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.