Brett Smith

Linebacker Demarco Coobs (7) and safety Kenny Vaccaro (4) advance an interception made by Vacarro in the first half of last week's game against Wyoming.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

It was not an outstanding start to the season for the Longhorns’ secondary.

At the start of fall camp Texas’ defensive backs were billed as a dominant unit, but this past Saturday the Longhorns struggled to defend Mountain West member Wyoming. In the first quarter alone the Texas defensive backs allowed Cowboys’ quarterback Brett Smith to throw for 158 yards.

That hefty total included one back-breaking play, an 82-yard touchdown pass which lifted Wyoming ahead of Texas 9-7 late in the opening quarter. Preventing big plays is priority No. 1 in Manny Diaz’s defense, and the long completion didn’t mesh with his philosophy.

“What we violated [Saturday] was the no long passes for touchdowns [part of our formula],” Diaz said. “Those are the little things that can ruin a good day on defense.”

It wasn’t all bad for the secondary. The group combined for two interceptions, including Kenny Vaccaro’s momentum-swinging pick in the second quarter. Carrington Byndom snagged the other pick, and his opposite side corner, Quandre Diggs, had a quietly impressive game, as Smith rarely glanced at his half of the field.

Still, the secondary allowed 276 yards through the air and a pair of touchdowns to a passing attack that ranked 79th out of 120 teams in 2011. They got away with it against the Cowboys, but the Longhorns would’ve been in trouble if they started out slow against an explosive Big 12 rival like Oklahoma State, who dropped 84 points in their season opener.

Vaccaro, who played well, was demonstrative about his team’s performance. He insisted that individuals on the defense need to stop listening to people telling them how good they are and get to work.

“You really just have to keep your head out of magazines and online and all of the comments on Twitter and Facebook,” Vaccaro said. “Ultimately, we have to play the snap as this new defense and we need it come out every game and prove that we are the defense that everybody is talking about.”

Social media aside, the Texas defense has the ability to live up to the talk. But in order to do so, the secondary will have to play up to its potential. Vaccaro’s a likely first- or second-round pick in next year’s draft, Byndom and Diggs are both highly-touted and starting strong safety Adrian Phillips has the versatility to play anywhere in the defensive backfield.

However, in spite of that talent, the secondary struggled in simple coverage on Saturday. The Cowboys averaged 9.9 yards a pass attempt and worked the rollout and short slant routes with ease early in the game. But the main issue still stems from the 82-yard completion the Longhorns allowed in the first quarter, which was 20 yards longer than any pass Texas had given up the past two seasons.

The play itself was a blown coverage, an issue that has its roots in the way the players interact on the field.

“That was just a bust,” Vaccaro said. “We didn’t have a middle field safety. We have inexperienced players, and we will get it corrected. The team just needs to communicate better.”

No matter how talented a defense is, communication is paramount. Without it, the Longhorns’ secondary will continue to struggle. But if they prove that the first quarter was just an aberration, the mounds of preseason praise the defensive backs received could be validated.

Junior cornerback Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips attempt to bring down Wyoming wide out in Saturday's victory. Byndom and the rest of the secondary had a tough game allowing 276 yards through the air.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Texas allowed Wyoming only one third-down conversion in 11 tries, but that one stood out like a sore thumb.

“When you give up an 80-yard pass, you can’t say your secondary played well,” Longhorns head coach Mack Brown said.

Brett Smith dropped back on third-and-6 and hit Robert Herron for one of his five catches near the first-down marker. Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips — two stalwarts of what is expected to be one of the nation’s best secondaries — collided while trying to bring Herron down.

Instead, Herron got the first down and a lot more.

“It’s my fault,” Byndom said. “I should have made the tackle. I’m not going to put the blame on [Phillips]. We just have to put the guy on the ground.”

He went 82 yards into the end zone and gave Wyoming a 9-7 lead that it would hold onto until Texas scored 24 unanswered points and put the game out of reach. Herron went on to catch another long touchdown pass from Smith, but the pieces of an elite defense were on display in the Longhorns’ 37-17 season-opening win over the Cowboys.

Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro made an athletic, leaping interception in the second quarter, and senior defensive end Alex Okafor forced Smith into making a weak toss into traffic that Byndom picked off to end Wyoming’s next possession.

“We did get good pressure on [Smith],” junior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “We got in his face and made him throw interceptions. He gave us two, which set our offense up to score. That’s 14 points right there.”

After not recording a sack in Texas’ first three games last season, Okafor gave the Longhorns, who racked up 16 quarterback hurries, their only sack of the day. But like many of his teammates on defense, he conceded that Texas’ defense has much to improve.

“I thought there were some bright points, like when we got a couple turnovers in a short amount of time,” Okafor said.

