Can Texas’ Linebackers Get Defensive

Defensively, much of the preseason attention has been focused on coordinator Will Muschamp’s efforts to generate an honest pass rush from his front four as well as replacing three starters in the secondary. The perception the past two seasons, though, was that Texas’ linebackers have been the unit’s weakest link.
Far too often the group appeared to be a confused bunch that struggled in nearly every facet of the game: gap control, pass coverage, open-field tackling, blitzing. It can be argued that the worst pass defense in Longhorn history (277.8 ypg, NCAA No. 109) had more to do with linebackers surrendering chunks of real estate on underneath routes than with poor coverage in the secondary.

“We got outplayed in some games,” SLB Sergio Kindle said Tuesday, who battled injuries during his sophomore campaign. “I will say this: we prepared a lot harder for the Arizona State (Holiday Bowl) game. The way the defense played showed tremendously.”

In some ways, Texas’ spirited 52-34 win against the co-PAC champs was the 2007 defense in a nutshell. The Horns held the Sun Devils to just 22 rushing yards on 27 attempts but were torched for 305 yards through the air. Yet, the defense collected three INTs, forced three fumbles, tallied four sacks and limited ASU to 23:41 time-of-possession. The pre-game shakedown saw a couple of depth chart demotions: SLB Roddrick Muckelroy supplanted senior Robert Killebrew while MLB Jared Norton earned the starting nod instead of Rashad Bobino.

“We still had a great run defense (93.4 ypg, NCAA No.6) ,” commented Norton. “I felt like we did the best we could and had a great year as far as the run defense was concerned. We’re improving on our pass defense.”

Bobino has more starts on his resume (38) than all the other linebackers combined and is expected to hold down the starting assignment when Texas opens with Florida Atlantic one week from Saturday. Yet, Norton notched just as many TFLs (four) in cameo appearances last season as did Bobino and former WLB Scott Derry.

“We have great leadership in Rashad who, of course, started for the national championship team,” Norton said. “Sergio, Muck and I have all grown. We’re the older guys nows. We’re no longer the young bucks on the defense. Now, we can go in and do what we do best.”

No matter who goes in, the consensus is that every Texas defender is not only playing with a nastier attitude but also at an accelerated pace.

“We’ve conditioned ourselves to move faster,” Kindle said. “He (Muschamp) would rather us fly to the ball and miss a tackle than breakdown, play slow or try to make a play that way. Basically, if you’re not running you’re not going to be on the field. We’re going to be a hard-nosed defense this year. Now, everybody is running to the ball. Even if you miss, you’re going to have 10 shirts coming. The play is going to be made regardless.”

This year’s defense is already “different” from last year’s group, Kindle suggested, searching for the right word to account for the variance.

“We seem like a different team this year based on the way we’ve been practicing and with the swagger in the locker room,” he said. “There’s a buzz.”

Players are reluctant to say that Muschamp has made all the difference (a diplomatic stance given DB coach Duane Akina’s demotion from the coordinator ranks in January). Kindle is more prone to comment, however, that Muschamp’s approach is paying dividends.

“I wouldn’t say it’s all because of Muschamp but, yes, what he’s doing is different,” Kindle said. “He’s making everybody run to the ball. That’s what defense is all about. It’s about swarming to the ball. The attitude here is we’re going to swarm to the ball. It didn’t happen on some plays in some games last year.”

Last spring, Muschamp put more speed on the field when he moved former DE Lamarr Houston to the interior (a move he replicated with DE/DT Aaron Lewis now working primarily on the inside). It was observed that coaches have put more emphases on changing coverages just before the snap. Muschamp will rely more heavily on a nickel defense than Texas has in recent years and is cross-training Kindle in a three-point stance at ‘rush end’.

Above all, it appears to be an ornery group of linebackers who insist the past couple of seasons have left a bitter taste in their mouths.

“Based on last year, I feel like everybody has a chip on their shoulder,” Kindle concluded. “We want to win and we want to be a lot better than we were last year. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to fly to the ball a whole lot more than we did last year so we can get the job done.”

NOTE: The final scrimmage of the preseason is set for Wednesday evening at DKR. Typically, the last scrimmage focuses on special teams and approximating game-day patterns. But it is also when personnel decisions are finalized with regard to rotations. Inside Texas will bring coach Mack Brown’s comments late Wednesday evening.