How Chris Ash installed a defense during a pandemic

When Texas changed coordinators following the 2019 season, it was clear the defensive overhaul under Chris Ash would require significantly more effort than the offensive change. After all, according to Texas head coach Tom Herman, offensive coordinator was brought to Austin to run the Texas offense, not the Mike Yurcich offense or the Tom Herman offense.

But Ash was brought in to succeed where Todd Orlando failed in 2019 (and parts of 2018). Injuries did inflict additional damage to the Longhorn defense last season, but the conference’s offenses identified problems not only with Texas’ player deployment, but player development.

Every single moment with players is precious to coaches, especially so during the instillation of a new system. So how did Ash and three other new defensive coaches teach Texas’ new system amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

First, they had to assess what was available to them on the roster. There was a well-stocked defensive line room that Herman specifically said he wanted to highlight during Alamo Bowl prep. There were young linebackers, including novices. The most talented group on paper, the defensive backs, battled injury and otherwise poor play all season.

“We weren’t coming here saying we need to go recruit players to run the system,” Ash said in a Zoom press conference Wednesday. “We wanted to build a system to fit the players we had here. The other part of it was we want to put together a system that we felt like could defend the teams in our league. We want to make sure we had all those things from the start.”

Each aspect impacted how Ash built his four-down, even front, 4-2-5 defense. That was the chosen strategy, the next step was teaching it.

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Ash was able to give his players somewhat of a head start during workouts via walk-throughs and the limited time allowed by the NCAA for assistant coaches to interact with players during the offseason, but the real legwork for instillation would take place during the Longhorns’ 15 spring practices.

Then, COVID-19 came to America’s shores. The last major Texas men’s sporting event of 2020 was UT baseball’s 9-1 win over Abilene Christian on March 11. On March 17, Texas placed restrictions on the amount of people who could gather in a group on campus. Ten days later, former UT president Greg Fenves announced the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester would be online only.

The Longhorns were supposed to start Spring football March 24, three days prior to Fenves’ announcement. The late start was planned in order to give the coaching staff more teaching time before using 15 practices to put those new lessons into action, but those opportunities were taken from the Longhorns and never replaced.

From that point until Texas first welcomed players back to campus in June, teaching the new defense was done digitally.

“We didn’t get a great opportunity to really connect with our guys and we’ve had to do it through the computer,” Ash said. “I think we had a good plan, and I think our players, again, bought into it. As a coaching staff, we did a really good job of connecting with the players that we coach and getting our players connected as well.”

“Over the course of, whatever it was, the three or four months that we were away from them, that was the biggest challenge: just getting to know them and connecting with them to get the type of commitment that we needed from them. I think we accomplished that.”

As much as fans and media give deserved credit to coaches for new installations, it is a two-way street. Ash credited his players for buying into the system, and spending an “insane” amount of time learning the new defense on their own. Because of that effort, Ash said Wednesday he believed the defense was further along than he anticipated.

“I can tell you right now, where we’re at today, I’m very pleased and pleasantly surprised,” Ash said.

When they finally got onto the field, step one for Ash wasn’t detailing the exact paths defensive backs needed to take in his press-quarters coverage, or how to win on the outside shoulder from a 5-technique.

What he wanted to teach first was what was often lacking last season: fundamentals. Ash stressed proper hand usage, pursuit to the football, and creating turnovers.

One fundamental part of football he very likely was brought into address is a part of the name of the game itself: tackling. Texas was woeful at tackling last year for a team of its talent level, athleticism, and physicality. Big plays surrendered to LSU, Oklahoma, and several other opponents likely magnified this when Ash researched the players he was inheriting.

“Things that on the field I was really concerned about was just the execution of the fundamentals, and specifically tackling because our tackling system and style is different than what they’ve been used to,” Ash said. “Without any invested reps during spring, that was a concern but I feel pretty good about where we’re at right now.”

Like time with players, each rep is valuable to coaches. No Texas player was able to participate in a live rep until pre-season camp opened in early August. Ash wasn’t going to re-think his chosen tackling technique due to lack of reps, but he did have to consider how to make up for reps lost due to the pandemic.

“We had to create more one-on-one tackling situations,” Ash said. “Whether they were live to the ground, or they have what we call ‘thud’ where we’re getting in position to make tackles, and we worked a ton of it. We’ll continue to work a ton of it as we go up into our first game, but I think we made up a lot of ground.”

“I think the biggest thing was the players understanding what we were asking them to do in the different type of tackling situations that we’re going to see, and they understand it.”

Ash said his defense hasn’t mastered it quite yet, but he has been pleased with what he’s seen so far, saying the way the Longhorns tackle has shown up on film. “Hopefully that continues as we get into games,” he added.

Though Ash mentioned he stressed fundamentals over the schematics early, the X’s and O’s still need to be taught.

“It’s one thing to go through Zoom meetings and teach them the X’s and O’s,” Ash said. “It’s another for them to get out and actually perform it and react to the different things that they have to react to and do it fairly quickly.”

Nearly every team in the country’s ability to teach was hampered by the pandemic. Only a few teams were able to get some form of spring football in.

Not all of those teams had to install a new defense. Ash’s system is a simplification compared to the previous one, but it still is a new install.

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Accordingly, Ash knew he might need to pull back the reins on instillation, saying they were willing to put a lid on how much they asked players to do early on in order to know what they could offer within the scheme.

“We weren’t going to throw everything at them right away,” Ash said. “It’s not fair to get an evaluation on somebody when he’s unsure about what he’s able to do mentally. We want to make sure that we are slow and methodical in our instillation, and we gave players that needed to get evaluated an opportunity to go out there and quiet their mind and play without a lot of thinking. We were strategic about that.”

“I think our players did a great job of picking up what we wanted them to do. We’ve got more in right now, and we’re executing more at this moment than I thought we would be able to.”

Herman and Ash hope their collaborative effort can bring success to Texas like it brought success to Ohio State under Urban Meyer in 2014. They realize they won’t be in the Big 10, but rather in a Big 12 conference home to several of the game’s best offensive minds. Ash admitted the challenge of stopping the Lincoln Riley’s, Mike Gundy’s, and Matt Campbell’s of the world was part of the allure of the job.

“I wanted to prove to myself that we had the players, and we can put together the scheme and we could build the culture defensively here, and we can go and play really good defense in this league,” Ash said.

“I truly believe you have got to score points to win games,” he continued. “But you have to play really good defense to win championships. That combination is what we want to try to get here.”

The on-field results will determine whether or not Ash’s defense will be one of the conference’s best. So far, his defense has performed well against the Sam Ehlinger-led Texas offense during pre-season camp.

As the season gets closer and closer, more and more will be added to the plate of various defenders. It’ll be the continuation of one of the more unique defensive installs in school history.

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