Inside the Gameplan: Texas corners

Holton Hill and Davante Davis during the win in Waco. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Holton Hill and Davante Davis during the win in Waco. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Late in the 2015 season, Texas discovered something very promising about its young roster of DBs with Holton Hill and Davante Davis.

They emerged as legitimate cornerbacks and allowed Texas to field guys outside who are 6-foot-2, 180 and, 6-foot-2, 191 respectively. Between the two of them, there’s a chance Texas will have some key building blocks to base the 2016 defense around.

Now it wasn’t terribly obvious from a glance that the Longhorns had found something as precious as that, particularly given that in Texas’ last game of the year against a good passing attack, (Baylor’s was crippled for the final game) witnessed them give up the following line from Tech QB Pat Mahomes: 22-39, 372 yards, 9.5 ypa, 1 TD, 1 INT

Despite completing only 56% of his passes, Mahomes did a ton of damage to Texas through the air (and on the ground, rushing 16 times for 70 yards and another TD). But if you watch the film you find that this damage came throwing inside against UT’s LBs and safeties. When Mahomes looked outside to test Davis or Hill, he was either throwing incompletions or pulling the ball back down and trying to make something happen with his legs after seeing his receivers covered.

If you remove this fluke play:

Then Mahomes’ numbers drop to throwing for 307 yards at eight yards per pass, zero TDs, and still one interception. You’re also left with almost no Tech passing plays execute against the Horns’ corner tandem of Davis and Hill. Considering that the interior pass defense can only get better with so many returning players, that could be a big deal in 2016.

Texas’ future in the secondary is looking bright thanks to these 2015 signees, and we haven’t even seen what they can really do yet.

The 2015 cornerback class

As we all know, Texas actually signed three cornerbacks in the 2015 class that may prove to be special before all is said and done. Most would have guessed that the two who would emerge at the position as true freshmen would be Holton Hill and Kris Boyd and not Davante Davis, who was widely assumed by many (but not me) to be a safety.

Let’s start with Holton Hill, whose strong year in 2015 was a surprise to no one. Hill started eight games last year and had 49 tackles, one tackle for loss, an INT (a pick-6 vs Ok St), and four pass break-ups. By the end of the year he pretty much had the right cornerback spot locked down.

Texas likes to play their cornerbacks left and right so that alignment is easy against up-tempo teams. The corners never have to switch sides of the field like boundary and field corners would. The left cornerback is on the boundary more often (since QBs like to throw in that direction) and since Texas will often bring blitzes from the boundary or play cover 2 there, the left corner often gets more help in coverage and has a more diverse set of responsibilities.

The right cornerback is left on an island more often than not but Hill was up to the challenge. He was in great position on that flukey touchdown embedded above and nearly came down with a pick.

Hill took over the job when Texas was getting shredded early against Oklahoma State by curl/flat and slant/flat combos on the backside. John Bonney was struggling to stick with the ‘Pokes receivers close enough to contest the passes but when Hill entered the game…

…same story, different ending.

Hill’s just a quick cat and when you combine that with his instincts for the position and his long length, you have a guy that’s very hard to beat on the outside. The curl-flat combo is everyone’s favorite cover 3 beater and cover 3 is Texas’ favorite coverage, if Rudolph and his WRs can’t beat a freshman Hill on that play, then I’m not sure anyone will get much throwing on sophomore Hill next year.

The expectation was that Boyd would take over the other starting spot (in nickel at least, when Duke Thomas moved inside) especially after his strong start to the year making some huge special teams tackles vs Notre Dame and then forcing a fumble against Rice. But Boyd finished the year without starting any games and only posted 16 tackles on the year with no pass break-ups, though he did intercept an errantly thrown Mason Rudolph pass that was called back due to a roughing the passer call.

Boyd is probably the best athlete in the Texas secondary and will remain the best athlete in the group even after fellow East Texan, Brandon Jones, joins the mix in the summer. He’s also one of the more physical players on the team so when you combine his natural aggression with his athleticism, good things happen when he’s around the ball.

For that reason, Boyd got most of his looks at left cornerback, and like Hill, got a lot of them against Oklahoma State when Texas needed to infuse athleticism at corner to avoid getting burned by Rudolph and the Cowboy passing game. But unlike Hill, Boyd was unable to hold up, but not because he lacked Hill’s length or quickness but because he was hesitant and didn’t recognize routes in time to stop them. Here’s an example:

Now that’s a tough concept to defend as a freshman, but Davis and Hill proved to be more up for the challenge than Boyd in 2015. There was one interesting moment against Oklahoma State where we caught a small glimpse of what Boyd in the nickel might look like:

Stopping the bubble screen is a big part of the job description for nickels in the Big 12 and here Boyd shows the ability to stay home on the screen but then come downhill and support the run. If the QB had chosen to throw the screen, Boyd probably limits that to a two-yard gain or less as well.

