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The most important hire Tom Herman will make this offseason will be the offensive coordinator as this team will go as far as Sam Ehlinger and the offense can take them. Whoever takes over on defense will inherit an exceptionally athletic yet positionally limited group that will need a lot of coaching. In the context of 2020, Texas probably isn’t going to win on the back of a top defense but the improvements on that side will set the ceiling for what the Longhorns can accomplish.
One of the early and obvious contenders for that DC job is Chris Ash, who worked opposite Tom Herman on the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes in 2014. Ash also dropped by the Texas offices to do some visiting and consulting before the Red River Shootout, which means he’s seen the situation at Texas when they’re dealing with the toughest offense in the conference. He became available for that visit and for this hire when his stint as head coach at Rutgers resulted in an 8-32 record (3-26 in the B1G) over 4.5 seasons
Hiring Chris Ash would, in many senses, be the classic oversteer to the Todd Orlando era. Beyond moving from a primarily three-down front to the four-down, Ash also has a different philosophical approach to defense. Here’s a snapshot of Ash’s career as a DC as it relates to coaching at Texas in the Big 12.
Out of Iowa
Chris Ash got his initial start coaching DBs at Iowa State, initially for Dan McCarney. He worked there again under Paul Rhoads and Wally Burnham while Tom Herman was the offensive coordinator. His career really got going working for Bret Bielema as a DB coach and ultimately DC at Wisconsin from 2010-2012, then at Arkansas in 2013. That’s where Urban Meyer found him.
Bielema himself coached at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz and Norm Parker, before replacing Phil Bennett as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State. The defensive school he comes from is also seen heavily in Ash’s units, which rely mostly on the 4-3 Under front with quarters as the main coverage.
All of these guys have some consistent themes to their defenses, underlying principles which have been the hallmarks of Iowa football for years and years. Those themes are 4-3 base defense, a read and react philosophy, making sure they can get numbers to stop the run, and forcing opponents to earn their way down the field even at the risk of playing static “looks” that offenses can target.
Over the years, Ash’s defenses at Wisconsin, Arkansas, Ohio State, and Rutgers all tend to follow that blueprint while putting an Iowa-esque emphasis on fundamentals from read and react defense.
Ash became a well-known name across college football when Urban Meyer detached him from Bret Bielema and commissioned him to help install the press-quarters defense at Ohio State that Michigan State had been using to dominate the league. They hadn’t been playing that brand of quarters at Wisconsin or Arkansas, typically playing more off coverage, but they also didn’t have athletes at cornerback like they found in Columbus. And Ohio State had Kerry Coombs, the exceptional CB coach who’s now coaching the Tennessee Titans secondary after sending six cornerbacks to the NFL (five as first round picks) from Ohio State over five seasons.
The 2014 Buckeyes took some time to find themselves but after elevating Darron Lee to starting sam linebacker they found their groove in time to play their part in winning the national championship. Their secret was fielding the following unit, coached by exceptional positional coaches at every level that included Ash over the safeties, Coombs over the CBs, current Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell for the LBs, and the legendary Larry Johnson (plucked by Meyer from Penn State’s DL factory) with the DL:
Over the course of 2014 and then into 2015, this unit became the ultimate ideal of the Iowa approach to playing defense, combining great fundamentals with elite talent. They lined up in press-quarters from an Under front on the majority of their snaps (with a mix of some zone blitz and Tampa 2 from nickel on third and long) and they welcomed attempts to out-execute their athletes playing base defense. That was extremely hard to do, as you might guess from noting how many blue-chippers or overlooked gems that became NFL prizes were lining up for them.
After besting Lane Kiffin’s Tide and the Mark Helfrich/Scott Frost Oregon Ducks, Ash’s star was flying high and after another strong year in 2015 he left to be the head coach at Rutgers. He continued to use the 4-3 Under there but has lacked the first round CB talent he had with Coombs at Ohio State and ultimately failed.
