Gameplan: Texas’ RPO-resistant pass defense

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The timing of Steve Sarkisian’s defensive hires has been a great puzzle to much of the Longhorn interwebs. First, Mike Stoops was going to come and co-coordinate the defense. Then, it was Will Muschamp until the former Texas DC chose to withdraw from consideration. Next thing Texas fans and commentators knew, the defensive staff was filled up with a pair of defensive back coaches and no defensive coordinator hire within sight.

Blake Gideon was the first domino to fall. He came recommended by Will Muschamp and with deep ties to the Texas High School Coaches Association through his father. Gideon already has four years of experience coaching the Longhorn secondary if Muschamp is to be believed. He served as a four-year starter at safety and continually held off higher ranked challengers with his ability to keep Texas lined up and sound on the back end.

Then Terry Joseph followed and recently announced himself on Twitter as the Texas “defensive pass game coordinator.” Speculation from there centered around Mississippi State’s Zach Arnett and Alabama’s Pete Golding only for Sarkisian to reach into his West Coast past and pull out Washington star Pete Kwiatkowski.

Kwiatkowski is a legend in today’s coaching world having coached and coordinated top 10 units at both Boise State and Washington while sending a slew of defensive linemen and edge defenders he personally coached into the NFL Draft. Interestingly enough though, the Husky defense was a split affair. While Kwiatkowski was a play-caller for some years and sole or co-coordinator for the entirety of his tenure, defensive backs coach turned head man Jimmy Lake handled the back end and effectively “coordinated” the defensive pass game schemes.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that while Pete Kwiatkowski will be the overall defensive coordinator, Terry Joseph will bring the coverage philosophy to the back end of the defense to blend with Kwiatkowski’s formidable fronts.

Terry Joseph’s coverage scheme

In preparation for the recent college football playoffs, Steve Sarkisian would have known he was either getting the Texas head coaching job or at least being considered and was obviously thinking ahead to building a staff to be the head coach somewhere. Sarkisian was also breaking down Notre Dame defensive game film in preparation for his previous job as the Alabama offensive coordinator.

While studying the Fighting Irish he would have seen Clark Lea’s defense knife through the ACC while surrendering just 19.7 points per game. The Irish had a solid defensive showing against Clemson in South Bend and absolutely shut down the deadly, RPO-intensive North Carolina Tar Heels. The latter likely caught his eye given Sark’s own extensive use of the RPO/play-action game in his own offensive system.

Given Joseph’s designation as pass game coordinator and the eventual hire of Pete Kwiatkowski, whose background is more working with the defensive front, it seems reasonable to assume Notre Dame’s coverage philosophy was a target for Sark and the next move was to pair it with someone who could handle the front and oversee the overall staff given Joseph’s lack of coordinator experience. In a sense, it’s almost like Sarkisian was trying to hire Clark Lea, who was unavailable due to taking the Vanderbilt head coaching job.

Pending Joseph’s performance as a defensive backs coach along with Blake Gideon, it’s possible he may have done one better.

It’ll arguably be difficult to discern the quality of these hires until 2022. Joseph and Gideon will be stepping onto a campus that already boasted a pair of NFL-caliber athletes at cornerback in Josh Thompson and D’Shawn Jamison and added Darion Dunn of McNeese State, who is superior to either of them as a pure cover corner. Dunn’s film at McNeese State breaking up passes in press-man coverage on Tylan Wallace will unquestionably catch Joseph’s eye.

Here’s some of what Sarkisian was looking at when he was taking in Joseph’s defensive performance at Notre Dame in 2020:

The name of the game in South Bend was quarters, cover 1, and some fire zone blitzes. When they played quarters they followed the normal Mike Elko/Clark Lea tradition of trying to use the boundary safety as a rover. In the example above the Irish are playing 4-man on the boundary with the boundary safety helping on glance routes and slants from the boundary receiver. To the field they play the field safety deep in cover 2 (occasionally in cover 4) behind their sam linebacker.

There’s nothing easy here in the RPO game. The free safety is sitting on the glance route to the X receiver and the sam linebacker is sitting on the glance/stick/bubble/whathaveyou from the slot receiver. When they see the quarterback give up the ball to the running back, they close behind the hard-charging linebackers who key the tight end and running back.