Big 12 offenses are trying to create conflicts for defenders and then punish them for their reactions, when you have athletes on defense with enough range to cause hesitation, you can cause real problems for an offense.

The best-case scenario for the 2016 Texas defense is one where Boyd spends a lot of time in the film room and running nickel reps in 7-on-7 over the summer so he can win that job in the fall.

There was a time when Texas fans were thrilled about the introduction of the “Florida Five” to the roster, an exciting group of Floridian skill players that included big WR Gilbert Johnson, awesome TE prospect Devonaire clarington, hard-hitting mike backer Cecil Cherry, rangy safety Tim Irvin, and near-afterthought Davante Davis. (For some reason the amazing John Burt has never been included in this group).

But not only was Davis the sole survivor of this group, he ended up starting five games last year as a true freshman and posting 30 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, and an impressive seven pass break-ups.

Davis got his big chance when Boyd proved no more ready than Bonney or Davis to hold up against Oklahoma State’s passing game and acquitted himself admirably. By the end of the year. he was entrenched as the left cornerback as he’s a bit bigger than Hill at 191 pounds and a little more suited to playing on the edge.

The big question with Davis was whether he had enough recovery speed to play “don’t get beat deep” assignments. Here he is playing bump and run against Tech’s Reginald Davis:

He’s in phenomenal position here and would have disrupted or picked off this pass if Dylan Haines wasn’t also in perfect position to intercept or break up the pass. A lot of bad luck went into losing that game to Tech.

Davis is absolutely quick enough to play outside against the league’s top WRs without a safety playing over the top. What’s more, since both he and Hill are 6-foot-2, combining them on the field really diminishes the potential for opposing teams to find favorable size matchups and beat Texas throwing back shoulder fades or jump balls. If you look at Tech’s last recruiting class this is more or less their strategy for the future, but good luck to them pulling it off against UT.

Building a better pass defense in 2016

Despite getting pretty good play by the end of the year from the Davis-Hill tandem outside, Texas still didn’t play great pass defense in 2015. The reason for that is simple, playing great modern pass defense is about having a defensive back 7 on the field that understands offensive route concepts, how to match them up, and how to cover passing windows and create hesitation for the QB.

It also requires getting pressure on the QB so he can’t process things cleanly or easily find footing and positioning to throw passes. Texas didn’t really struggle to get pressure in 2015 and they probably won’t struggle in 2016 either with Malik Jefferson and Naashon Hughes both back. The trick is getting pressure with four or five rushers without getting ripped by quick passes underneath thrown against poor matchup coverage:

Raider vs CF Snag

If that looks like a convoluted mess it’s because it is. What you’re seeing is a play where Texas throws one of its favorite gut pressures at a spread alignment and the offense responds with two different route combinations to either side of the field.

Defending stuff like this requires that each defender be able to stick his man but also that he does so with a mind towards helping other defenders. For instance, if the QB decided to work the curl/flat combination on the weakside, it’d be best if the Fox were to hesitate just a moment in the curl passing window and try to force the QB to take a hitch step before checking down to the flat route by “H”. That hesitation allows the Fox and the rest of the defense to then close on the flat route and prevent any real gain on the play.

Similarly on the other side of the field, the free safety is dropping down to replace the linebackers in the box but then has to realize that the running back is actually running a route and that’s his man. He needs to chase the RB but ideally pause just a moment in the passing window to help the cornerback defend that quick “snag” route to the “X” receiver before closing on the RB.

It’s a delicate dance, if you want a primer on what it looks like when done well, then go find some 2014 Texas cut-ups or watch a Gary Patterson defense and observe how quickly they fill passing windows and how little time or space they give the QB. When TCU is playing their Cover 5 (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath) there’s usually nothing that can get through.

Kris Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Kris Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)

So when it comes to defending quick concepts that flood zones, there’s nothing doing unless the defensive backfield is playing on a string and working together with a knowledge of what the QB is looking for and how to deny him access to the key spots at the right times. Texas has to find a new nickel with the savvy of Duke Thomas and improve drastically at LB to successfully stop teams that spread you out in order to throw quick passes all over the field, although having quick, savvy, and long cornerbacks is definitely a big help.

The only way to get there is with time and experience.

However, when it comes to defending situations where the opponent is trying to run the ball and set up opportunities for their receivers on the outside to burn man coverage deep, Texas has struck gold with the Davis-Hill combination.

They’ll need to find depth behind them, perhaps with Boyd and likely with Davis, it’d be a huge win if Sheroid Evans was back in form and able to be a Swiss army knife like Mykkelle Thompson in 2014 or Thomas in 2015, playing multiple positions depending on need and opponent. If Evans is injured again then Bonney and Boyd will have to remain at corner to provide adequate depth.

Texas is still fixing leaks that sprung up from the graduate exodus after 2014 and needs a big haul at DB with the 2017 class to ensure more leaks don’t spring in the future, but Strong has found some players at cornerback that can have an enormous impact on the Texas pass defense and eventually bring the DBU title belt back to Austin.