Football

Inside the Gameplan: Can Texas become DBU again?

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At the outset of the 2019 National Championship game between Clemson and LSU, the main storyline was how the Dabo Swinney Tigers had adopted Auburn’s 3-1-7 system as their main deterrent for the potent Joe Burrow offense. They spun down big safeties Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Muse into linebackers, removed a defensive tackle from the field, and played some tight matching cover 3 and bracket quarters schemes without fielding a single player in the backfield lacking some training and ability as a defensive back. It worked for a while, stymieing the LSU passing game by confusing Joe Burrow and the offensive line.

Because they flooded the field with extra defensive backs, playing seven at a time, it was often overlooked in the postgame reactions and analysis that their strategy still asked cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Derion Kendrick to hold up in 1-on-1 matchups with the LSU outside receivers. That proved to be their undoing when Kendrick couldn’t hang with Ja’Marr Chase and the Tiger wideout had nine catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

The schemes that Chris Ash and his staff are bringing to Texas in 2020 are going to have a similar underpinning. Press-quarters from a 4-2-5 defense against Big 12 offenses means that the cornerbacks are going to be playing a lot of press-man without help over the top and sometimes even without a post safety.

Taking up the mantle of DBU

Elsewhere in the nation, the “Defensive Back University” title is generally credited these days to LSU or Ohio State. The Tigers have six cornerbacks and five safeties on NFL rosters currently, the Buckeyes have six cornerbacks and six safeties, and the Longhorns have three cornerbacks and six safeties. Those numbers will be more lopsided against Texas after the upcoming draft when the Buckeyes will send Texan corner Jeffrey Okudah in the first round and the Tigers will be raided for multiple starters from their title secondary.

Both the Tigers and the Buckeyes have turned themselves into NFL factories for cornerbacks by employing schemes that deploy the cornerbacks in press-man coverage outside. The best incarnations of either unit thus far include the 2015 Buckeyes coached by Chris Ash that featured Gareon Conley and Eli Apple, these 2019 Tigers that had Kristian Fulton matched with Derek Stingley Jr., and the 2016 Tigers that had Tre’Davious White and Donte Jackson. That 2016 LSU unit lost four games but their opponent didn’t score even 20 points in a single one of those losses. White was drafted in the first round of the next draft and Jackson in the second round of the following draft.

If you can rotate NFL cornerbacks through your school and maintain press coverage outside while bracketing the slot then you can stand toe to toe with the most dangerous spread offenses. That is now the guiding vision of the Texas Longhorn defense, which is truly more in keeping with the DBU mantle than the strategies they’ve employed for the last decade which often instead aimed to dominate games with blitzing linebackers that were hard to find in the Texas high schools.

Check out the top three cornerbacks and linebackers within the state of Texas over the last five cycles:

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The list of cornerback prospects over the years is quite a bit more impressive and if you scroll down to the No. 4 and 5 cornerbacks in some of those years you’ll find some other recognizable names that panned out. Linebacker? Not so much. Texas high schools rarely put their best athletes at inside linebacker anymore, virtually never. If a guy has range he’ll play at safety, if he’s powerful enough to play near the box then he’s at end or outside linebacker playing off the edge.

The best years on defense for Texas in the 2010s were the ones in which they played pretty conservatively on the back seven while leaning on a dominant front four or even front three. With Chris Ash’s new approach the Longhorns are back in the business of trying to maximize Texas (and out of state) skill athletes on defense and win by directly countering the strength of the Big 12 (wide receivers). It’s an aggressive play but it makes more sense than the pressuring approach built around linebacker play.

Is Texas fast enough to take on 2020 Big 12 passing games?

This next year in the Big 12 is going to feature some of the nastiest passing attacks the league has seen to date. Everyone is pretty well caught up on some of the best schemes, most everyone returns their starting quarterback, and there are some deadly wide receivers ready to get to work.

Texas may face two of the very best passing attacks in the country between LSU, who still has Ja’Marr Chase, and Oklahoma who’s moving from their transition year with Jalen Hurts back to having dominant passing game personnel. The 2019 Sooners were strongest on the interior line and running the football on power-option schemes with Hurts. The 2020 Sooners return three different linemen who played tackle a year ago and can promote young stars like Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, Austin Stogner, and Spencer Rattler to starting roles at receiver and quarterback. Beyond that, Oklahoma State returns Tylan Wallace and Iowa State still has Brock “pump fake” Purdy and will be boosting him with NFL talent at tight end (Charlie Kolar) and now also outside receiver (JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson).

The Longhorns’ ability to have a breakthrough season depends on their ability to counter these passing games and their play to do so will hinge on getting their cornerbacks to play great press-man outside.

