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Texas fans finally got their wish in the 2019 bowl game against the Utah Utes. Star linebacker Joseph Ossai, who’d spent much of the season playing as a nickel or weak inside linebacker, was finally able to play on the edge and produced six TFLs and three sacks in a dominating performance.
The bowl draw and matchup was ideal for Tom Herman’s Longhorns. For the second year in a row they drew a team that…
-Had gone 11-2 and narrowly missed the playoffs after losing conference championships games.
-Employed a style of trying to physically bully their opponent in the trenches.
-Was heavily favored.
You can’t bully a Tom Herman Texas team. Toughness is never the issue and for the second year in a row they had some wrinkles on offense to help them impose their own will on the ground. Instead, Texas got a chance to show what they’re capable of and set up another offseason where expectations creep back up.
Against Utah and their multi-TE formations, the Longhorns had a few measures for stuffing the Utes. The main issue was the perimeter, where Utah had zone-read keepers, outside zone plays, tight ends, and sweeps to utilize in order to command attention and create creases inside for RB Zack Moss. Inside, Texas had Keondre Coburn and Ta’Quon Graham, making those gaps a less appealing target if they could avoid getting swamped on the edge. Playing Ossai on the edge was helpful in avoiding that, as was a 3-4 package Texas created for this game in which Ossai played opposite Malcolm Roach in the other OLB spot. They owned either edge against Utah’s bigger sets.
Texas won’t face many teams in 2020 that try to attack them like the Utes did. However, there will be carry-over from the 2019 Alamo Bowl in that Ossai and the Texas DL will play a big role in setting the edge from four-down fronts. The next big question beyond that is how the Longhorns can play to their strengths up front in the overall defensive structure.
4-3 press quarters vs 4-2-5 press quarters
Up until now, Chris Ash has almost always run a 4-3 press quarters scheme. In limited talks with his new charges that have leaked out we’ve heard the phrase “4-2-5 press quarters.” I don’t know precisely what Ash means by that but I do know what tends to differentiate these two schemes.
Ash’s 4-3 is built out of the “Under front” that plays the strongside DE and nose tackle to the wide side of the field with the middle linebacker and is designed to regularly receive help off the edge from a split out sam linebacker.
That doesn’t really work out so well in the Big 12 though. Playing a linebacker at sam, however mobile he might be, creates serious limitations when teams get into “trips” sets and he’s carried way outside of the box. If you don’t want him carrying verticals by slot receivers then you have to leave your backside cornerback in man coverage with very little help from the safety.
There’s also the issues at MLB, who can be put into tough run/pass conflicts when he has the interior B-gap and his coverage matchup is out on the opposite hash. Ash often dealt with that issue by having his strongside end play heavy and look to squeeze that B-gap so the MLB could play in the C-gap or by using a 4i-technique and parking the DE directly in the B-gap.
The 4-2-5 press quarters D doesn’t have all of these same issues because it regularly deploys a coverage savvy safety or physical corner in the nickel position. The coverages from that defense are similar but it often keeps the safeties closer to the action between the hash marks.
This style prioritizes matching up tighter on the receivers in coverage and then asking the safeties to support in the right places and make it all work. The LBs also need to be quick and agile underneath in order to fit the run optimally. Everyone helps each other more than in the 4-3 where some defenders are asked to hold up in isolatation to suit each other’s specialties.
Here’s how it looks against vertical combos from trips formations:
This style is tougher and asks more of the defensive backfield in terms of recognizing the offensive concept and closing on the ball, but it also eliminates a lot of easy reads and throws because it’s akin to two-deep, man under. Obviously if that middle linebacker position is manned by someone who can turn and run some then life gets very difficult for the offense.
Some notable practitioners of this scheme include Auburn and Clemson. Those teams have both put together some dominant defenses in years where they had NFL talent on the DL to hold the point of attack and protect the defensive backfield as they diagnosed plays. Over the last five NFL drafts Clemson has had nine DL selected (including all four from the 2018 team) and Auburn has had five taken. Over that same span Texas has had three DL drafted. Malcom Brown in 2015, Hassan Ridgeway in 2016, and Charles Omenihu in 2019.
Making the most of the 2020 DL
There’s a few similarities in 2020 to the 2008 season back when Will Muschamp took over. Muschamp also embraced more of a 4-2-5 quarters system, moving senior CB Ryan Palmer and freshman Aaron Williams to the nickel position and starting freshmen Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon, playing them in bracket coverage on the hash marks in support against the pass or run. It worked out pretty well, in part because Texas had some amazing young athletes in the secondary but also because Muschamp inherited what turned out to be a quietly overpowering collection of DL.
It didn’t appear that way heading into the season. Frank Okam and Derek Lokey were graduating after an impressive 2007 season together, leaving Texas with the oft-injured Roy Miller, a flashing but unrealized Brian Orakpo (five sacks in 2007, two of which were in the bowl game), and big defensive end Lamarr Houston. Muschamp took the already large Houston and bumped him inside to DT and filled out the rotation at DE with a pair of position changes named Henry Melton (RB) and Sergio Kindle (MLB).
