The defensive line. Texas is athletic and talented up front, and in new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson's simplified scheme, they haven't been hesitant to show that off. Tackles for loss can often be a great indicator of that presence — when a team has an active defensive line, it often creates plays in the backfield, either for said linemen or for other players. In Texas's first two games, against New Mexico State and BYU, the Longhorns had nine tackles for loss. In the Longhorns' last game against Kansas State, Texas had 10.
That has shown up on passing downs too. Against Kansas State, defensive line trio Jackson Jeffcoat, Cedric Reed and Malcom Brown combined for five tackles for loss and four sacks. Those were the first sacks Texas had since the reserves grabbed a couple against an inferior New Mexico State team.
Because of the talent up front — some project Jeffcoat as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, and there are those who believe Brown will be therein a few years — and the athleticism of guys like Reed and Chris Whaley, Texas can really attack with its front in a way that few teams can.
If there's one other good that I've seen, it's that Carrington Byndom has reverted back to his sophomore ways. There's just something about throwing that kid into the ocean, without a paddle, from a coverage standpoint that seems to trigger his competitive nature and brings out his cover skills. Byndom isn't
The run defense. Did Texas show up in a major way here against Kansas State? Sure. But the Longhorns still struggled against the Wildcats' running quarterback in Daniel Sams, and winning the rushing battle against one team (especially one with as little cohesive offensive strategy as Kansas State, but I digress) isn't necessarily a perfect indicator that this will get better.
What will happen when Texas can't overload the box with players against a spread-to-run-and-pass team like Baylor or Oklahoma State? Can the Longhorns still execute and stop the run there? At best, this question is unanswered at this point, though it certainly looks more positive after the defense's last outing.
Who knows what to expect? Texas fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz two games in, and has two games under Robinson. The defense has shown flashes against Ole Miss and Kansas State, but hasn't put together a full, dominating performance against quality competition yet.
And then there's the loss of Jordan Hicks, who was looking like a first-team All-Big 12 linebacker before getting knocked out for the season with a ruptured Achilles.
And what's to make of the safety position, which has seen positives, like Mykkele Thompson's run support against Kansas State, and glaring negatives at times like poor tackling and poor angles? Adrian Phillips IS playing better than last year, and if Thompson can find his role, he has the athleticism and skill set to be an impact defender. Neither has proven it yet with any consistency.
So what now? The good news is that many of the Longhorns' future opponents run some variation of spread, meaning that Texas will be able to run more nickel, and therefore get away from three linebacker sets that would test the unit's depth. And it's worth noting that Steve Edmond has improved noticeably since Robinson took over. A duo of Edmond and Peter Jinkens, with Dalton Santos and either Kendall Thompson or Tevin Jackson rotating through might be OK, though the group certainly loses punch with Hicks's absence.
But even beyond that, there's the simple question of asking how long it will take until 1) Robinson's schemes are fully taught and 2) the Texas players feel comfortable running all of them. At what point does this cease being a simplified version of Diaz's defense and become something capable of taking on the Oklahomas and Baylors of the world (not that teams with established defenses fare that well in those areas, either)? Does the defense ever get there?
As I said in the offensive good/bad/ugly, the Longhorns have the pieces in place to put up numbers, and points, in bunches (when healthy). This season's win-loss column will then depend on the offense's health, and the defense's ability to improve. And anybody who pretends to have an idea about just how much the defense will get better this year is doing just that — pretending.