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Calling defense at the Power 5 level is a performance-based business. Todd Orlando’s 2019 regular season as Texas’ defensive coordinator resulted in his dismissal from Tom Herman’s program due to poor performance.
The move by Herman to remove his longtime assistant wasn’t a surprise numbers-wise. Texas was 97th in total defense and 127th out of 130 teams in passing defense.
But relationship-wise, the move was no guarantee. Herman stressed alignment repeatedly in his first two seasons, and gloated about not having any staff turnover between years one and two. However, the evidence on the field and stat sheet was enough to overcome Herman’s personal ties to his only defensive coordinator as a head coach.
Many Texas fans were more than ready to see Orlando go, but those fans hadn’t developed personal connections with Orlando like junior Joseph Ossai. Prior to Texas’ win over Utah in the Alamo Bowl, Ossai was one of several players available to the media. He was asked about his emotions regarding Orlando’s removal.
“I’m not going to lie, the first day I was mad because that was my position coach,” Ossai said in December. “I spent a lot of my time with him learning and growing. I was mad at not just the decision to let him go, but myself. I was mad at myself because I immediately started thinking back to points in the season and things I could have done, plays I could have made, stuff I could have done better.”
Why was Ossai distraught for a defensive coordinator who struggled to restrict a significant portion of Big 12 offenses? He worked with Orlando every single day. Ossai’s elite athleticism that has him in 2021 NFL Draft discussions meant he could do more than just come off the edge, but that involved learning the mental side of an entirely new position. There stepped in Orlando, who constantly worked with Ossai to help prepare him for the variety of roles the Conroe native played in 2019.
The effectiveness of having Ossai play all over the field rather than on the line of scrimmage was limited, but that doesn’t negate the time the two spent together. It shows why Ossai was angry when the coordinator so many were ready to see let go was let go.
But Ossai realized he couldn’t dwell on it. He had a new defensive coordinator to start working with in Chris Ash.
“The main thing is opening myself up to him, not just closing him off because he came and took my coach’s job,” Ossai said in December. “I’ll have to open myself up to him and let him do what he’s paid to do.”
Pent-up frustration from Ossai was unleashed on the Utah Utes. He recorded nine tackles, six for loss, and three sacks in the Alamo Bowl, earning defensive MVP honors. The No. 12 team in the country managed 10 points thanks in large part to Ossai.
The frustration and emotion have leveled off since the bowl game, but some of it is still there. On a video call held on May 7, Ossai said amidst learning a new role in the defense, working out at Sam Ehlinger’s house, and learning a new scheme, he is still learning to cope with the dismissal of his former coach.
He quickly followed up that he realizes college football is a business, whether he likes it or not, and “you’ve got to roll with what you got.” With that understanding, he’s worked with Ash to create another bond with his defensive coordinator.
“Right now, I’m working on building new relationships with the coaches I have,” Ossai said. “Coach Ash is what I have. I’m going to work to make the best out of it, try to get into his head, pick his brain, and see what he knows about football, and try to combine that with what Orlando has taught me and try to grow from it.”
It might be odd to hear that praise even after Orlando’s defenses regressed over his three-year Texas tenure. His teachings stick with Ossai, same with remnants of that feeling he had in the wake of his firing. But Ossai uses that feeling differently now in keeping his eye toward the future.
“It’s for good reasons because you never want to go back to that,” Ossai said. “It’s just another motivation, another thing to motivate you when you’re working out. You remember not necessarily what happened or how things went down, but you don’t want to be in that situation anymore. You just got to keep working harder.”
Ash brings with him a change in scheme that will have Ossai playing “jack.” It’s a position that will highlight his rushing abilities while asking him to drop back on occasion. Those changes are exciting to Ossai, just as they’re exciting to other Longhorns on the defensive line.
“We want to be more disruptive, and I think this scheme gives us the opportunity to do just that,” Ossai said. “I know guys like (Ta’Quon Graham), Keondre (Coburn), Moro (Ojomo), we’re all excited and we can’t wait to set the tone.”
Ossai mentioned he’s enjoyed hearing the fresh ideas, learning new techniques, and going through “the process.” All of it, he hopes, will lead him to his ultimate goal.
“I want to win a national championship,” he said.