Texas Defense Beginning To Mesh Under Strong

West Virginia won’t match up against the best defense it has played this season – or will play the remainder of the year. But it might be facing the Big 12’s most improved overall unit in a Texas team beginning to jell under first-year head coach Charlie Strong.

Strong, a defensive coach in assistant stops at Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Notre Dame, among others, runs a blend of the 4-3 under look and the 3-3-5 he developed - based off Joe Lee Dunn's original scheme - while under Lou Holtz at South Carolina. Strong, as the defensive coordinator on Holtz’s staff, watched the Gamecocks reel off an 0-11 season in 1999 one year after finishing 1-10 with Brad Scott has head coach. The problem, as football lore and Strong have it, is that South Carolina faced a talent gap issue, both in the trenches and defending in space against increasingly varied offenses that were going to the spread look.

Strong came up with a hybrid of the 3-4 he helped run under then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Davie, who served under Holtz and would later become head coach of the Irish. Strong developed the hybrid positions of spur and bandit, and kept the rover slot so many defenses at that time – like Virginia Tech – were using in what was essentially an all-the-time nickel package. The strength of the defense, as West Virginia fans learned when current Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel took the same position at WVU in 2002, was to free up linebackers and the hybrid players to defend run or pass by keeping the blockers off them and using just three players to do so.

He defense creates widely varied, and not often seen at the time, blitz angles out of the zone look, and can confuse quarterbacks used to the far more traditional 4-3 and 3-4 sets used in the SEC at the time. With the new look, and a spread offense, South Carolina went 8-4 in 2000, beating Ohio State 24-7 in the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks chased that with a 9-3 campaign in 2001, and another beating of Ohio State in the Outback before Strong went to Florida as coordinator, where he would win two national titles – again defeating Ohio State for one of them – before going to Louisville where he would elevate the Cardinal program to the heights seen under former and now current coach Bobby Petrino.

The 4-3 under, as Strong plays it, specializes in keeping the ball inside on runs, and forcing the flow to the center of the field, where defenders like the will, mike and rover can clean up plays against the spread offense. The set-up, along with solid talent, has allowed Texas to stay in most games even as the team develops under a new set of expectations and discipline under Strong. WVU senior associate head coach Tom Bradley, a longtime defensive coordinator at Penn State, said he can see the difference on film now, and the timing of the improvement was exactly what he expected.

“What happens with the learning curve, obviously, is the players have to get comfortable with the coaches, the coaches have to get to know the players and know better want they can do,” Bradley said. “They are starting to hit their stride better as well. He hasn’t been there to recruit those guys. He doesn’t know all their backgrounds, he doesn’t know all their families. He doesn’t know what they’ve been through. My philosophy: Walk a day in my shoe. When you recruit a kid, you understand where he is from, you understand a lot about him and what he’s been though.

“Charlie has had to do a lot of work implementing his system philosophy-wise, disciplinary-wise, academically what he expects. But he also has to get to know the personality of his players. That coach has to understand what that player can handle. He doesn’t know (early). It’s all new to everybody. Sometimes even when you coach in a new place, the words mean different things. Terminology is different. The coach also has to figure out what they did before that he can tie together.”

Strong laid out what he called his “core values” upon accepting the Texas job, among them “no drugs, no guns, no stealing, be honest and treat women with respect.” That, Strong believed, would translate to on-the-field performance once his team bought into the idea as a whole. Through the first six months of his tenure, Strong dismissed nine players from the team, the contributions totaling 1,494 yards rushing and 576 yards receiving with 28 touchdowns and 38 tackles. It was an early sacrifice with later results in mind, leaving Texas short on depth, but perhaps longer on perspective and total team approach.

“What happens is they meet the bar,” Bradley said. “I’ve learned wherever you set it, they’ll meet it. Just set it. If you set it here, they’ll meet it. If it’s there, they tend to get it. It just takes a while for some of them to understand. They are all going to try you. They’re all gonna push you to the point where they figure out how far they can go with you. That’s standard.

“It’s no different than you bringing a freshman into a program. They are going to try and figure out what they can and can’t do. They are new to the system and they are trying to figure out the loopholes. Once you let them know there aren’t any – Charlie comes from a very disciplinarian background and his reputation is one of a hands-on coach – then you have to do things he’s comfortable with in order to win.”

Texas ranks a solid 44th in the NCAA in points allowed, at 23.1 per game, and the ‘Horns are 37th in yards allowed at 352.4. Perhaps most impressively, and most imperatively, its third down defense is 46th (WVU’s is 10th) and its red zone defense is 20th, allowing scores 75 percent of the time with 15 touchdowns and six field goals. The main issue is getting pummeled on the ground by solid run attacks, as UT has allowed three opponents at least 247 yards, while all but two foes have hit the 143-yard mark. Still, West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett said there’s a definite difference between the Texas defense last season, and the one honed under Strong’s disciplinarian approach that’s beginning to showcase itself in the final third of the season.

“Especially compared to last year,” Trickett said of a Texas team that allowed 48 and 40 points to the Mountaineers over the first two Big 12 meetings. “It’s different, no offense to last year’s staff. It is a lot different. Coach Strong obviously has put his foot down on this team and this program. He is very disciplined and a lot of guys have left the program (because of) that. I think it’s going to be better for their program in the years to come.

“They are getting lined up. They are getting in the right spots. He’s big on alignment, assignment, technique. Those are his main three things, and you can tell it on film, where last year they were just roaming around on film.”

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