Texas did a fair amount of this as well in 2020 as it was their main defense. If you watch the Irish against North Carolina what stands out is how patient and rangy they were at the two main impact positions, the sam linebacker and boundary safety spots, and how disruptive their defensive front was against the North Carolina offensive line.

For the Longhorns last year, the boundary safety was usually Chris Brown with B.J. Foster spelling him at times and playing to the wide side at others. The sam linebacker was Chris Adimora. In the base quarters defense these positions are asked to sit in the middle of the field, deny RPOs, and close and tackle in support of an aggressive defensive front.

Here’s a comparison of the numbers put up by Texas and Notre Dame’s respective players:

Boundary safety
Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame): 63 tackles in 11 games, 4.5 TFLs, one INT, six PBUs.
Chris Brown (Texas): 46 tackles in nine games, two TFLs, one INT, seven PBUs, 43 flexes.

Sam linebacker
Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah (Notre Dame): 62 tackles in 12 games, 11 TFL, 1.5 sacks, one INT, three PBUs.
Chris Adimora (Texas): 41 tackles in nine games, 1.5 TFL, one INT, three PBUs

The Irish counterparts were rangier and more impactful overall. Kyle Hamilton will be a high draft pick. Owusu-Koromoah will hear his name called as well and was a senior and second-year starter for the Irish.

In addition to the quarters coverages they’d also mix in cover 1 and some fire zones. The disguises weren’t always precise, Chris Ash’s Longhorns often disguised their looks better, but their blitzes were effective RPO counters. This was one of their favorite blitzes which was dialed up multiple times against the Tar Heels.

What’s happening here is the Irish are actually playing Cover 2 behind a nickel blitz. The free safety has to get over to replace the nickel on a glance or slant by the slot but he has help outside from the corner and over the top from the strong safety.

The free safety is the weak spot of the blitz, if the offense picks up his assignment they can potentially sniff things out. Otherwise, it’s a dangerous blitz because it can trigger the quarterback to throw hot into Cover 2 or get confused and take a sack, as happens here.

Creating a pass defense with Texas’ 2021 roster

With Chris Adimora and B.J. Foster returning from the 2020 team, it’d be straightforward to run back much of the Chris Ash defense where it overlaps with what Terry Joseph is familiar with from the Irish defense. Adimora could continue to play the Owusu-Koromoah role while Foster brings an athletic upgrade to the boundary safety position. Joseph can figure out whether Jerrin Thompson or another defensive back is best suited to playing over the top to the wide side.

However, the circumstances are a bit different with this unit. In addition to returning Adimora and Foster, the Longhorns return starting cornerbacks D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson while adding Darion Dunn, who is likely the superior of either in press-man coverage.

Texas’ third safety, Jerrin Thompson, is not the same caliber of football player as their third cornerback (Jamison? Thompson?). Between the personnel and the aggressiveness of Big 12 passing attacks, it’d make more sense for Joseph and Kwiatkowski to play a nickel corner, which then changes up the structure of the defense.

An obvious direction to go in would be to borrow the approach of the 6A State Championship-winning Westlake Chaparrals and use the nickel to man up the slot while freeing up BOTH safeties to play more flat-footed. It’d be very hard to find much room against Texas in the passing game or to make any serious headway with the runs if NFL athletes are in man coverage on all three receivers while Chris Adimora and B.J. Foster are sitting on RPOs and waiting to come downhill to clean up the run.

Oklahoma has been utilizing such an approach with less talent than the Longhorns will field in their secondary for 2021.

The union of Terry Joseph’s RPO and play-action resistant pass defense with Pete Kwiatkowski’s exceptionally well coached and efficient defensive fronts could be a happy one. It’ll be one Texas fans should watch closely in year one of the Steve Sarkisian era. It may take a while for Sark’s own RPO/play-action offense to really take off but if the Longhorns are playing good defense and running the ball with Bijan Robinson, they can still have some immediate success.

Cover photo courtesy of Irish Sports Daily

History major, football theorist.