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After taking on and defeating the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 total offenses in 2016, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is facing what he thinks is equally as daunting of a task: defending the Big 12.
It’s not necessarily stars like Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson who concern Orlando, who coordinated Houston to the No. 13 total defense last season. It’s the guys way down the depth chart.
“I’ve been so impressed with the fourth receiver on people’s teams,” Orlando said. “You’re like ‘wow that guy’s the fourth guy and he’s a great player.’ And they roll those people in, and that’s the challenge. It’s not necessarily Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, you can go down the line. It’s not that.”
Although there are plenty of elite athletes on Big 12 rosters, the offensive minds trying to get past Orlando present a challenge as well.
“The quarterbacks in this league and the OCs are so creative,” Orlando said. “Then they’ll run pace behind it. Our offense is doing the same stuff. I think it’s just one of those things, when you come into this league, you know what you’re getting into.”
Combatting talent, scheme and athleticism will be a tall task for Orlando, but he has a plan to stop it by being aggressive. Orlando’s defense at UH and the one he will field at UT will bring pressure from all directions of his predominately 3-4 front.
“It’s not a secret to anybody,” Orlando said. “We want to attack people. We’re not going to sit there and give vanilla looks and do that. We’re going to be creative in terms of trying to push people to not sitting there and just knowing where people are coming, create tackles for loss, create pressures which from our standpoint, if you’re a recruit equals production.”
Sending a blitz is taking a chance on the football field. In Orlando’s mind, there are different levels of chance.
“It’s pressure that’s not real high risk at times and there’s pressure that’s risky,” Orlando said. “Keeping our guys on the move and making people think. I think that’s important now-a-days.”
Orlando gave a list of the players he’ll charge to man his defense this year, including the depth chart at linebacker.
Throughout the spring, linebacker remained a question for Orlando, as there was potential in the position but with little production to match it. Following a week of fall camp, Orlando had a good idea of his defense.
According to Orlando, junior Anthony Wheeler “has solidified himself” at the middle linebacker spot, with junior Breckyn Hager backing him up. At the ‘rover’ position, junior Malik Jefferson runs with the ones with junior college transfer Gary Johnson behind him. Boundary linebacker or ‘b-backer’ has senior Naashon Hughes in front of sophomore Jeffrey McCulloch.
Orlando took several opportunities to praise Jefferson’s improved leadership ability, but he also gave a challenge to Wheeler to be more vocal since the position demands it. “He just needs to continue to do it more often because we are going to be put in adverse times, and the first people they’re going to look for is the middle linebacker, the guy that lines you up and makes all the calls,” Orlando said.
When asked about depth on the defensive line, Orlando praised two players who, on Monday, were both running with the second team. Junior Charles Omenihu received high praise, with Orlando calling him a guy who “really, really cares.”
The man on the other side of the second nose tackle Orlando praised was true freshman Ta’Quon Graham. Graham, who is at 6-foot-4 and in the 275 to 280 pound range, is one player the defensive staff has taken notice of early.
“He’s got the physical tools already,” Orlando said. “He can run. He’s a mature kid. He’s a focused kid. (Defensive line coach) Oscar (Giles) and myself know we’ve got to get him right and ready to play. We’ve got guys behind those that are battling every day.”
Graham seems to be on the way, as he had the red stripe on his helmet identifying him as a newcomer taken off following Saturday’s scrimmage.
Orlando will continue to install new defenses and evaluate the week’s film as the team gets closer and closer to Maryland. For Orlando and the rest of this staff, the X’s and O’s will come, but the true team building happens during these few weeks.
“To get these kids to be one when they go out on the field, that’s all we’re trying to do in this camp,” Orlando said. “What a better time to do it is when you spend 12 to 14 days with somebody, then you’re going to be put through adversity. The one thing about fall camp that’s great is you’ve got to battle through it together, and you’ve got to work things together to push through it. That’s all we care about right now.”