Inside the Gameplan: Building around Joseph Ossai

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Todd Orlando is no longer the defensive coordinator at Texas in no small part because in 2019 he squandered some of the best pass-rushing personnel Texas has fielded in years. Despite having a dream 3-technique on the roster in Malcolm Roach and an emerging star edge rusher in Joseph Ossai, Texas rarely leveraged their talents together in their ideal positions.

Ossai played three different positions over the course of the year and finished the season with five sacks, three of which came in the bowl game against Utah when he was finally able to play on the edge. Malcolm Roach played as a 4i defensive end and as nose tackle, typically using his unique athleticism (ran a 4.84 at the combine at 297 pounds) to cross up guards so that Texas’ linebackers and safeties could find creases to blitz through. Orlando’s decision to use Ossai and Roach as stopgaps and table setters for a bad defense was unquestionably a factor in his dismissal at the end of the year. For all of his aggressive tendencies, Orlando was never particularly aggressive about forcing offenses to come to grips with his two most talented players up front.

Chris Ash and the new defensive staff won’t have Malcolm Roach to work with but instead will inherit a defensive line roster that has finally been shaped and developed to run Orlando’s three-down scheme. The task for 2020 will be to figure out how to build a defensive front that can not only set the point of attack against the run, which will frankly be easy for this cast, but also push the pocket and move the quarterback off his spots with a base pass-rush.

Joe Ossai offers Texas one superpowered piece to use for getting after the quarterback. Now, they need to deploy the other players up front in a manner that maximizes his impact. There’s a lot of talent up front left over, even if the fit isn’t ideal, but the 2020 defense will hinge on managing to make the most of Ossai’s talent.

Overstressing the offensive line

Texas really wants to force teams to come to grips with Ossai’s explosiveness on the edge in the run game and the passing game. There’s a few ways to approach either goal.

In the run game Texas doesn’t want teams to be able to get a tight end outside of Ossai to help pin him inside either for linemen to pull around or to create angles for a double team. They want Ossai to have some space to work in while he sets the edge or spills pullers from the outside-in.

To keep Ossai as the widest player on the edge though that means that he needs to always be paired with either a 3-technique or a 4i-technique. You can’t play Ossai as a wide-9 technique against a tight end or H-back with no one inside of him except for a nose tackle all the way inside at the A-gap or the whole side of the line has a free run at the linebackers.

So expect Texas to either keep Ossai and a 3-technique/4i-technique player on the boundary at all times, or else to always be able to bump a defensive tackle outside toward him if opponents move the tight end around so that he can stay wide.

In the pass rush there are three ways to keep opponents from zeroing in on Ossai with their protection schemes. One is to liberally bring blitzes that play off the threat of Ossai. If teams seem likely to consistent shade help towards Ossai, then Texas could make the most of that with some well timed blitzes that attack other parts of the protection. That would have been Orlando’s favorite way to do it, Texas’ former DC loved lining up Hager or Ossai on the edge only to drop them into coverage on third and long. Or they could just overload the side Ossai is coming from by bringing a linebacker to guarantee a 1-on-1 matchup for Ossai and perhaps the angle that he enjoys best. If you want to keep Ossai on the edge they could insert the will linebacker inside of him while crossing up the guard with the 3-technique.

If Ossai is good at slanting inside they could have him and the 3-technique both slant inside before bringing the will wide around the edge.

The second way to guarantee a big impact for Ossai in the pass-rush is by playing a defensive end opposite him that can also win the edge and get to the passer. Take a look at some of the numbers of Longhorn defensive ends back when Texas was a four-down team and you’ll find that their numbers were unsurprisingly best when there were two that could get after the quarterback. Narrow things down to a single edge threat and the total number of sacks would decrease even for that featured rusher.

This is where Orlando’s steady transformation of the defensive roster into a three-down structure could limit the Longhorns. Chris Ash has a truly massive collection of enormous, legitimate athletes in the defensive line room that is almost entirely composed of guys that are 6-3 or taller and at least 270 pounds. Just about all of them are valuable and the move to a four-down isn’t wasting their abilities, but there also aren’t any great arc-runners in the mix.

However, if they base in an Under front that sets the strength to the field and always has the 3-technique and edge-rushing hybrid (Ossai) to the boundary then the fit is potentially much cleaner. Another team that utilizes that style? The Texas A&M Aggies under Mike Elko. Here’s how Elko has deployed their defensive line the last two seasons:

Elko's Aggie Under.jpg

As you can see, the Under front deployed by the Aggies, and likely the Longhorns soon as well, is closely akin to the 3-4 defense and even the “tite” front system that Todd Orlando favored. The strongside end is now shaded outside (most of the time) so that he can set the edge and the 3-technique slides inside and doesn’t have to worry about getting outside of the tackle (most of the time). The nose is shaded into the A-gap where he’s much easier to double team (someone had to lose out). Other than that, it’s a similar system and it asks for nearly identical skill sets from the various players up front.

