The play of Texas’ linebackers over the last year, especially in Strong’s 3-3-5 packages, is probably the most frustrating and also the most poorly understood aspect of the entire team. The fact that Malik Jefferson had to play as large a role as he did in 2015 as a true freshman spoke to how devastated the position was by the graduation of Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. The result of Jefferson getting pressed into action at the mike linebacker position where he had to spend time plugging holes rather than chasing QBs was agonizing for a fan base eager to see the Predator in his natural habitat.
Heading into 2016 the primary issue with the LB corps how they fit together, can Texas find lineups in which the different linebackers’ skill sets complement each other?
Last year the pieces didn’t fit together all that terribly well and the LBs bore much more responsibility for the failings of the Texas defense than most fans were predisposed to think. In 2016 this unit needs to make a big leap, fortunately the players involved are all young enough that this is a reasonable expectation.
The issues at LB in 2015 were numerous and ranged from poor fits against the run to lack of awareness on pass drops…which sadly covers most of the fundamentals of linebacker play. This is the reality of starting freshman.
Those issues were symptoms of the main problem, which was the total lack of developed inside-backers on campus. The main rotation was the 3-3-5 featuring Hughes as the Sam/Fox edge-backer, Malik as an outside-backer (though confusingly dubbed “the mike”), and Peter Jinkens as the main inside-backer.
Although he was easily one of the better options last year, Malik is a still-developing player that currently feels most comfortable as a Sam/Fox player. Hughes is reasonably well-developed player who’s a jack of all trades and master of none, and Jinkens was an outside-backer who’d spent the previous three seasons failing to crack the depth chart.
The problems were often allowed to compound on each other because Bedford was unable to use Malik to attack offenses as much he might have liked, which would have simplified the game for him, but instead often needed him at the second level because of his absurd recovery speed and ability to clean up the mistakes of others (or himself).
He wasn’t a particularly good inside-backer last year, but even if he didn’t fill creases as well as a veteran he was usually able to run down the ball-carrier from behind like on this play that demonstrates so much of what was wrong with the Texas run defense in 2015.
Texas is in the 3-3 package but in more of a 4-2 alignment with Hughes playing as a stand-up 9-tech on the edge, Malik in the middle, and Jinkens outside. Jason Hall is dropping into the box to be an extra guy against the run while the secondary is playing man coverage.
Jinkens is the force defender in this alignment but he’s a bit late to fulfill this responsibility. Malik is even later than Jinkens and he doesn’t follow the lead block as aggressively as he should, instead he’s minding gaps and a cutback lane that should be filled by the DL and Jason Hall.
Hall is also overly hesitant, which he shouldn’t be because his man in coverage (the fullback) is running to the other side of the formation. Hughes is in fine position though he’s not setting the world on fire running the play down from behind like Malik could in a similar position.
Ultimately Malik makes the play in pursuit, along with Dylan Haines (but why wasn’t he there sooner!!!), but only after a nine-yard gain for the Mountaineers. The DL all did a reasonably good job both of holding the point of attack and protecting the linebackers, Texas simply lacked confident play in the defensive backfield to make the most of it.
You wonder what will happen if Texas’ DL isn’t able to hold up at the line of scrimmage quite so well in 2016 and the linebackers have to deal with more blocks while making these reads and fills.
The ideal formula for 2016
You can reasonably expect Naashon Hughes and Malik Jefferson to both continue to play a major role in the main 3-3-5 nickel package for Texas next season. They combined for 118 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and eight sacks last year and represent the better part of the returning linebacker production.
Last year we talked about the idea of a “fox and the hound” approach that makes the most out of the fact that both Hughes and Malik are hybrid-backers that could be developed to excel in multiple roles. This is what Texas needs to aim for in 2016.
The idea is this, if Hughes is a Sam/Fox tweener with some ability to play as an edge-rusher, outside-backer, or even inside-backer then Texas should look to leverage his versatility rather than allowing his weaknesses to get isolated and hammered by opposing defenses. Move him around, let him play different roles and keep offenses guessing about where he can be found.
Malik needs to be unleashed more often, that much is clear, but he also needs to continue to develop as an inside backer so that his movements can also be disguised. Opposing offenses should always be asking where either of them might end up on a given play and they should be constantly worrying that the answer for Malik will be “coming off the edge and putting his helmet in the QB’s back.”
The means the ideal complement to Hughes and Malik would be yet another versatile athlete but this time one who’s majoring in “inside-plugging” with minors in blitzing and tending the edge.
