Diaz's defense suffers serious downturn

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Before the season Manny Diaz's defensive unit was supposed to be at the top, now six games in and they're plagued with missed tackles that are costing them big time. 

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Entering last week’s game at the Cotton Bowl, run defense was an issue for the Longhorns. Then, 343 yards later, Texas’ inability to stop the run has the season in danger of coming to a screeching halt.

Texas’ paper-thin run defense has mystified defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and the players and it’s gotten to the point that they’re at a loss for words as of what to do.

“Right now, we have no confidence in our run defense,” defensive end Alex Okafor said.

The Texas defense has allowed 209.2 yards per game on the ground and opposing offenses have garnered 5.1 yards a carry. Texas is 106th in the country — out of 124 teams — in rushing defense and 102nd in total defense, staggering numbers for a unit which was ranked seventh and 11th, respectively, in these two categories last season. 

“Our run defense was horrendous on Saturday, and the responsibility for that goes to me,” Diaz said.

Diaz is responsible for some of the blame; his linebackers have been the main source of the problems, after all. But overall the majority of the issues stem from the players.

An inability to tackle has plagued the defense and turned a tough-minded and cagy 2011 defensive iteration into the 2012 version – a group that’s hesitant, inexperienced and at times lacks passion.

It’s something safety Kenny Vaccaro — an unquestioned team leader — has noticed, and it baffles him that players don’t give 100 percent each and every down.

“It’s your decision what caliber of player you want to be,” Vaccaro said. “I don’t get why people wouldn’t play hard every play.”

Passion has not been the only issue, however.

The young players on defense have had a hard time staying in their lanes, and it’s equaled an extreme amount of explosive run plays for opposing offenses. Texas is 118th nationally in allowing rushes of over 10 yards and has given up 17 runs of over 30 yards through only six games – in 2011, the Longhorns only surrendered 11 such plays all season.

The biggest run Texas has allowed this season came against Oklahoma when Damien Williams danced his way to a 95-yard touchdown. Williams was hardly touched on the play and it was a missed assignment by a linebacker, according to Vaccaro, that allowed the longest run in Red River Rivalry history to coalesce. 

“I think young guys don’t understand that what they do in the game matters so much in a play, like what gap you hit might affect the person next to you,” Vaccaro said. “Young players don’t know their role as much as they need to, sometimes.”

A big part of Texas’ issues in defending the run comes from a hesitancy the players have displayed to attack, according to Okafor and Vaccaro. Instead of seeing the ball carrier and instinctively wrapping them up, some members of the secondary and linebacker corps are waiting for the skill player to make the first move, an issue that’s cost Texas time after time.

“In those open field tackle situations, which are the most critical in the game of football, you got to have the confidence to just let it go,” Diaz said. “You can’t be afraid of failure.”

Failure is exactly what this defense is on the cusp of it doesn’t start performing up to even a fraction of its preseason expectations. The Longhorns have already faced three straight top-15 offenses and will clash with another one this week in Baylor.

It’s a tough test for Diaz and the defense, but they must find a way to stop the run or the season will continue to be a whiff. 

 “We’re going through a run of historically good offenses,” Diaz said. “But we have to represent ourselves the way Texas deserves to be represented.”

Printed on Friday, October 19, 2012 as: Tackling Issues