Where the Orlando defense would use the rover as a featured inside pass-rusher, almost making him the 3-technique in the Under, the true Under front is more traditional and transforms one of those 4i-techniques into a pass-rushing 3-technique. For the Aggies, Justin Madubuike got that coveted role. Elko used Jerry Tillery as a nose at Notre Dame, likely out of necessity, and his successor slid him over to 3-technique after he left leading to a near doubling of his sack production.

While their depth chart is young, it’s notable that Texas’ move to the same defensive front as the Aggies led to Jimbo Fisher and his staff leaning on out of state recruiting to fill out their 2020 class while missing on the top in-state players.

So the Longhorn defensive line roster isn’t stacked with ends that can rush the edge at a high level opposite Ossai, but they do have an abundance of players that fit as strongside ends, nose tackles, and 3-techniques. That makes the decision on whom to play as the 3-technique one of the crucial decisions of the offseason.

Forecasting the 2020 roster

We have the advantage of reports from inside the program that peg the likely starting lineup as Joseph Ossai, Keondre Coburn, T’Vondre Sweat, and Ta’Quon Graham.

Ta’Quon Graham obviously slides out just a shade and becomes a full-time defensive end after playing as a 4i-technique for the last two seasons. He’s the smallest non-hybrid member of that front four and the quickest laterally, although they’re all above average in that regard. Graham has never shown any spectacular pass-rushing ability but he’s definitely dangerous on slants and stunts and he’s quick off the ball and hard to control in the run game. Teams looking to push the ball wide to the field against Graham would likely have some issues.

That makes the central conversation whether it’s Keondre Coburn or T’Vondre Sweat that gets the coveted 3-technique assignment. Despite his stereotypical stocky build and low center of gravity, I believe the answer is Coburn.

When the Texas defensive front was excellent in 2019 it was largely so because teams couldn’t get a handle on Coburn. He’s lightning off the ball and can slant and shoot gaps with shocking quickness. It was routine to see him jump into a guard or center’s lap before they were ready, get under their pads with his hands, and then impose his will inside.

Sweat also has some nice lateral agility but as of 2019 hasn’t yet shown the same kind of explosive power and lightning hands that Coburn wields on the interior. Expect Texas to lean on a Coburn-Ossai pairing to bring disruption from the edge.

Prospective Texas Under.jpg

Here’s how that lines up against a team looking to work the ball to the field with a play familiar to Texas, the inside zone run with a bubble screen to open up the alley for a cutback.

Texas needs Ossai and Coburn to own the boundary edge and eliminate any real chance of the run getting through there so that the linebackers can flow to the cutback lane (where the tight end is) ASAP and eliminate the need for Ash to fire the nickel off the edge or for TQ and Sweat to hold up long against those double teams.

Then on passing plays Texas can really get these guys to work. Pairing them side by side eliminates the chance of a double team on either Ossai or Coburn without involving a running back or tight end staying in to block. It also creates the opportunity for tackle-end stunts that would likely be more effective than expected because Coburn moves so much more quickly than you’d think from looking at him.

Coburn works outside into the tackle through the B-gap into an edge contain position, ideally holding the attention of both the guard and the tackle but also while aiming to split them. Then Ossai loops inside and into the ensuing crease to take a quick running shot at the quarterback. This is a useful run-stopping stunt at times but it can also be very effective in the pass-rush. TCU feasted with this simple stunt when they ran it with Corey Bethley as the 3-technique and Ben Banogu as the weakside end, particularly in 2018 when Banogu had 18 TFL and 8.5 sacks while Bethley added nine more TFL and five sacks. Go rewatch their battle with Texas and you’ll see them inflict multiple negative plays with that stunt.

Texas may get some surprising pass-rush from Graham once he’s freed up to play on the edge and actually get after the quarterback from time to time. They’re also not going to abandon the blitz and are already excited about what prospective will linebacker DeMarvion Overshown offers in this regard. Front line domination in 2020 though will be hinge on Coburn doing a passable Warren Sapp impersonation so that the boundary side of the Texas defensive line can overwhelm opponents.

If Chris Ash wants to avoid the fate of Todd Orlando, he’ll need to force opponents to deal with Texas’ most talented players. If he can get Coburn and Ossai’s explosiveness to work in tandem, that could prove to be the cornerstone piece of the 2020 defense.

History major, football theorist.