Chizik: 'We Expect A Better Defense'

Inside Texas caught up with Longhorn Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik following Tuesday's practice, the second day of spring training for the Longhorns. He is reloading at key spots, replacing four starters including two consensus All-Americans. But he expects the 2006 defense to be even better than the one that wore the Burnt Orange during the 13-0 national championship season.

The Texas defense had slipped to its lowest statistical ranking (No. 58 against the run, No. 25 total) in 2003 since Mack Brown's first season at Texas (1998). But last season, Chizik's crew cracked the Top Ten in scoring defense (16.4 ppg, NCAA No. 8), total defense (302.9 ypg, NCAA No. 10) and in its pass efficiency rating (96.7, NCAA No. 4). Save for one history-making 4th-and-two defensive stand in the Rose Bowl, Brown has said on more than one occasion that the defense did not play particularly well in the second half, albeit against college football's top-rated offense. But Chizik is just as inclined to point to the 277 yards rushing his unit surrendered at Texas A&M (as it adjusted on-the-fly against backup QB Stephen McGee's option attack) and the 250 yards yielded at Oklahoma State. The run defense slid from limiting opponents to 107.4 ypg (No. 16) in 2004 to 130.9 ypg (No. 33) last season.

I asked Chizik to name the one area where he wants to see the most improvement.

"Without a doubt: consistency. The games that we were not very good in on defense was because we were not consistent. We're really looking at how we can be a more consistent defense. There were times when we played really good, and there were times when we didn't. We're trying to even all that out. We expect to be a better defense. We don't expect to go out there and try to do as well. We expect to be a lot better."

Brown estimates that Longhorn DBs literally got their hands on 23 footballs but came away with just 11 INTs last season (a slight decrease from the 14 picks in 2004 but, still, well below the standard Brown wants for his secondary). I asked Chizik how he intends to force the issue this spring in terms of creating more turnovers.

"You know, that's a great question. I don't really know the answer to it. There are some years where you get your hands on so many balls and you catch three-quarters of them, and there are some where you can't catch any of them. Or, the ball may be on the ground after a fumble and you can't seem to jump on it. But we're definitely going to emphasize turnovers this spring. We know we need to get the ball back to our offense. Our offense is very potent so, obviously, the more times you get them the ball then the chances of us scoring are higher. So that's definitely an emphasis for us this spring, as well as consistency. We've been talking about that since Day One and we'll continue to harp on that until we get it into the mindset."

I asked about the flexibility that Michael Griffin allows simply because the versatile senior can play all four spots in the secondary. The former FS will log most of his snaps this spring at SS, the spot that Thorpe Award winner Michael Huff held the past three seasons. Chizik looked to his D-backs to provide more run support last year than has any other Longhorn secondary in recent memory. Griffin led the team with 124 total stops on the way to First-Team All-Big 12 honors.

"I think Michael Griffin has a chance to be a really good football player, but he's certainly going to be joined by some others guys who have the same chance: Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown have played a lot of football, and we're going to have some young guys step up to the plate and get the job done. We really feel confident about that. It's great to have a guy to start with and then have some young guys rally around him."

The Horns return seven defensive starters (not counting LCB Aaron Ross, who logged two starts in 2005 and has seen action in 37 career games). Yet the most significant returning veteran is Chizik, who (according to Brown) spurned NFL offers two years in a row to return to Texas for his second season. The Horns have not had the benefit of training under the same DC for consecutive seasons since 2002-03 and that, Chizik believes, should go a long way toward establishing the consistency he seeks.

"It's encouraging because these guys have been in the system now and have the same language and have done the same thing for two years in a row finally... You can feel a great sense of continuity. You feel a great sense of confidence from those guys in that they're not learning something new, over and over again, from a new guy. It's the same old stuff; we just need to get better at it.

"We're trying to replace those guys with some guys that have had some experience, but we don't feel like we're void in those areas. You always start with the defensive linemen. We lost some good defensive linemen but we've got some good returning defensive guys that have played a lot."

Chizik specifically singled-out DTs Frank Okam (13 starts as a sophomore, 2005 Second-Team All-Big 12), Derek Lokey (21 appearances as true freshman and sophomore), and Roy Miller (nine appearances as a true freshman, nine tackles, 2005 Five-Star signee).

"I feel really good about our linebackers right now," Chizik continued. "We don't really peg a guy in for a position right now. We're trying to teach everybody all the positions. That proves beneficial down the road. It's really the same thing in the secondary. We'll try to get the four best guys, and then the five best guys, and then six best guys, and let the chips fall where they may. We're looking forward to the challenge of replacing those people and the challenge of being better on defense."

Not even USC coach Pete Carroll can match Chizik's record of back-to-back undefeated campaigns. Yet, the national championship has not dulled his eagerness to roll up his sleeves and defend his team's title.

"Obviously, the national championship was the icing on the cake to what was just a tremendous year. It was a dream come true, but these (current players) are phenomenal young men that you love to be around. I'm excited as I've ever been to come back when seemingly there are all these holes that we need to fill. That's a great challenge for us as coaches and as players."

Texas practiced in shells Tuesday at Denius Field. The team will don pads for the first time this spring on Wednesday.

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