Chizik Sizes Up The 'D' As Spring Ball Winds Down

So, how does the Longhorn defense look to Co-DC Gene Chizik, following Texas' final practice in pads this spring? Bottom line: linebacker depth is Chizik's biggest concern while Texas' defensive strength next season could be (surprise!) its four-man pass rush.

"I think we've really got a chance to have a good four-man pass rush," Chizik said Tuesday. "We've got some really talented young men. In my evaluation, I don't think that's going to be a problem. In fact, I think that's probably going to be a strong point."

Chizik bases his assessment on the quality of depth Texas boasts along its defensive front. LDT Rod Wright will be a pre-season All-American while RDT Frank Okam is a future star. Add to the mix returning starter Larry Dibbles (who sat out spring ball for academic reasons) and five-star DT recruit Roy Miller (expected to be the first to lose his redshirt in the September 3 home opener) and you've got reason to be optimistic that Texas will finally have a sustained pass rush for the first time in several seasons.

But Chizik is primarily encouraged by the depth he sees at DE, a spot that was hit harder by attrition than any other position last season. DE Mike Williams' return from the academic doghouse (he missed all of 2004 after battling injuries in 2003) has bolstered the defensive front, giving it the explosiveness that it lost last year when Williams lost his eligibility and when Wright was slowed by an early ankle injury.

"(Williams) is very quick and he's making plays," Chizik said. "Let's put it this way: he has shown up. That would be fair to say."

The flipside is that the Horns "really need to develop depth at linebacker." The secondary is even deeper than the D-line, but Butkus Award winning WLB Derrick Johnson is just a few weeks away from hearing his name called early in the first round of the NFL Draft. If the season started today, sophomore Robert Killebrew would be the starting WILL linebacker (in part, head coach Mack Brown said, because Eric Hall has missed a week's worth of practice with a foot injury). Sophomore Eric Foreman has fought off all challengers for the starting spot at SAM linebacker and has successfully eased back into the position that he vacated at the end of 2003 season when he opted to spend a year as the fourth-team QB.

"Eric Foreman has done a really nice job but, once again, he's a young guy," Chizik said. "It's been baby steps for him, which is good. He's got a very athletic body. There are some things in his game that we need to tune up, and he knows that. But I've been encouraged with his progress."

As expected, returning starter and 2004 second-team All-Big 12 selection Aaron Harris will hold down the middle.

"Aaron's been really focused and he's really trying to be a leader," Chizik said. "You can tell he's played a lot of football here."

Chizik's approach is to emphasize speed (and more speed) while cross-training the linebackers to play any of the three positions in order to get the best athletes on the field.

"What we have found over the years is that, if your MIKE leaves, and if your next-best guy is a WILL, then you move your WILL to MIKE, and then move another guy to WILL. You hate to get stuck where you lose a guy and your sixth best guy, for example, is the back-up MIKE. You want your three best out there and then, if somebody gets hurt, you want your fourth best guy and not your sixth best guy as the back-up."

Otherwise, Chizik prefers not to disclose depth chart decisions until after Saturday's scrimmage.

"Without us evaluating this past week, I don't feel comfortable addressing who's Number 1 and who's Number 2," Chizik said. "We told them at the beginning that we wanted everybody to compete and that nobody inherits a position. We're encouraging competition."

His final evaluation will reference a cumulative performance chart that Chizik has maintained throughout the spring. The system is based on performance-per-snap since, obviously, certain players are more likely to be on the field than others.

"You get points for the things that you do well and you get minuses for the things you don't do well," he said. "At the end of spring, you look at every position and see who the point-leaders are... They see it every day when they walk into the room."

The plusses and minuses have to do with all the things that Chizik would ordinarily grade in a game. On the positive side, players are credited for tackles, sacks and assists, INTs and PBUs. Points are lost, for example, as a result of missed tackles and "stupid penalties and things that are very avoidable."

While Chizik humbly tipped his coach's cap to previous Longhorn coaches ("I'm not here to re-invent the wheel. They played great defense here last year"), he added that his primary goal for next season is for Texas to finish as the D-I leader in scoring defense. During the final year of his stint as Auburn's DC in 2004, the Tiger defense finished No. 1 nationally in points allowed (11.3 ppg) and was fifth in total defense (277.6 ypg).

"That's what we want to achieve," Chizik said, "and we're going to take it step by step to get there."

Overall, Chizik is pleased with the effort, intensity and across-the-board talent level on a defense that returns nine starters from the 11-1 Rose Bowl championship team.

"You're not going to go out every day and have a great, great day every day. That's not realistic. But if you look at the overall picture, I'm very pleased with the effort and the attitude. It was a physical spring."

The Horns will practice in shorts Thursday with the emphasis on special teams. The Orange-White Game is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

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