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Texas Bowl Preview: Breaking Down The Longhorn Defense

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Let's have a look at the bowl game opponent, the Texas Longhorns.

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Everything is bigger in Texas, including the bowl preview. We're having to break this up into (at least) three parts. First, we start with this roster breakdown and early personnel look at the Texas Longhorns defense. A similar breakdown of the Texas offense will run later this week. We'll also use this for next week's advanced stats preview, which I hope will be the biggest and best yet.

The Texas Defense

Similar to Arkansas, Charlie Strong’s rebuild at Texas has seen early returns on the defensive side of the ball. Texas’ primary strength is pass defense, but the Horns aren’t bad against the run either and rank 18th in Defense S&P+.

The big question for Strong in getting his defense ready for the Hogs is versatility. Big XII defenses are being built to stop high-octane spread attacks. Recruiters in Big XII country are signing (and developing) smaller defensive linemen and stockpiling good safeties instead of good linebackers. Texas Tech, for example, was horribly equipped to stop the Hog attack. Texas has a lot more raw talent and a lot better coaches, but it remains to be seen if the Horns can adapt their base nickel defense against the Hogs.

If you haven’t followed Charlie Strong’s career since leaving the state of Arkansas for good back in the 1980s, here’s a quick recap, as it is relevant: Strong broke through as the defensive coordinator for Lou Holtz at South Carolina in 2000. Holtz’s first team in 1999 went 0-11. At the time, the SEC East included Spurrier’s Florida, Fulmer’s Tennessee, and Hal Mumme’s Kentucky, all high-octane offenses with great quarterbacks. Taking a team without much speed, Strong was tasked with stopping these high-flying offenses. He tinkered with Carolina’s base 4-3 and eventually invented his own version of the 3-3-5 defense, similar to what Joe Lee Dunn ran at Arkansas during the Hogs’ 1995 SEC West title season. It worked wonders for the Gamecocks, and Strong eventually parlayed that job into the Florida defensive coordinator position. The 3-3-5 was a swarming attack that utilized a bunch of undersized linebacker/safety hybrids to confuse offenses and limit big plays. Now you see why Strong’s hire at Texas makes sense: a traditional power that has been mystified in recent years by the high-flying offenses of upstarts Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech.

True to form, Texas’ defense has seen an immediate upgrade under Strong, especially against Baylor and TCU. Both of those teams average around 600 yards per game and the Longhorns held them both to around 400. Nowadays, Strong has adapted a lot of his original 3-3-5 principles into the 4-3 Nickel that Texas runs. But his defensive reputation has always hinged on his defense’s ability to stop wide open spread attacks, something very few defensive coordinators in college can do. Can the Horns adjust to stop the Hogs?

Let’s see what they’re working with.

Texas defensive line
Name Position Height, Weight Starts Tackles TFLs Sacks Forced Fumbles
Malcom Brown DT 6-2, 320 12 64 14 6.5 2
Hassan Ridgeway NT 6-4, 307 9 39 10 6 0
Cedric Reed SDE 6-5, 272 12 64 10 5.5 1
Nassan Hughes WDE 6-4, 232 7 26 5 0.5 0
Caleb Blueitt DE 6-3, 261 2 39 7 3.5 0
Paul Boyette DT 6-2, 302 0 26 4 0.5 0

The guys in italics are reserves who see a lot of playing time. The main guy to watch here - and on the entire defense - is Brown. The Horns’ only first team all-Big XII player is a force up front and will present some challenges for the interior line. Arkansas’ strength of schedule has prepared the Hogs for this, as every SEC opponent Arkansas has faced has featured an elite defensive lineman.

The Hogs may wham-block Brown on some plays to try and get him out of the running lanes. Texas goes pretty deep across the line, but there are two weaknesses the Hogs will be looking for: nose tackle and weakside defensive end. Ridgeway was inserted as a starter when Desmond Jackson injured his ankle earlier this season and had to undergo season-ending surgery. He’s pretty good and looks decent on film, but he tires quickly and the depth behind him is limited. Also, Hughes, a redshirt freshman, started the final seven games at weakside defensive end, where he can drop back as a linebacker to form a 3-3-5 look. He’s probably too small to hold up against Arkansas’ attack, so we may see Blueitt if Hughes gets blocked too easily. Reed is a pretty good edge rusher. Not Shane Ray or Myles Turner good, but good.