Iowa vs the Big 12
Heading into the Big 12, the obvious question for Ash is how his Iowan base defenses would translate against the sort of lethal spread offenses that he’d be asked to stop at Texas.
His career has had a lot of checkpoints in which he encountered some good spread offenses and for the most part his units didn’t hold up well outside of the 2014 postseason run with the Buckeyes. His Rutgers units were routinely abused by Michigan, Penn State, and especially Ohio State who never failed to hang fewer than 50 points on his defenses. Ash was fired from Rutgers right after losing 52-0 to Michigan in the 2019 season in a game where Shea Patterson averaged 12 yards per pass attempt.
You can also go back to his days with Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas and find some instances where they encountered good spread offenses. The 2011 Badgers faced the Darron Thomas Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl and were torched for 621 yards (285 passing, 345 rushing) and 45 points in a 45-38 defeat. In 2013 at Arkansas, Ash and Bielema got a glimpse into Big 12 life when they faced the Johnny Manziel Texas A&M Aggies. For that game Ash switched from the base 4-3 personnel to nickel…and they gave up 523 yards (260 running and passing), a 7/13 conversion rate on third down, and 45 points in another defeat.
The challenge of playing a static base defense and relying on read and react fundamentals against spread offenses is that you invite them to formation you into difficult looks and attack your weak spots in space. The 4-3 Under has some particular struggles in that regard because it has a run-stopping mentality. The scheme was designed to stuff the I-formation and modern iterations of it utilize a big strongside end (sometimes in a 4i!), nose tackle, and plugging middle linebacker to spill runs either to a hard-charging sam linebacker on the edge or back to penetrating speed coming from the weakside where there’s a 3-technique, weakside end, and weakside linebacker.
The defense that Ohio State played was mainly adapted to allow the 4-3 Under to continue to get numbers to the ball against the run. Here’s a play-action, dig-post combination of the sort that has menaced the league for years now drawn up against a 4-3 Under quarters defense:
I can’t count how many touchdown passes I’ve seen thrown in this league on that outside post route to the Z receiver. Texas often runs a similar combination with the H receiver running a deep out and the Z still running a post, a fair chunk of Ehlinger’s deep out completions to Duvernay came on such a play. Against quarters coverage, once routes get down the field it’s all basically man coverage with the corner on the outside receiver and the safety on the slot. If you mix in RPOs or play-action it often becomes zero coverage with the underneath defenders sucked in by run action and unable to help redirect routes by the inside receivers.
The smashmouth spread offenses that took over the league at the turn of the decade are designed to show a classic, downhill run game to encourage this sort of style in order to get the desired matchups down the field to light up the scoreboard with deep passing.
Over the years Ash has had a few different solutions for this sort of problem. At Ohio State, where his approach worked best, his solution was to play the ultra-athletic and physical Darron Lee as a sam linebacker rather than using a nickel to get the most out of that position, and then to play a 5-star, converted cornerback named Vonn Bell behind him at strong safety. Bell made their base 4-3 defense work by holding up in isolation against slot receivers from depth. He’s currently the starting strong safety and second leading tackler for the New Orleans Saints.
With Bell playing behind him, Darron Lee was able to blitz and play the run more aggressively at times from his alignment on the hash marks, often dominating games as a sort of super nickel without having to deal with the sorts of counters that Big 12 teams regularly use against that position. Obviously the lockdown play of the Buckeye corners was another crucial factor.
Ultimately the struggles of the 4-3 Under are similar to the struggles of the zone blitz and quarters structure that Todd Orlando brought to Texas. The starting premise of these defenses was that quarters coverage and the 3-deep/3-under coverage of the fire zone was a relatively safe base defense to play behind shifting and attacking fronts. In reality, modern offenses are designed to mercilessly and efficiently isolate DBs in those coverages and attack them down the field. What Ash has done to date has been to play the same coverages as Orlando but with less going on up front in pursuit of great fundamental play from the DL and LB.
