April 10, 2008

Horns have questions to answer on defense

With the conclusion of spring drills last month, the Texas Longhorns are now in the beginning stages of the longest stretch of the off-season, with the team taking the next four months to prepare for the beginning of fall camp in August. As the Longhorns head into this quiet time, they'll do so with more questions than answers as it relates to the 2008 season. In a three-part series, we'll take a look at the top five questions on each side of the ball as we head into the summer.

Today we take a look at the defense.

No.1 - Will Mack Brown really turn the defense over to Will Muschamp?

With the offense still looking to discover its identity, there's going to be some pressure on Muschamp to put together a unit that can not only keep the Longhorns in games this season, but he needs to field one that can win games .

Of course, in order for that to happen, Muschamp is going to have to work without the shackles that many suggest Brown has put on every defensive coordinator whose name isn't Greg Robinson.

That means less run responsibility for the defensive ends, a philosophy that has ruled in Austin for the better part of the last decade. That might mean putting more inexperienced players on the field in the name of trying to develop players that can ultimately win games for you and not simply help you not to lose them.

It might mean a lot of things, but the bottom line is that Muschamp must be allowed to coach his defensive with a "by any means necessary" attitude for the entire year.

Thus far in practice there seems to be little doubt that Muschamp is calling the shots, but at this same time last season it looked former co-defensive coordinators Duane Akina and Larry Mac Duff were on the verge of unveiling a blitz-happy, attack-first defense, but when the season rolled around it looked like the same old defense from 2006.

If this year's defense looks anything like the unit from the last two seasons, the Longhorns aren't likely going to be a team capable of winning a championship.

No.2 - What is going to be UT's base scheme this year?

There hasn't been a Longhorn defense under Brown that hasn't played out of a base 4-3 front, but there's a good chance that this defense won't play out of a standard 4-3 set for much of the time this season.

The coaches have mentioned repeatedly that they plan to be a multiple-front defense this year, but for much of the spring the Longhorns played as much in their nickel package as they did anything else and it could be a sign of what's to come.

In an effort to get more speed on the field, the Longhorns could play with five defensive backs on the field, but if that's the plan there might be more questions than ever that need answering.

If that happens, what happens with the linebackers? With Jared Norton, Roddrick Muckelroy, Rashad Bobino and Sergio Kindle all returning from last season, there are four players that will be vie for two spots on the field in a lot of instances.

Of course, the depth will be stronger, but who are the players that will dominate the snaps? It seems likely that Muckelroy is going to be on the field somewhere, so that could mean that everyone else is legitimately fighting for slot.

Also, if the defense is going to play a lot of nickel, that means there's going to a lot of kids on the field in the secondary that have very few skins on the wall.

It's not as if the Longhorns are going to be exclusively in their nickel defense this year, but all signs point towards it being a heavy piece of this year's team, even if the personnel that will build it hasn't yet been decided.

No.3 - Will Aaron Lewis' return to the line-up cure the defensive tackle depth issues?

After sitting out the entire spring, Lewis will return from injury and the fall and he's expected to help shore up the depth at defensive tackle.

It will be an interesting situation to watch because Lewis has been a solid starter at defensive end during his career at Texas, but he's going to be needed inside in 2008 and that hasn't always been a prospect that's interested him.

Its one thing to be a part-time player that's used in pass-rush situations and it's another to be expected to be able to play all three downs at the position.

With All-Big 12 candidates Roy Miller and Lamarr Houston as the starters, the Longhorns have the starting pieces in place, but the players behind them are question marks.

Junior Ben Alexander will be able to provide some snaps at nose-guard, but he's probably not a player that needs to play more than 15-20 snaps a game. Everyone hoped that third-year sophomore Brian Ellis would emerge as a potential No.3 tackle, but that didn't happen and redshirt freshman Michael Wilcoxon might still be a year away before he's ready for a serious dose of playing time.

Of course, true freshmen Kheeston Randall and Jarvis Humphrey will arrive in the summer, but those guys are freshmen and who can really guess what they'll be able to give from the outset?

That leaves Lewis as the player that will have to fill that void. The team could probably get by shuffling more ends to tackle during passing situations, but Lewis is the X-factor.

The bigger role he can play, the better the defense is going to be.

No.4 - Can Kindle be an impact player this season after missing the entire spring?

If we're being honest, the answer is probably no.

Everyone has been waiting for Kindle to emerge as a star and even though he showed flashes late in the season of becoming the player everyone expects him to be, the time he missed the spring to pick up Muschamp's defense cannot be ignored.

In order for Kindle to emerge as an every down player for the Longhorns, he's going to need to come out like gangbusters from the very moment he steps on the field in August. Norton, Muckelroy and Bobino are all players that Muschamp has a better feel for and a better comfort level with at this stage of the game.

Once you throw in a dynamic young player like Keenan Robinson into the mix, the battle for playing time gets even more crowded.

The real question with Kindle is probably going to center around how much time he'll need before he returns to 100%. If it takes him too long to get into a groove, it's easy to see where he might get lost in the shuffle.

This staff wants Kindle to take the bull by the horns because his physical ability is so immense, but it can't be a two- or three-month process because this team doesn't have that kind of luxury with time.

No.5 - How much youth will there be in the starting secondary?

It's probably pretty safe to say that junior Deon Beasley and senior Ryan Palmer are likely going to begin the season as the starting cornerbacks. Both players had outstanding spring camps and those two represent the only real experience this team has in the secondary.

Young players like Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown have made big strides at cornerback and they'll be heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages, but it's tough to imagine them ripping a starting job away without proving in game action that it's deserved.

While the starting cornerback positions might be close to being decided, the battle at safety is fierce and still open for debate.

Redshirt freshmen Ben Wells, Earl Thomas and Christian Scott, along with true freshman Blake Gideon, all performed well this spring and are legitimately in the race for a starting spot. Junior Ishie Oduegwu started several games in 2007, but he struggled in coverage and he'll be likely be playing catch-up to the others when he returns in the fall.

So, how much youth will there be?

Well, if the Longhorns are going to play a lot of nickel defense this season, you can safely project that a majority of the time at least 3/5 of the secondary will be made up of players that either never played an important down in their collegiate career or haven't been on the field at all.

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