For the two weeks following Texas’ 66-31 win over Ole Miss, the Longhorn defense put a heavy emphasis on tackling in practice. They worked on technique and their angles of approach to alleviate the issue, and the players were confident heading into the Oklahoma State game.
However, that attitude lasted only two plays before Joseph Randle busted off a 69-yard touchdown run on a play in which he pushed through multiple arm tackles and broke the ankles of Kenny Vaccaro in the open field.
But Vaccaro wasn’t alone in whiffing in the open field. Combined, the Longhorns missed 12 tackles, resulting in 109 yards of offense and two touchdowns for the Cowboys.
“We cannot continue to tackle poorly,” head coach Mack Brown said. “We did a poor job of stopping the run, and the inability to stop the run gave them their whole playbook. And the defense had a tough time dealing with that.”
Texas’ inability to handle the run almost solely goes back to its issues with tackling. Randle had a field day up the middle breaking through arm tackles left and right and taking advantage of Texas’ poor angles of attack. That bad technique led to Randle’s 199-yard, two-touchdown day and a combined 275 yards from rushing by Oklahoma State.
It’s not a lack of effort from the Texas defense that results in these numbers, rather it is the issues stemming from incorrect technique.
“We have to make sure we wrap up with our arms and tackle with our chest and take our extra step before the hit,” cornerback Carrington Byndom said.
The effort is there and the technique is supposed to be coming, but neither one of those fixes can overshadow a player’s lack of ability to perform — something that Brown and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz both mentioned Monday in regard to the tackling problems.
“Most of our missed tackles have been from the linebackers and the secondary,” Brown said. “We got four weeks on a guy missing tackles; we got to start looking for another guy.”
In regard to another guy, both Brown and Diaz hinted that safety Adrian Phillips was at risk of losing his starting spot for this weekend’s game.
Phillips, who has been on and off the field all season battling injuries, has had a rough time tackling this year. Quite a few big plays or touchdowns have happened in his coverage areas because he took a bad angle on a tackle, including on two of Oklahoma State’s touchdowns Saturday. His struggles were never more evident than in the first quarter of the Wyoming game.
On a play late in the frame, Phillips was able to make a huge hit on a pass over the middle, the only problem being that the tackle was on Byndom instead of the Wyoming receiver, who ended up sprinting for an 82-yard touchdown pass.
If Phillips is replaced, sophomores Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson would be the most likely replacements. Neither one of them has a lot of experience on the field, but their teammates are confident in the pair’s ability to step up if called upon.
“Those guys have played great,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “They’re going to be very good, they continue to execute and they will be fine.”
No matter who lines up beside Vaccaro in the secondary, the lack of tackling will have to be fixed. After all, Heisman front runner Geno Smith and a potent West Virginia offense will be rolling into Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
The Longhorn defense got away with a spotty performance against Oklahoma State, but they won’t get so lucky playing the Mountaineers. As of now, the tackling deficiencies aren’t a huge issue because Texas won, but the players acknowledge it would be a different story if the final drive hadn’t swung in the Longhorns’ favor.
“If we lost, it would be a lot bigger deal,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said.