There have been two teams that have had success playing that sort of “base D with great fundamentals” style in the Big 12 of late after coming to the league with 4-3 Under backgrounds. Jon Heacock and Matt Rhule are both midwestern guys that are well schooled in those defensive philosophies and both adjusted to Big 12 life with the inverted Tampa 2.
The inverted Tampa 2 is a reworking of the 4-3 Under design by starting from the point of answering for modern passing attacks rather than the run game. It’s designed to make sure the defense can get needed numbers deep before working back to stopping the run. The IT2 doesn’t have glaring weak spots in space because it floods the defensive backfield with eight athletes regularly dropping back. At times Iowa State and Baylor have played similarly static looks as the 2014 Buckeyes, although the inverted Tampa 2 is also quite useful for disguising coverages, but the structure is completely different from the approach of making sure they can get get big athletes quickly to the point of attack.
Chris Ash vs the Big 12
When Ash hasn’t had elite athletes to make his static defense difficult to beat even with precision strikes, his defenses haven’t been terribly good. At Texas he’d be in solid shape in terms of having NFL athletes to plug into his schemes, but he’d still need to figure out how to adjust his defense to smashmouth spread stresses that he didn’t really have to deal with at previous stops.
First, he’d need to determine if he was sticking with quarters or not as his base defense. He’s also used some cover 3 and online you can find video of him breaking down Tampa 2, which has tended to be a third down call for him. Texas has good enough athletes in the secondary that they might be able to get away with using quarters (in nickel at least, not in 4-3) as their base, but it’s certainly a risk. Oklahoma has gone that route, mixing press-quarters and cover 3, but they’ve done it from a base defense that basically starts three corners and is very aggressive up front. They’ve also been burned a few times by the passing game and are likely to have their entire system ripped apart by Joe Burrow in the looming playoffs. Ash’s Rutgers/Ohio State approach would be somewhat akin to Mohammed Ali’s “rope-a-dope,” allowing explosive opponents to put Texas on the ropes in hopes that they’d exhaust themselves from throwing massive punches, but without as many “right hand leads” that Orlando and OU’s Alex Grinch mixed in.
Secondly he’d need to get the best LB coach he could find to come with him (Ash has always coached DBs) because there’s a monstrous job ahead for whoever inherits that gig. Texas currently has an overabundance of big, physical safeties and then a shortage of classic inside-backers that know how to read flow quickly and get to their spots. Playing DeMarvion Overshown or B.J. Foster as a “sam” linebacker like Darron Lee wouldn’t be anywhere near enough of a concession to make this scheme Big 12-proof, someone needs to be playing inside backer next season.
In any event, the new staff are going to need to be ready to teach a lot of young and inexperienced guys how to play linebacker in their scheme to make much of the 2020 season. Again, the Ohio State formula involved having legendary teachers at multiple positions in addition to having NFL caliber talent. A Chris Ash Texas defense would necessitate a home-run follow up hire at LB coach.
There’s a similar task ahead at cornerback, although there’s a lot to work with on the roster. Playing lots of quarters, either press or otherwise, requires having cornerbacks that can patrol the sidelines without help and find the ball in the air.
Beyond Ash and Herman’s working history together, it would make sense for Herman to want to veer in this simplified direction after the last two seasons. He’s repeatedly emphasized the need for simplicity and allowing the Texas athletes to go make plays in press conferences this season, potentially telegraphing an offseason narrative in which “getting back to basics” is presented as the cure for the defense. Orlando’s emphasis on shifting looks and positionless defense was an obvious detractor every year for Texas getting their players in the right positions until late in the season and in being able to rely on sound principles and fundamentals in big moments.
Chris Ash emphasizes sound principles and fundamentals in big moments that force opponents to beat you, the question with a Chris Ash hire would be whether his principles and fundamentals would be truly sound for the moments that occur in Big 12 games.