“That’s when we’re at our best. Then we had some low points when we gave up big plays.”

Okafor, however, does expect more out of the Longhorns’ defense.

“I’m not going to lie to you. We want to be the No. 1 defense in the nation,” he said. “We showed that we could be a dominant defense.”

It’s only the first game of the year, and the Longhorns have several weeks between now and when they face a team with a chance of beating them. Armed with a talented and deep defense that doesn’t allow many sustained drives, it’s paramount that Texas limits the big plays it allows. At the moment, that’s what is keeping its defense from being able to lay a legitimate claim to being considered the country’s best.

“I’m not sure how many missed tackles we had, but it was too many,” Jeffcoat said. “We’re going to be home again, so it should be exciting and it should be a different story.”

Printed on Tuesday, September 4, 2012 as: Defense isn't best in nation...quite yet

Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro had a excellent game in TexasÂ’ season opener. He had five tackles and an interception.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

After the Texas offense went three and out to start the game, the Cowboys responded with a 56-yard opening drive that resulted in a field goal.

During the Cowboy’s second drive, Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith sent a pass down the left sideline to Robert Herron.

Both Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips missed the tackle, and Herron took advantage and ran for 82 yards and a touchdown.

“It’s probably good that the defense gave up some big plays tonight ’cause that will get their attention for next week,” head coach Mack Brown said.

The Cowboys finished the first quarter with 178 total yards, not exactly the start the Longhorns were hoping for.

“Honestly, we need to get our head out of the magazine and start fast and play hard,” senior safety Kenny Vaccaro said.

In the next three quarters, the defense only gave up 167 more yards.

Vaccaro creates shift in game

Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro was key in shifting the Longhorns’ momentum after the defense struggled during the first quarter of the game.

Vaccaro intercepted a pass from Smith in the second quarter, and the offense capitalized when Jaxon Shipley scored on a 16-yard touchdown reception.

“I thought the turnovers were a lot of the momentum that helped us get started,” Vaccaro said.

Later that quarter, a quarterback pressure by Vaccaro led to an interception by Byndom. Again, the Longhorns would score, with D.J. Monroe running in for a touchdown.

“Kenny Vaccarro is a great player, he’s not a good player. He can do some really good things to help us,” Brown said.

The running backs are back

With four of the team’s five touchdowns being scored on the run, Texas’ backfield looks to be as dominant as last year.

Both Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron ran more than 100 yards and the Longhorns had 280 total rushing yards.

The two running back leaders took advantage of the holes that the improving offensive line created for them.

Bergeron came to life in the fourth quarter when he had a 54-yard run from the Texas nine and then finished off the drive with a 17-yard run for a touchdown.

“We feel like that we can run the ball well right now, and should be able to run it against anybody,” head coach Mack Brown said.

Freshman Johnathan Gray had a few reps, but only gained nine yards.

“When you are running the ball, you are not going to get the big runs every time,” Bergeron said. “You have to pound them, and eventually, they will give up.” 

Inch by inch, and brick by brick the Texas Longhorns have prepped and adjusted for the upcoming season. With a stellar group of running backs and a solid group of hungry defensive specialists, sophomore David Ash will be complemented nicely heading into week one.

Traditionally, matchups with Wyoming have been automatic for the Longhorns, as they hold a 4-0 record in head-to-head play, with a combined score of 126-27. However, there are still a few keys in the game plan Texas must follow to continue this streak.

Battle of the Quarterbacks

This season all eyes are on sophomore quarterback David Ash. Will he continue to improve and lead Texas back to prominence, or will his inconsistency continue from last year? Although it’s more important for the Longhorns to establish their dominance on the ground in this game, Ash must stay composed and showcase his improvement by attacking the Cowboys through the air. Wyoming has a solid secondary with cornerback Blair Burns and safety Luke Ruff and Ash needs to find ways to minimize their impact by pressuring them to make plays. If Ash can pick apart the Cowboys’ defense, a huge rushing attack won’t be necessary. Wyoming’s offensive leader is quarterback Brett Smith who led the team in passing and rushing last year. The Longhorns need to disrupt his composure and slow down his impact on the ground to motivate their own true sophomore quarterback.

Controlling the Trenches

In order for the Longhorns to have the confidence to execute their game plan this week, their defense must control the line of scrimmage. Wyoming features one of the premier offensive lines in the country, which allowed only 12 sacks in 13 games last season. Texas must penetrate the line and get pressure on Brett Smith, who has proven to be inconsistent when pressured. The Longhorns need solid performances from guys like Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, who will have to apply constant and unrelenting pressure to slow down Wyoming’s running game which ranked 33rd in the nation last season with 181 yards per game. If they can do this, Ash and the offense should have all the momentum they need to sink Wyoming.

