary: Young and trending up

UT’s three early enrollees have gotten a lot of attention this spring, and for good reason. Caden Sterns, Anthony Cook and B.J. Foster have all held their own when they could be finishing up their senior year at high school.

But don’t overlook the returning leaders. Orlando praised safety Brandon Jones, calling him “exceptional” this spring. Cornerback Kris Boyd has earned his place as a team leader. Same goes for Davante Davis. Fellow defensive backs P.J. Locke III and John Bonney have played a lot of football and seen a lot of things. Both will be active all season long in the third-down “lightning” package.

This is a group still reluctant to use the “DBU” moniker, and for good reason. But it’s a group that’s most assuredly trending in the right direction.

Special teams: Another Aussie import

There’s been little talk about the special teams this spring mostly because it’s rather unknown. Texas lost the best punter in the nation in Ray Guy Award winner Michael Dickson. His Australian cousin, Ryan Bujcevski, will take over the punting role.

Incoming freshman Cameron Dicker from Lake Travis will be the team’s kicker. If Herman could find someone who could guarantee the Horns three points every time UT went inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, that might change his play-calling in tight situations.

Receiver Jerrod Heard has been working as a punt returner. There may not be much work on kick returns this season, though. A new NCAA rule about touchbacks marks a dramatic shift toward player safety. Any kickoff that’s fair-caught inside the 25-yard line will be ruled a touchback.

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

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