Breakdown: Manny Diaz and the Texas D

A look at how Texas might slow Geno Smith and West Virginia in a key Big 12 bout Saturday.

Texas didn't have vast amounts of success dealing with an Oklahoma State offense that's similar – through not exactly like – that of WVU's Air Raid. Mountaineers' head coach Dana Holgorsen had success against Texas in his lone season in Stillwater, the Cowboys besting UT 33-16 largely on the strength of a 23-point second quarter.

But Texas was toward the end of a flailing season, and since has hired two very solid coordinators in DC Manny Diaz and OC Brian Harsin. Diaz, which immediately turned the talented Horns into the top total defense in the conference, runs a primarily 4-3 set emphasizing pressure with a good front four and the addition of rushers via the fire zone. The Miami native came up through the systems at Florida State (Diaz was a grad assistant there when FSU won the national title in 1999, based largely on its terrific front four) and NC State, and his system reflects the same beliefs of Holgorsen – i.e. make it simple for your players, and seemingly complex for the opposition.

First, let's get one point out of the way by stating the obvious: The single most important key, regardless of scheme, is tackling in space. The Longhorns have emphasized that point in practice this week, after several weeks of drill sessions that included only thudding up – the practice of bumping into an opposing practice player without tackling to the deck. That has resulted, at least in theory, of lackluster tackling in games. Brown stated that players would start missing time because of missed tackles, and it appears he has put the idea into action, now listing former starting junior free safety Adrian Phillips as a co-starter with sophomores Josh Turner and Mykekelle Thompson.

That's likely a motivational ploy, but there's no doubt Texas' missed tackles this week won't be because of a lack of attention this game week. The UT staff realizes how difficult it can be to get Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey on the ground, and with its previously praised run defense allowing 275 yards to Oklahoma State last week and teams averaging more than six yards per play, stops must be made upon first contact.

Now, onto Xs and Os, and making it simple for your players, and seemingly complex for others. Diaz will, at times, employ a 3-4 look, which is an easier set-up for the fire zone rush. But he keeps it very simply and allows his athletes freedom to move and make play without over-thinking. In the 4-3 look, the defensive line will typically line up and slant away from the blitz call, meaning if the blitz attacks the strong side, the DL slants to the weak. That enables more overall field coverage, and keeps one side from being overloaded, and thus its opposite from being attacked by offenses.

Diaz will sometimes bring two linebackers out of the 4-3 look, getting a five-man rush, then dropping the end opposite the pressure to defend the open field vacated by the middle and weakside linebackers. A safety then moves up to take away the middle of the field (the MLB spot). It's easy to learn and execute, and it creates a lot of after-the-snap movement, which can create slower reads for QBs. It covers up the TE with the dropped DE, and the moved up safety can cover any slants or crossing routes. In the 3-4, it's the same concept. Three players, either two lineman and the buck LB or the N, T, and E all attack to either the wide or short side of the field, pending play call. The end, if not rushing, can line up on then line, then drop as an OLB. The MLB attacks an assigned gap to better "fit up" and limit the run, and with the DE of the ball, playing upright, he can read and defend players better – but he should be able to operate in space, and Diaz has the talent he needs this year in Alex Okafor.

All these operate out of a three deep look, with two corners and a safety defending. The free or strong will patrol centerfield, with the other reading and taking away the hot route to either the boundary or field side, again pending play call Now, this is all well and good against traditional, two-back set offenses with a tight end. But what of a four, or five-wide look, where there are no indicators (say, a one-back look with twins to each side), about the strong or weakside. Well, that's what makes the spread, and especially the Air Raid, aka Spread-and-Shred, effective. It takes traditional concepts and throws them out the window.