If Texas can find that player and get improved play from the box safety position, then you have a dynamic combination in the middle of the field that will be disruptive and very hard for B12 QBs to get a good read on:
Who will end up where after the snap? If the offense has no idea what the answer is by the time the ball is snapped they are already halfway beaten.
Finding the missing piece
There are numerous candidates for this vacancy in the Texas defense but none of them have any particularly strong resumes yet. This may well prove to be one of the most important position battles in the spring, perhaps second only to the battle at QB. Let’s take a look at the options:
Holding down this job is the path to Scipio’s Gaskamp Award for Santos, who’s always been a tantalizing prospect for the role of interior plugger but has never put it together into a complete package and strong season. The big questions for Santos are how well he’s managed to grok the scheme in his time away and how flexible and quick he is after his stiffening exercises pre-2013 and subsequent injuries. I wouldn’t count on Santos having the breakthrough season given all of those concerns but he was once a prototypical mike-backer so it’s probably best not to totally rule him out.
Wheeler is the leading tackler returning at this position, followed by Tim Cole who’s not a serious candidate to win this job due to lack of flexibility and speed, and is currently the frontrunner to take this job.
Wheeler is really standing out now as a major addition to the 2015 class because he’s the only pure inside-backer prospect Charlie has taken. Other players like Freeman, Townsend, Hager, Malik, Fowler, or even McCulloch may be developed to fill that position but Wheeler is the only one who projected cleanly as a classic inside linebacker.
He’s actually well on his way to translating his ability at that position to the field and is the least hesitant and most fluid of these options in reading flow between the tackles and plugging creases. Wheeler understands his run fits well and has the lateral quickness to excel in this scheme, which often relies on the three down linemen to plug the interior gaps while the linebackers race to the perimeter. Wheeler is also fairly comfortable in coverage and can be seen here erasing a slant against Baylor in cover 2, this kind of play is a big part of what made Jordan Hicks so good in this position two years ago.
The only thing holding up Wheeler is his weight, currently he’s at about 232 pounds, which is probably fine for this league but he’ll likely get to 240 or so before he graduates. We haven’t seen him in action much as a blitzer but he’s probably the best option on the team for patrolling the 2nd level when Malik and/or Hughes are blitzing.
Freeman is probably the most athletic linebacker on campus after Malik but you wouldn’t guess it from his play because he’s still hesitant and unsure in his run fits. Freeman has the unmistakable look of a player who doesn’t fully trust his read or his assignment to yield the result of a successful stop. Here’s a sequence against Baylor where he misplayed Iso on consecutive plays that illustrates his tendency to try and do too much and ultimately just yield easy yardage to the opponent.
He’s still only a sophomore who’s new to linebacker and has been dealing with injuries so there’s good reason to believe he may eventually be a star, but he’s a ways away from providing the kind of safe, reliable play inside that Texas needs to get the most out of Hughes and Malik.
Hager is one of the more fascinating players on the Texas roster. Right now he’s buried behind Malik at “mike linebacker” on the depth chart but he’s definitely an option to play the “will” inside-backer spot in the 3-3-5. Hager’s specialty is his aggression, he plays fast and downhill all the time and trusts his reads to put him in position to make the tackle rather than trying to wait for a clearer picture and just getting washed out like Freeman often does.
When he arrives at the point of attack he arrives with tenacity and power, you can see him take on a Baylor TE in the hole here and not only blow up the block to erase creases but even work across the TE’s face to personally make the tackle rather than relying on the next man to arrive in time.
The only problem for Hager against the run game is what happens when he misreads the play or the ball goes elsewhere as his change of direction is currently pretty poor and his lateral quickness doesn’t allow him to make a lot of plays in pursuit. This is also a problem in coverage, he takes some fine initial drops but there’s little hope of him being able to cover a stick or whip route where the receiver is making a sharp route break off his position.
Hager’s future should be interesting, if he can develop looser hips then his instinctive play could make him into a truly great linebacker, but if they don’t and he continues to grow you can probably expect his downhill aggression to get unleashed at the Fox or strongside end position.
Those are the main figures vying for the open linebacker position alongside Malik and Hughes and Anthony Wheeler is definitely the most likely solution. Texas’ future at linebacker is very bright with redshirt freshman Cam Townsend getting into the mix this year and a pair of explosively athletic options due to arrive in the fall (Erick Fowler and Shark McCulloch) while 2/3 of the likely 2016 starters are true sophomores.
In the meantime, Texas fans should be rooting for Wheeler and Freeman to make a leap inside, for Malik to continue to develop, and for Santos and Hager to show improving flexibility that would allow them to move well enough to hold up in the Big 12. If all of that happens, the situation will call for an obvious directive from the staff.