As you can see from the table above, Texas seems to put themselves into position for this with their 2018 class when they pulled Jalen Green, Anthony Cook, and D’Shawn Jamison. However, now that it’s go time it’s not clear that Texas managed to set themselves up with a DBU corner tandem. Green was always an upside athlete who was starting to reach his potential but is now dealing with a shoulder issue that looms over the coming season. Anthony Cook has already been moved inside to play nickel or even safety. He was always quick, physical, and good with his eyes but the scheme shift doesn’t suit his skill set. D’Shawn Jamison is perhaps the most athletic of the bunch but he’s been a sporadic playmaker thus far in his career that hasn’t translated his physical ability into consistent skill.

Outside of that group, Texas has ultra-athlete Josh Thompson that will get a look whenever Texas is able to practice again and the young Kenyatta Watson who’s maybe the most promising option but also wildly inexperienced.

If you average out the measurables for the six cornerbacks mentioned above from DBU rivals Ohio State and LSU you arrive at a player who’s 6-0, 192 pounds, runs the 40 in 4.4, and can jump 36” in the vertical. Those guys all benefited from a few years of college strength and conditioning before posting those numbers in the combine, but here’s how Texas’ options stack up based on SPARQ high school numbers:

DBU corner vs Texas roster.jpg

The drafted DBU cornerbacks that are our control group here had some varying vertical numbers, although most of them were exceptional, but they all ran sub-4.5 at the NFL combine. Playing press-man coverage in a scheme where you’re responsible for vertical routes outside the hash marks and don’t always have help on the post requires some serious turn and run speed. When Michigan State popularized this scheme with their “no fly zone” press-quarters defense early in the decade they too had sprinters outside in Trae Waynes (4.31 40) and Darqueze Dennard (4.51).

Amongst Texas’ current cornerbacks, Jamison and Boyce are the only guys that really have that kind of speed although Watson and Thompson are close and Kitan Crawford will bring it in the fall. When people talk about press coverage they tend to emphasize length and height because it’s believed that the best way to play press-man coverage is to literally jam and press guys at the line of scrimmage but there’s very little evidence that this is actually the case. The NFL’s all time greatest press-man corner Darrelle Revis checked in at 5-11, 198 and ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds.

The best way to play press-man coverage is with elite athletes that can stick on receivers and recover quickly when they don’t perfectly disrupt, anticipate, or match a route break. It’s strange to think that with their high level recruiting that Texas might lack the speed to execute an aggressive strategy but when you compare the Longhorn cornerback rooms of late with the squads from Ohio State or LSU then the truth starts to sink in.

The stakes are fairly high, also. If you want a glimpse into what it looks like when you rely on playing press-man with lesser defensive backs against top level passing attacks check out the LSU 63-28 drubbing of Oklahoma in the playoffs, or Ohio State’s 62-39 and 56-27 victories over the last two years against Michigan.

How will this play out in 2020?

D’Shawn Jamison is a virtual lock to win one of the starting cornerback jobs. His technique has been inconsistent and he took some Ls by getting beat over the top in 2019 but he also lead the team with three interceptions, demonstrated an obvious knack for playmaking, and is one of the only options with press-man recovery speed. Kobe Boyce has yet to really put it all together but he keeps hanging around as a corner option because he too has the elite athleticism you look for at the position. Kenyatta Watson looms as a player that could either win a job through injury (Jalen Green?), a strong fall camp, or a midseason shift.

The Longhorns draw their two toughest challenges in the first five games with the road trip to Baton Rouge in week two and then the Red River Shootout as the fifth game. On the bright side, Ash and his staff have a little margin for error here because ultimately the season won’t come down to either of those big games but instead the Big 12 title game, presumably a rematch with Oklahoma. Texas needs to figure out press-man coverage for the stretch after the RRS. In the next seven games they’ll face Jarrett Doege and West Virginia, Alan Bowman (probably) and Texas Tech, and then conclude the season facing pump fake Purdy at home and then Spencer Sanders and Tylan Wallace on the road.

Those games with Big 12 teams featuring marginal overall talent but savvy passing quarterbacks distributing the ball to great skill talent have been the battles that have thwarted Tom Herman and got Todd Orlando fired. Texas has essentially lacked answers for the prototypical Big 12 formula, hence their inability to rise above the mid-tier.

So the big goal for Ash and the defensive staff will be to sort out the cornerback room and get the right athletes on the field for the back half of the season that can play press-man coverage and check the non-Oklahoma offenses in the league. If Texas can check typical Big 12 offenses by playing press-man, they’ll be able to start rebuilding their case for being DBU.

History major, football theorist.