Miller stayed healthy and dominated at the nose in 2008, Houston played solid ball at DT, and Melton had a good year but often played second fiddle as Orakpo and Kindle had 11.5 and 10 sacks apiece. Muschamp typically let Orakpo come off the right edge while moving Kindle around to disguise where he’d be coming in and often involving him on the blitz. By 2009 Kindle and Houston were superstars and younger players like Kheeston Randall and Sam Acho were ready to go as well.
Todd Orlando wasn’t necessarily recruiting to a four-down philosophy over the last three years as the Texas DC. The goal was to stockpile as many promising “tweener” type players as possible that could grow and project to play in the movement-heavy, single-gap scheme that typically used DL to hold attention or interior gaps while linebackers did the real pass-rushing. For that reason Texas hasn’t always been a hot destination for the best DL prospects in the state, particularly the outside pass-rushers. Nevertheless, the situation is still remarkably promising.
Heading into the season, Ash is inheriting a better situation than it seemed Muschamp was drawing back in 2008 even though we now know that the 2008 Texas DL would include five players that would be drafted.
We can start with the obvious, Ash will have Ossai, Graham, Coburn, Marqez Bimage, and Moro Ojomo whom have all shown serious flashes. Then there’s T’Vondre Sweat, Peter Mpagi, Jacoby Jones, Daniel Carson, and Myron Warren waiting in the wings. He’ll also be adding freshman reinforcements such as Vernon Broughton, Prince Dorbah, Sawyer Goram-Welch, and probably Alfred Collins.
That’s an awful lot of talented and even experienced pieces from which to build a variety of effective defensive fronts. Ossai had 90 tackles this season with 13.5 TFLs and five sacks, Graham had 12 TFLs, and Coburn was a consistent menace despite not putting up huge numbers on the stat sheet.
These days spread offenses are so good at isolating defenders in space that you can hurt yourself by insisting on playing four-down rather than getting eight off ball defenders on the field to create flexibility and erase some of that space. When Clemson didn’t have their all-NFL DL against Ohio State this year they nearly got rocked before shifting into the 8-3/inverted Tampa 2 and using their ILBs to control the box rather than leaning on the front four.
If you’re playing four-down, you need those four to be controlling the action up front at a very high level against the run and the pass to justify not getting more speed on the field. Fortunately for Ash, Orlando’s recruiting style and success may have set him up pretty well here. For starters, despite only being a sophomore Ossai is an overqualified hybrid for a DE/OLB position. Texas could easily mix in drop eight coverages with Ossai and be as well off as though they were using a sub-package, particularly if they convert a safety to play middle linebacker.
Beyond that, the other three DL positions are more about controlling the point of attack and pushing the pocket then rushing off the edge. For that Texas has a lot of great pieces because virtually every DL they’ve recruited fits that bill. They could run a 3-4 Over or Under hybrid front in which they’re in a four-down the majority of the time but Ossai plays standing up, giving them the flexibility to go back and forth between those styles.
For instance, here’s a 3-4 Over of the sort that Don Brown at Michigan likes to use imagined with Texas personnel:
It’d be harder to drop Ossai from this front but the idea is to play a big strongside end across from the TE as well as the 3-technique. That makes it virtually impossible for the offense to run the ball behind their TE because they don’t have the angles or numbers to double both the 3-tech and the 6-technique strongside end. So the ball has to go weak where Ossai is loose on the edge and Coburn is squatting down.
Here’s the sort of 3-4 Under that Ash has typically utilized in the past:
It’s a lot easier to move Ossai back and forth between dropping like a LB or blitzing the edge. The strongside end position is still very similar although now he’s in a 5-technique and the offense can more easily double him with a TE. The goal with the Under traditionally was to handle downhill rushing attacks by sticking stout DL and the MLB at the point of attack while swarming from either edge with a lightning quick 3-tech and weakside end from one edge and a hard-charging sam linebacker from the other. Nowadays that isn’t really the name of the game because spread spacing has taken the sam linebacker off the field. These days the Under is best for using your stout strongside end and nose to the wide side of the field so that you can play more speed behind them at MLB and the nickel.
This is why that’s the spot for Texas to play the converted safety. Normally Under teams would put their “sideline to sideline” LB at the weakside spot, and Orlando would do that as well. In today’s game the MLB to the wide side needs to be your laterally rangy player so that’s where they need a BJ Foster or DeMarvion Overshown. That player may have to match a slot underneath and carry him to the safeties, get to the edge against a run off the TE, or get back into the B-gap despite being split halfway to the opposite hash mark.
Chris Ash is going to have a busy offseason ahead drilling his new charges in how to play tightly together so that everyone always knows where on the field he has help and where he’s on his own. Fortunately for him, the roster is absolutely loaded with players of the exact sort he needs and of a greater caliber than he’s had at any other spot save for one.