Longhorns ready to show they’re for real on defense

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Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

Texas’ defense was called every negative adjective in the book last season. 

Weak. Soft. Bad. You name it.

Giving up 31.5 points and 448.8 yards per game, combined with a 5–7 record, will do that. Not even head coach Charlie Strong taking over as defensive coordinator midseason could resurrect things. 

But this year will be different, at least in the minds of those who line up defensively for Texas. After a 3-0 record for the defense in preseason scrimmages, the Longhorn defense is starting to realize its full potential.

“We always knew we had the talent on defense,” senior defensive tackle Poona Ford said in a press conference. “It was just a matter of putting things together.”

The man charged with resurrecting Texas’ defense is defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. As the defensive coordinator at Houston, Orlando had the Cougars ranked No. 13 nationally in total defense last season. But the Big 12 is a different animal than the American Athletic Conference. The offenses and quarterbacks the Longhorns face in the Big 12 are some of the best in the nation, and Orlando recognizes that. 

“It’s gonna be a heck of a challenge,” Orlando said at a press conference. “The quarterbacks in this league and the (offensive coordinators) are so creative ... coming into this league, you know what you’re getting into. I think you have to have a little bit of common sense in this league that if you think that you’re gonna stop people to 200 yards total offense and three points, that’s pretty delusional, in my opinion.”

Orlando admitted that he’s not “bringing in a magic potion” to fix Texas’ defensive troubles. Aside from the X’s and O’s, junior defensive end Chris Nelson said the burnt orange “mindset” has changed — not only on defense, but with the entire team. And it all started with the coaching staff delivering an emphatic message.

“It’s how they challenged us as a team, how they challenged us to be more vocal as a team, how we should step in, carry this team,” Nelson said. “It’s coach-fed, player-led — that’s what they always say.” 

For Orlando to shore-up this defense, improvement will have to come both in the trenches and in the secondary. Statistically, the Longhorns struggled to hang their hat on anything last season.

Texas tied for No. 76 in rushing defense and ranked No. 102 in passing defense last season. But Ford and Nelson believe that Orlando has been “creative” in helping the Longhorns improve across the board. 

“It’s creative because the game scheme that (Orlando) has is just, when you sit down and think about it, you’re just like, ‘Where do you get this stuff from?’” Nelson said. “That’s all you think in your head. (Orlando)’s a very intelligent man, so we just sit back and we try to take everything in.”

The first dose of creativity could come Saturday in the season opener against Maryland. The Longhorns aren’t showing all of their cards yet, and the schematic aspect of the defense will not be revealed until week one. When asked to expand on what creativity meant in Orlando’s new system, Ford didn’t budge. 

“Y’all gonna see come fall,” Ford said.