UNC game notes and analysis: defense

Notes and analysis on the Horns' defensive performance in their 44-14 win over North Carolina:

The Texas defense continues to inch towards greatness, but it's not there yet because of linebacker play. As I said throughout spring and again during August and two-a-days, the UT LB corps is solid, but far from spectacular. But the reason I said above that the defense is making a move towards greatness is because of true freshman Derrick Johnson. After just his second game in the Orange and White, Johnson may already be the Horns' best linebacker. He certainly has ball-hawking instincts that D.D. Lewis simply has not shown in his three-plus years at LB. D.D. did register a sack on the Heels' first possession, but he's as likely to fill the wrong hole and give up a 20-yard run than he is to get to the QB on a blitz or to the running back up the middle. On the game day stat sheet, Johnson led the team in tackles with seven (Lewis had five), including two sacks and a TFL. And he did all that while playing only about a third of the Longhorns' defensive snaps. Johnson got in the game early in the second quarter and promptly made a play, stuffing Heel RB André Williams for no gain. Later, the hard-hitting Johnson introduced himself to both Tar Heel QBs, hunting down Ronald Curry for a three-yard loss and then on the next possession, welcoming Curry's replacement Darian Durant to the game by flattening him on a blindside blitz. After the hit, Durant probably wished he stayed on the bench another couple of plays. "D.J.'s a young guy with a lot of talent," defensive coordinator Carl Reese said post-game. "He's got exceptional speed. He's great in pass rush situations because he shakes and bakes." (Don't ya just love Reese and his colorful descriptions?) Reese, when asked about Johnson during two-a-days, talked a lot about the learning curve that a young LB faces. The coordinator now says he sees Johnson climbing that curve and expects him by midseason "to climb to the top." Reese added with a smile, "He's certainly lived up to expectations." And because of that, the performance of this defense may climb to the top as well.

Another aspect that creates a dominating defense is the ability of that D to put the ball in the end zone, and Texas has developed just such a unit. On Saturday vs. the Heels, an unlikely member of the Horn defense put six on the board with an interception return. DE Cory Redding, not normally UT's No. 1 threat to pick off a pass, much less take it back for a score, did just that on UNC's second possession of the game by dropping back into coverage and into the passing lane for the attempted slant pass to Bosley Allen. The defensive end grabbed the ball out of the air at the 22 and ran towards the left pylon. Carolina QB Curry had the angle, though, and caught Redding at the sideline near the four, but the junior defender, who said afterwards that "he was not be denied," leaped high into the air, easily clearing Curry before somersaulting into the end zone. Reese called it "bailing" and then "robbin' the backside flat," but whatever else you want to call it, it counted for a tone-setting six for the Texas D. Redding added another highlight reel play later in the first quarter when he blew by UNC right tackle Willie McNeill and sacked Curry for a four yard loss. Redding said he embraced the challenge of playing on the same field with a more publicized counterpart like Julius Peppers. "I loved the fact that we were playing a great defensive end on the other side of the ball," he said. "I really wanted this game to be a jump start for my season." Other than the two big plays described above, Redding had a quiet day statistically, registering just one other tackle and missing several more. On the Horns' opening defensive series, tailback Willie Parker took a handoff and ran seven yards to Redding's side and then on the very next play Curry evaded Cory on what could have been a backfield tackle that instead resulted in an eight yard Carolina gain. Redding also let Parker slip through his grip in the backfield and gain six yards later in the half. Redding's day mirrored that of Nathan Vasher at punt returner: a roller coaster ride. Redding did wear a boot on his foot for much of last week, and the coaches subbed for him quite a bit, so as the game wore on he may have been feeling the lingering effects of last week's minor injury (the healing of which should be aided by the extra week before the U of H game).

The tackle tandem of Marcus Tubbs and Maurice Gordon got its second consecutive start Saturday. The two tackles combined for just three tackles, but Gordon made one of his count for two. Two points that is. As in safety. On the early fourth quarter play, with the Heels coming off their goalline scrimmaging from the five, the senior DT anticipated the snap perfectly and burst between center and right guard and into the backfield. FB Richard Moore tried to stop the onrushing Gordon from reaching Curry several yards deep in the end zone, but Moore had about as much luck as the OLs and Gordon brought the Tar Heel QB down to extend the Texas lead to 31-14. Even if Gordon hadn't gotten Curry from the middle, Kalen Thornton may have gotten him from the outside. Thornton also had a quiet day statistically, recording one tackle, but he applied a good bit of pressure on the UNC QBs. When UNC went to a four-wide formation, the Horns often countered with a three down lineman D, with Gordon bookended by DEs Thornton and Reddng (or Marcus Wilkins and Jermain Anderson), plus the three LBs and five DBs (with Dakarai Pearson at nickel back).

The Texas D held the UNC O to just eight yards and 11 plays on its first three series. On the Heels' fourth series, though, the Horns suffered several major breakdowns. After Redding's series-opening sack set up a second-and-14 from their own 19, the Tar Heels reeled off gains of 14, 20, 27 and 20 yards to almost effortlessly drive in for the TD. Surprisingly, two of the big gainers came against Quentin Jammer. First, back-up wideout Sam Aiken burned Jammer on an out route for 20, and second, the Heels' No. 5 receiver Chesley Borders got behind Jammer for 27 yards. Not a Thorpe-caliber early performance from Jammer. Curry finished off the drive with a 20 yard keeper, making back-up DE Wilkins miss a tackle at the line of scrimmage and juking FS Ahmad Brooks about the five before waltzing into the end zone. The D found a bit of redemption on its next series, forcing the Heels to punt after making just one first down (although Jammer got beat deep again on a third down play, but luckily, Allen couldn't hold on), but Vasher's punt return foul up sent the Texas defense right back on the field with 17 yards to defend to keep North Carolina from the tying touchdown. Two plays later, and again, far too easily, the Heels had covered those 17 yards and knotted the score at 14. UNC tailback Williams registered both runs on the drive, going up the gut for eight and then finding the corner for the nine yard TD (see the first note above about the linebackers and their instincts).

Jammer followed up his back-to-back bad series by shutting down his side of the field for the rest of the game. On a third-and-nine later in the second quarter, the senior corner ran step-for-step with Allen, forcing the UNC speedster to play defense on a deep Curry attempt. Allen should have been flagged for interference on the play, but regardless, Jammer by then had apparently decided to turn it on and play some tight man coverage because he would not be beat again. He did turn in the best catch of the game on the Heels' first offensive play of the second half, making a fingertip interception of another Curry-to-Allen deep ball. Jammer also registered a TFL on a corner blitz, making a great open field tackle on the shifty Parker seven yards deep in the backfield. The Horns other starting corner Rod Babers also shut down his side of the field, particularly in the second half, and is arguably playing at or above Jammer's level. The official game day stats credited Babers with three pass deflections to Jammer's two. The DBs excellent coverage forced Curry to scramble, misfire or simply throw the ball away several times, and combined with the pressure from the front seven, led to a five-of-20, 69-yard passing performance from the Tar Heels' starting QB.

The shovel pass which several teams used to much success against the Horns last year worked for the Heels Saturday. Out of a four-wide formation, Curry set up in the shot gun, took the snap and drew in the Longhorn defense before shoveling to WR Kory Bailey who then went 12 yards on a third-and-10 late in the first quarter. You can expect all of the next three teams on the schedule (Houston, Tech and Oklahoma) to employ a similar play to try to slow the Texas rush and burn the UT D on its penchant for overpursuit.

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