That's not to say Diaz still won't use his typical play calls, slants, and reads out of the 3-4 and 4-3. Texas, after all, routinely faces five-wides out of the spread look. All of college football has to be able to defend this look, so how does Texas go about it? The focus has to change. WVU will spread its line out more, though not as much as what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech, and thus there will be some holes for pressure. Diaz uses the "run-to-daylight" idea. Instead of executing a definitive assignment, say running a stunt, or fitting a certain gap, if there is daylight to the back or passer, attack it. Take the open lanes and crush the pocket. Create havoc. Let players make plays.

That's not to say one can just run all over the field, ignoring areas. But if a play is available within the system, make it. Executing the exact play call, in a military-like manner, is second to making a play, which is what football is based upon. Texas still used a four-man front for much of the game against Oklahoma State. It's still UT's primary defensive set. But it does take linebackers and force them to cover receivers. There's no way around it. And that's what makes the spread, and Air Raid, effective. It creates mismatches more often than traditional sets, and the no huddle aspect, and getting multiple looks out of multiple player abilities without having to slow to sub, creates nightmares for defensive coaches.

It was, as we point out last week, one reason why Holgorsen was so slow to adapt to Shawne Alston. His two dimensions, pass blocking and running, don't fit quite as well as the running and pass catching of backs like Andrew Buie, for example. There's less of the desired dimension. But every offense needs some power, and WVU has found that. If UT wants to play with the buck LB and five DBs, fine. The Mountaineers will run. That's what makes Alston's return imperative. That and pass blocking. Without him, West Virginia can't play power. It's a big deal all over the field, but especially when things get tight in the red zone, and there's less "daylight" – there's that word again – and it's more about muscling over and thru people.

Diaz will also occasionally use a 3-3 look, getting more numbers into the pass game. This is very simple, but, again, creates a new look for which to prepare. Diaz simply gives his DE, Okafor, the ability to line up wherever he wants within reason in the scheme. He's a linebacker, essentially, with the ability to rush or drop. It's a very base change, but creates OL confusion on blocks or another defender for short routes.

Again, the fire zone creates the ability to get pressure from various places without surrendering the ability to control the screen passes and spread formations now prevalent. WVU will check the Texas blitz with its variety of traditional screens, sometimes two set-up on one play (one screen to either side) and bubble screens. What Diaz will try to do is force WVU, in the pass game, to make the long, difficult throws to the sideline and keep the Mountaineers out of the middle of the field. That brings in the out-of-bounds line as yet another defender, and a defensive player then has to only defend one side of a players body, as the OOB area is the other.

Now, to the backend: The basic set-up for controlling the Air Raid spread is a combo cover 2 (two safeties deeper in coverage) and a quarters (four players patrolling ¼ of the field each). Diaz has adapted this style based on trying to defend multiple wideouts in the spread. The idea is that, as the detached (away from the line, i.e. not a TE) wideouts line up in the Air Raid, Texas adjusts based on the total number of receivers and the vertical threats. It's all a read-and-react set-up for both sides.

Players, like within offenses, must be flexible and able to handle multiple assignments, from run-busting to coverage of a back or WR. The whole idea is to do this, and Texas ties to, without giving anything away pre-snap. Texas will base coverage upon what it sees pre-snap as where it has to cover the most ground, i.e. where WVU will have the best chance to exploit in daylight and get vertical, stretching a secondary. As noted, the "reasoning is that each detached receiver represents an immediate vertical route threat that a sound defense must have a plan for. The 2 Read philosophy is to always have a deep defender for each vertical route from the offense but to avoid over committing to deep zones." In other words, cover it, but don't overlayer with defenders, taking away the opportunity to properly defend other areas of the field. That's what the offense wants, and what Mike Leach based much of the Air Raid development upon.

With one slot detached, or twins to one side and one WR to the other, the defense goes into cover 2. The corner and linebacker cover an underneath zone, read run-first and stay below vertical threats and forcing QBs to throw over the top, where there are safeties to defend and break on the player and ball as needed. In two detached, or four-wide balanced, the 2 read features a corner man up on each of the outside WRs, while the two safeties each read the inside wideout. A linebacker on each side tries to disrupt routes run into his zone first while also playing for run from the single back.