As you can see from the numbers, Texas generates a good pass rush with minimal blitzing. Two interior linemen lead the team in sacks. Part of Texas’ very good pass defense starts with the rush.

Texas linebackers
Name Position Height, Weight Starts Tackles TFLs Sacks Forced Fumbles
Jordan Hicks WLB 6-1, 234 12 138 13 3.5 0
Steve Edmond MLB 6-2, 258 11 122 12 4.5 1
Demarco Cobbs LB 6-0, 221 0 26 1 0.5 0
Peter Jinkins SLB 6-1, 237 1 24 0 0 0
Dalton Santos LB 6-3, 252 1 12 0 0 0

Here’s another spot that Texas has to show versatility with the personnel. The main starters at linebacker, Hicks and Edmond, are pretty good players. However, Texas plays nickel pretty exclusively, so they’ll have to pick between Jinkins and Santos, who have 36 combined tackles on the year, to start as a third linebacker. Cobbs has also gotten some looks as a third linebacker. Hicks and Edmond are veteran players who are pretty active, but Texas has faltered against elite rushing attacks over the last couple of years, under both Strong and former coach Mack Brown. If these guys are jumpy and undisciplined like Texas Tech’s were, Arkansas will win easily. However, don’t expect that.

Texas secondary
Name Position Height, Weight Starts Tackles TFLs PBUs Interceptions
Duke Thomas CB 5-11, 178 12 47 1 10 2
Quandre Diggs CB 5-10, 195 12 68 5 5 3
Dylan Haines SS 6-1, 194 11 79 0 6 4
Jason Hall FS 6-2, 207 7 47 1 2 0
Mykkele Thompson N 6-2, 191 12 65 4 2 1
Adrian Colbert S 6-1, 206 2 20 0 1 1
Bryson Echols CB 5-10, 184 0 17 0 1 0

Texas has a pretty good secondary. The excellent pass defense numbers (4th in Pass Defense S&P+) include the help from the pass-rush, but this a pretty salty unit. Diggs was a nickel for most of the season, but he switched with Thompson for the final few games. Thomas is the top cover-corner. The Hogs may can pick on the free safety Hall, who is a true freshman that started seven of the final nine games. We won’t see much of Thompson as Texas won’t be using a nickel package unless it’s third and long.

From a schematic standpoint, the Horns don’t blitz an awful lot, but they may come up with some run blitzes in the prep time. Expect the Hogs to try and wham-block Brown, double-block him, or run away from him. If the undersized end Hughes is out there, the Hogs will probably run at him a little bit and end bootleg off of that to get the other end Reed to bite. The Hogs may also run at whoever starts at strongside linebacker for Texas.

Watch for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman to come up with some good misdirection runs to use on the game’s first couple of drives to prevent the Texas linebackers from picking up on what Arkansas is running. Without a lot of experience against this type of offense, the Texas linebackers may get off to a bit of a slow start in picking up their reads, as we’ve seen much of the season: the Hogs have scored points on their opening drive in six straight games and nine of 12 on the season.

Hog fans have lamented fourth-quarter woes all season, and much of this has been due to depth. Texas doesn’t have a ton of defensive depth either, and tends to wear down in games as well. Texas has actually given up more fourth-quarter points than Arkansas this season. The Horns have surrendered 114 fourth-quarter points (9.5 per game), accounting for 41 percent of all points scored against them. So if the Hogs are patient and stick to the run, expect a late-game payout.

Conclusion

Texas’ secondary is good, but give Jim Chaney a month and he’ll come up with all kinds of play actions and bootlegs and ways to stretch Texas’ linebackers in the passing game, allowing Brandon Allen to hit some passes regardless of pass defense (remember the LSU game, where Allen was an efficient 16 of 27 for 169 yards against an elite secondary). So the ultimate key is this: can Arkansas line up and run it on Texas’ defense? If the Hogs can, this one will be over quickly, perhaps in a blowout. If they can’t, the game probably won't be decided until late.

Come back to Arkansas Fight later this week for the breakdown of the Texas offense, and we'll have the Advanced Stats preview next week.