Post Spring Game thoughts: defense/special teams

Texas defense during the spring game (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas defense during the spring game (Will Gallagher/IT)

All caveats for zero sum games apply, but there were a few things on defense and special teams that got my attention. I haven’t had a chance to re-watch tape for individual drill downs, so most of my observations will be of the 10,000 foot variety.
SPECIAL TEAMS

I’m leading with special teams because I’m aligned and I piss Fiji water.

We ran skeleton kick return and coverage teams. Makes sense. Less chance of injury and why put our stuff on film for Maryland? The staff isn’t looking to hold serve in this unit. We’re trying to steal a game or two.

Michael Dickson reminded me why he averaged over 47 yards per punt last year. Net punting is the name of the game and our favorite Aussie will need to be mindful of continuing to put hang time on distance. What a field flipping asset if we can get our defense operating with a pulse again. That dropped punt against Cal feels like a long time ago.

Full disclosure: I don’t really favor Armani Foreman as a punt returner. Punt returning is about sure hands, decision-making and the ability to accelerate from a stop and make someone miss. I haven’t seen those things from him in abundance. He fielded a punt today inside the five. Happy to have my mind changed.

Kicker Josh Rowland is about what I expected. Competent within 40 yards and then increasingly an adventure with each yard beyond. He’s replacing a guy who converted on less than 70% of his attempts last year, so if we run the offense respecting his limitations, there’s no reason we can’t get a net positive here. Absent a badass kicker, you should be going for it on 4th and 3 on the 30 yard line in college anyway.

DEFENSE

We didn’t show everything, but we showed a lot more than most teams have at this juncture and I was impressed that the unit was able to handle Orlando’s installs.

One notable improvement in the new Orlando universe is the timing and space concepts in our blitzing and stunts. Watching the clusterfiddle of last year as a linebacker tried to stunt through the same gap as a twisting DL at the same time resulting in a useless log jam (and usually lost containment) gives me real appreciation for how Orlando lines up and times his schemes.

That simple change is going to make a hell of a difference in pressure. We also do some subtle stuff in our alignments that sow confusion in simplistic collegiate protections. I’ll write about this deeper in the year, but it’s one of the reasons – beyond losing battles straight up – our 2nd team OL couldn’t cohere. Five OL blocking together are difficult to get quick pressure on. Slice them up into islands, however, and it’s athlete on athlete.

I like what we’re doing in the secondary. We’re going to allow some deep balls, but I expect more turnovers, pressures and better passing efficiency defense overall.

The starting DL is interesting. I don’t write that because of what I saw them do against the 2nd team OL. I write that because of how they looked, moved, pursued and played technically.

Roach looks great in the high 260s and he has mastered some very efficient discard moves that don’t compromise a straight path to the QB.

The jumbo version of Roach, Chris Nelson – remember his high school film running around as a 295 pound linebacker? – has really added strength to his natural power and he’s playing lower with better use of his hands. It looks like they rebuilt his stance and first step.

Poona showed characteristic motor, even if it didn’t show up in the stat sheet as much as I felt his play warranted. Like Nelson, he looks stronger and does a much better job of anchoring. He used to get swallowed up by size.

I have confidence that both Omenihu and Elliott will contribute in the rotation and I pray Jordan uses the next four months to find his way to 305, but I’m having trouble identifying the 6th DL right now. I thought it might be Wilbon. The real question for me with respect to the DL is whether they’re pretty good or they’re going to actively be a problem for people. The difference will be our upside potential.

The scrimmage was built around the passing game, so the linebackers weren’t able to show much that I needed to see except some stunts and some coverage situations in the flat. I could manufacture some point here based on a carry that the DL blew up featuring a walk-on RB that the LBs cleaned up, but there’s no reason. The biggest question mark for me is still LB production on regular downs. This defense will create plenty of box score stat opportunities for them, but they need to excel at the bread & butter basics of making a running play that the DL blows up into 2nd and 11 instead of a missed tackle bounce out and 2nd and 2.

In the back end, Mr Cuffee had a tough outing. He had to cover the best player on the team and then he got trucked by a true freshman RB. I think we can expect a healthy Davante Davis to be an improvement. Maybe his play was also a reasonable pitch to the state’s elite corners that they won’t be riding the pine as freshmen.

I like Deshon Elliott and he looks more in charge back there. He snuffed out plays by simply rotating to the right spot and not chasing ghosts and that’s an important step in his development. The big hits coming downhill and plays on the ball will come in due time.

I don’t see Brandon Jones exhibiting the instinctive play written all over his high school film. He’s still processing and can’t cut it loose. It’ll come.

Chris Brown is a football player, even if physically unexceptional. PJ Locke is a known quantity and he’ll be a big asset near the line of scrimmage as a nickel. I thought Bonney was extremely active on the 2nd team and the move to safety suits him. He does better with some space and a view of the QB instead of chasing a receiver.

Boyd and Hill are going to be attacked downfield quite a bit by simple virtue of the defensive structure and their prior film. If they can understand where their help is and what they can allow the offense to have if the QB makes a good throw and the receiver runs the right route, they should be successful. If they start losing their minds on go routes, we’ll have new CBs. I can’t say that I totally trust either, but the hustle, effort and motivation I see out there suggests that this staff has real buy-in.

Overall, the body language modeled by this staff suggests we have players focused less on looking cool than actually playing well.