Establish the Running Game

With Ash starting at quarterback, Longhorns fans should expect the team to pick up a lot of yards on the ground. Ash has showed an improved passing prowess this spring, but a year of inconsistency is still hanging over him. In order to get him going, the team needs to use their excellent trio of backs to pick up yards and get the game moving at a tempo better suited for the mobile Ash. Sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were the feature backs for a team that ranked 22nd in rushing yards per game last season. Add 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year Johnathan Gray to the mix, and the Longhorns have the tools to dominate Wyoming on the ground. If it can pick up yards and dial the tempo up, Texas should be in control to win this game easily. 

Brett Smith led the Wyoming offense in passing and rushing last year, averaging 201.7 yards through the air to go along with his 54.6 yards on the ground per game. A dual-threat sophomore quarterback comparable to Kansas State’s Collin Klein, Smith has shown the ability to hurt opponents with his legs when needed. Although his 61 percent completion rate showed he’s not deadly accurate and his 11 interceptions showed he’s inconsistent at times, Smith is a guy that must be respected for his ability to get to the outside and make plays when the pocket collapses. Penetrating the Cowboys’ offensive line and forcing Smith to make decisions under heavy pressure should be at the top of the Texas defense’s game plan.

Safety Luke Ruff was the cornerstone of this Cowboy defense last season. His numbers were solid, including a team leading 102 tackles, 54 of which were solo. He recorded no sacks or picks, but his presence in the secondary allowed his teammates to pad their stats and help the team allow a formidable 199 passing yards a game. With Ruff lingering in the minds of opposing quarterbacks, his cornerbacks are able to shut down receivers at a greater capacity. David Ash will need to attack covering corners on Ruff’s side of the field early to force him to make plays. Ruff’s consistency and presence should make him a player to watch in the season opener.

A player sliding under the radar a bit for Wyoming is linebacker Korey Jones. Jones led the team with four sacks last season and will be needed to slow down the Longhorn running attack which seems poised for a big year. Every time David Ash decides to make a play on the ground, Jones should be in the back of his mind. At 6-foot-2, 233 pounds Jones is big enough to lay some big hits on Texas’ backs and has the speed to make it a rough night for Ash. He’s not widely known, but Korey Jones could make a name for himself after this week.

Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith won Mountain West freshman of the year honors last season accounting for more than 3,300 yards, throwing for 20 touchdowns and running for 10 more in 2011.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Wyoming comes to Austin hoping to recapture the momentum gained from a successful regular season in 2011 despite a loss to Temple in the New Mexico Bowl. Wyoming finished with an 8-5 record and a 5-2 conference record, a sharp difference from the 3-9 season finish a year before.

No. 15 Texas holds a 4-0 all-time series lead against Wyoming.

“They are a very good team, but that’s what I want to play Division 1 football for – to play really good teams,” Wyoming sophomore receiver Trey Norman said about facing Texas. “We are looking forward to it a lot.”

Norman, who is from Texarkana, Texas, is joined by 11 other Texans on the Wyoming roster.

“I am ready to come home, there will be a lot of emotion in this game and getting to see my family,” Norman said. “But I’m going to have to keep my eyes on the big picture, and that’s the game.”

The Cowboys’ 8-5 record last season was powered by the arm of quarterback Brett Smith, who is expected to have a strong second season with the Cowboys after a record-setting freshman campaign.

Smith amassed 3,332 total yards of offense in 2011, becoming the first freshman quarterback in the history of the Mountain West Conference to log over 3,000 total yards in a single season. For his efforts, he was named to the this year’s Manning Award Watch List.

The Wyoming staff is expecting Smith to improve on last year’s success. During fall scrimmages, he completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 477 yards and six touchdowns. Smith only committed two interceptions.

To back up Smith, the Cowboys are returning their top three receivers from last season – Dominic Rufran, Chris McNeill, and Robert Herron. Combined, the trio accounted for nine touchdowns while racking up 1,285 total receiving yards.

Over the past several seasons the Wyoming defense has had difficulties stopping the run. In 2011, the line was ranked 115th in yards allowed on the ground with a 232 yard-per-game average. The Wyoming defensive line will be tested this Saturday against Texas running backs Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and Johnathan Gray, one of the best projected running corps in the country.

However, the Wyoming defense will be fielding a more experienced team than in years past with at least seven returning starters.

Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen, who is starting his fourth season with the Cowboys, has really turned the program around over the past three seasons. In his first season Wyoming posted a 7-6 record which culminated in a bowl win against Fresno State. After his second postseason appearance in three years, Christensen was named Mountain West Coach of the Year for the 2011 season.

“This will be the best football team that we’ve had up to this point in time,” Christensen said.