It’s only spring football, a time for tinkering and working out who the star talents are and how to maximize their abilities. So any tinkering with something as important as the defensive front has to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve seen numerous programs over the years quietly or boldly announce some changes to the way they play their front. At times they’ve made real changes and at other times they defaulted to their previous base schemes.
At the last player availability, Sam Ehlinger was asked how Texas can become more explosive in 2019 after failing to produce a single play of 50 yards or more in 2018. The lack of explosiveness to the Texas offense was a major theme to the season, particularly early in the year when it seemed liable to crush the team’s hopes of playing effective enough offense to compete in the Big 12.
The Big 12 is increasingly an “outside-in” conference. The ball gets out of the quarterback’s hands quickly and the focal point rapidly shifts from the trenches, where games are normally determined, out to 1-on-1 matchups between skill athletes isolated in space.
Spring on offense is pretty similar to defense. You want to find out who “the guys” are and then build around them while carving out the supporting roles in the fall. However, offense is a much more skill intensive unit, so the timelines on various players can be longer. The development of an identity on offense tends to start earlier than on defense, particularly for the 2019 Longhorn offense. Several important foundation pieces are already set such as the team’s QB. Plus, they aren’t replacing nearly as many important cogs as the defense.
Teams normally build their identity in the fall, and find their cornerstones in the spring. Last spring is when Todd Orlando determined that Brandon Jones was going to be a key piece of the puzzle in 2018 and what exactly he was going to offer (superior tackling and run support). They also established that Lil’Jordan Humphrey was one of the best players on the team and spent the fall figuring out how to maximize his abilities.
Linebacker has been a real challenge for Todd Orlando since coming to Texas and the Big 12 in 2017. While the American Athletic Conference is heavy on spread concepts, it doesn’t attack linebackers in coverage like the Big 12 does. In fact, no other conference attacks linebackers in coverage like the Big 12 does. Orlando’s concessions to the demands of defending the spread were actually a step behind where they needed to be in order to battle the Air Raid gurus in his new conference.
The nickel defender has been one of the most important players in the 21st century. The proliferation of spread tactics made him a focal point and players like Roy Williams and Tyrann Mathieu demonstrated what defenses could do when they had a hybrid playmaker in that role.
The 2019 class is going to go down as a game-changing group for the Texas football program. As we’re already seeing in the early stages of the 2020 cycle, Texas is clearly going to continue to answer Horace Greeley’s call to “go west” in order to find top prospects. Oklahoma leaned heavily on that strategy this decade while they were getting pushed out of Texas after bringing Mike Stoops and Tim Kish in fresh off their stint in Arizona. It yielded mixed results for them, regularly bringing in blue chip talent but some of which flamed out and some of which drove their success
The 2018 Texas defense was very heavily impacted by the infusion of Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster as early enrollees. Both were 5-star talents with the size, speed, and skill to acclimate quickly to the college game. The bigger key though was that both were around for winter S&C, spring install, and summertime 7-on-7 before the crucial days of fall camp where a coaching staff tends to build the team around established players. Those two were able to establish themselves within the system in the early part of the year and thus claim the sorts of roles in the fall that their talent could command.
With the exodus of Cameron Rising and Shane Buechele in the NCAA Transfer Portal, there’s all the more impetus on the 2020 class to bring more talent to the quarterback position. For the 2019 and 2020 seasons Texas currently figures to have Sam Ehlinger starting. Then in 2021 there’d presumably be a battle between RS junior Casey Thompson, RS sophomore Roschon Johnson, and RS freshman Hudson Card. Of course with the way things go today perhaps only one or two of those names would still be around to take the torch from Ehlinger.