With the Air Raid's stem route package (WRs can vary routes based upon what the defense "gives"), there are three basic things that can happen. An inside receiver, the one being zoned, can break in, out or go vertical. The 2 read just allows a defense to stay over top the vertical threats while properly addressing any breaking routes. If the slot WR breaks in, the danger is the flats are left open for the back with the outside WR going vertical. So the LB tries to break up the route, drop the slot WR off to the other defender (MLB) in his zone and cover the flat. On a break out by the slot WR, the corner and safety exchange responsibilities. The safety takes the outside receiver, while the corner, already having leverage, covers the slot WR to the outside. The corner has to "drop off" the outside vertical threat, while still being able to come up and play the slot as needed. On four verticals, corners play man while the safeties pick up the inside WRs after they get thru the initial LB zone.

There are multiple options for offense off this, obviously. The outside WR runs an in, runs a dig, runs a deep post crossing the slot WR's flag. The advantage the 2 read gives is that all three defenders (CB, S, LB) working the passing game on each side of the defense can know the best course of action based upon a read and mix of man and zone. It's design is to split the field into two parts, know the vertical threats and ID as needed. Toss in calls to adjust in case of motion, and one has a fairly effective way to at least limit the spread without truly dividing the field into a more-limiting cover 2 or cover 4.

The catch is there are holes everywhere. A great throw and route from an offense will beat the best defensive coverage. One cannot limit everything. So one takes chances, brings blitzes and tries to disrupt play development as well. There are no sure defenses, or everyone would use them. So it comes down to execution of the defensive ideas, and the fundamentals.

Texas must tackle, it must keep plays in front of it. The Longhorns have broken down mainly because two players miss tackles, and, bam, big gainer for the offense. In the run game, Texas' front four can't get caught up in traffic. They have to scrape down the line as needed and "run to daylight." Fill daylight, not necessarily a gap. In the zone read, the backs pick the open area, or daylight. Defenders have to do the same. If a back simply runs into the back of his own lineman, because, hey, that's what was assigned, plays don't work. It's all about an offense taking the open field vs a defense trying to keep open areas to a minimum.

Diaz' stuff works when his players execute. Sound like every other offense and defense? It is, essentially. What makes Texas tick is good DL pressure with four, tackling, reading well and reacting appropriately, especially on the back end, and keeping plays in front. What has made past Diaz defenses good is the ability to get multiple plays out of a single look, creating confusion, and running his fire zone from varying fronts with the 2 read as a base coverage against spread teams.

In the end, as Steve Dunlap always notes, it's always about players. Can the corner handle the one-on-one? Are the tackles being made? If a line on either side is blowing the other up, all the Xs and Os in the world won't negate that. So, what are the keys? For Texas: Tackle, tackle, tackle. The Longhorns must limit West Virginia's yards after catch. Diaz will test early if UT can get pressure with four. If that works, West Virginia is in for a long evening. If WVU's OL holds and forces the ‘Horns to bring five and six, and thus even the numerics on the backend to create one-on-ones, the Mountaineers have the ability to make some plays. Texas wants to collapse the pocket with four, and perhaps spy Smith to limit scrambles, therefore giving little time and forcing Smith to throw where UT has a numbers edge. Point II: control the run and get the Mountaineers behind the chains and looking at third and five or more, where the pass is the more obvious choice and UT can run designed defenses with other blitz packages without having to focus on limiting shorter yardage gains via a back.

For West Virginia: Win the line of scrimmage. Protect the passer. Give Smith time to find receivers and the backs some holes. Easier said than done. Texas' continued slants, and pressures opposite, can create problems. Catch the ball, and make plays in space. Don't turn the ball over. Operate quickly when optimal. Stay head of the chains, and make use of all space on the field. Enjoy. It should be fun this weekend.

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