Spring Wrap-Up: Can Texas Get Defensive?

While fans like to focus on the offense, head coach <B>Mack Brown </B>believes that it will be defensive improvements that are more likely to get Texas over the hump this season and into the BCS promised land. Will the new defensive coaches make a difference?

Brown said the addition of coaches with NFL experience (DE Coach Dick Tomey just had one year in the League, but Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson has over a decade of experience coaching the professional game) could be the missing ingredient in getting Texas over the hump and into the BCS picture, if not national title game. The Horns finished No. 25 in total defense (329.8 ypg) in 2003, but three of the top four defensive teams this past season (USC, LSU, Ohio State) have won, or shared, a national championship within the past two years. Texas' run defense continued a slide toward mediocrity and was rated just No. 58 (152.5 ypg) at year's end.

With less than three months on the job, Robinson has said, and apparently done, all the right things up to this point. He has literally started over with the defense by devoting the first two weeks of spring drills to basic training. In short, the guys were drilled and drilled (and drilled some more) in the fundamentals of defensive football. This includes doing a better job of shedding blocks, tackling, taking proper pursuit angles and swarming to the ball. From what we saw Saturday night, the defense seemed faster and tackled better (or was that just WLB Derrick Johnson making the rest of his unit look good?).

Robinson has ridden Johnson hard because he knows how truly exceptional the 2003 Butkus Award Finalist can be. D.J. has added 10 pounds of lean muscle and tips the scale at 6-4, 240 pounds.

"He's bigger and he's become really, really physical," Brown said. "He's worked so hard on his technique this past spring. I can't wait to watch him play in the fall."

Personally, I can't wait to see all three linebackers on the field. It's no longer D.J. playing alongside Reed Boyd and the walking wounded but rather with hard-hitting Aaron Harris and Garnet Smith. Starters saw limited action but Harris was the Spring Game's leading tackler with four stops (including one TFL). Harris started six games at MLB last season and logged snaps in all 13 games. He totaled 60 tackles (six TFL, 3.5 sacks), 14 QB pressures and forced two fumbles. He would be the team bad-ass if it weren't for Smith at SLB. Remember all the fights last August? Smith, a Golden Glove boxer, was usually in the thick of it. When a similar skirmish broke out early this spring, an O-lineman trotted off the field and, shaking his head with a smile, simply said, "Garnet." Off the field, he is a polite, "Yes Sir, No Sir" kind of young man (i.e. he is no thug but innately brings the kind of aggressive play that coaches are trying to teach across-the-board).

Texas has so much unproven yet talented depth at linebacker that Robinson commented, "It's dog-eat-dog right now, in a very, very good way. That's the thing I like. These guys know that they're competing, and they're fighting for jobs.

Brown wants to force more turnovers by improving the D's zone defense and doing a better job of disguising it.

Sophomore Aaron Ross and fellow soph Tarell Brown battled the entire spring for the CB spot opposite starter Cedric Griffin. Coaches considered Ross and Brown as co-starters throughout the spring and both should play early and often next season. Ross also got the Orange-White Game off to a dazzling start with his 44-yard kick-off return.

"That was against the No. 2s (kickoff team) so it was against some pretty good players," Mack Brown said.

I would hope Tarell (one of two Parade All-Americans signed in 2002) continues to develop to where coaches can't keep his raw talent off the field. For every big play that Griffin makes, he seems to give up two. But, overall, this is the deepest secondary to wear the Burnt Orange in nearly ten years. Brown's recruiting philosophy has been to prioritize the secondary and now Texas has at least seven DBs who could start for many other teams in the country.

DT Rodrique Wright anchors what should be Texas' most solid defensive line since Casey Hampton and Shaun Rogers roamed the DKR earth. Entering his junior campaign, the second-team All-Big 12 performer has been overshadowed nationally by Derrick Johnson and Cory Redding but should now finally get the attention he deserves. DT Larry Dibbles was supposed to be the Rod Wright of the defense two years ago but failed to show up with Wright's level of maturity and conditioning. This year, it appears he is on pace to play alongside of Wright after nudging Stevie Lee (6-4, 315) for the starting job (Coaches say Lee is a hard-working kid but has remained a half-step slow following the foot injury suffered during his freshman year.) Meanwhile, Brown has raved over the progress he has seen from sophomore DT Tully Janszen.

The most interesting defensive battle next August shapes up to be the fight between Dibbles and Parade All-American Frank Okam, one of the jewels of the 2004 recruiting class. We all know how reticent Brown is to play freshmen but the head coach has said on more than one occasion that Okam is "an impact player" who has a chance to "stir things up" this fall.

Texas simply has got to get more pressure on the QB next season, and will try to do that by blitzing members of the secondary more than we have seen in the past. Still, the brunt of sustaining a pass rush still falls squarely on the shoulder pads of the defensive ends. The DE spot was hard-hit with injuries last fall (as was MLB), but sophomore-to-be Tim Crowder more than held his own. Crowder came up with the Spring Game's only (official) interception when he picked off a pass during Chance Mock's second series. Crowder was the first freshman to land a starting spot last season, registering 35 tackles (three TFL, one sack), one INT and 14 QB pressures from his DE spot. Crowder will play alongside explosive DE Mike Williams, who appeared in 13 games last season with one start (23 tackles, 15 QB pressures, three forced fumbles).

Brown said that DE Bryan Pickryl (6-5, 240) is "everything you want a student-athlete to be", except perhaps healthy. Pickryl started four games as a true freshman (2002) and three last season but has been plagued with shoulder injuries (including successive shoulder surgeries in the 2003 off-season). It would be a pleasant surprise, and lend much-needed depth at DE, if Pickryl could endure an entire season. Versatile sophomore Brian Robison (three starts at MLB) will likely remain at DE to shore up the depth on the defensive front.

Overall, Greg Robinson is diplomatic enough not to criticize his popular predecessor. Yet he also believes Orangebloods will be pleased with the product that he puts on the field, starting September 4 in the home opener against North Texas.

"We're going to be a defensive group that people are going to see as very fundamental," Robinson said. "We're gonna get off blockers. We're gonna chase the ball. We're gonna tackle well. I feel very strongly about that."

And if Robinson's players mirror his intensity and attention-to-detail, this will be a markedly improved unit. We feel very strongly about that as well.

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