When Chris Ash took the job as Texas football’s new defensive coordinator last December, it would be a few months before the pandemic shook the world.
In a media teleconference Wednesday morning, Ash said the hardest part of being a new UT coach during these times hasn’t been teaching players new schemes, but rather getting to know the players — virtually.
“A committed team is a connected team,and as a new staff, we were not around our players very long before we were shut down,” Ash said. “We didn’t get a great opportunity to really connect with our guys, and we’ve had to do it through the computer.”
In addition to losing social interaction, Ash and the Texas defense also lost valuable time in the spring to work on fundamentals such as pass rushing and tackling, which was the Longhorns’ Achilles’ heel last season.
Despite separation from the players and having to teach schemes on Zoom, Ash said he’s impressed with what he’s seeing so far on the defense.
“There are a lot of challenges being basically a new staff as we are on defense, based on the current situation,” Ash said. “I can tell you right now where we're at today. I’m very pleased and surprised. I feel we are further along than I thought we would have been, and that’s a credit to the players.”
Ash isn’t putting as much emphasis on the playbook as he is on fundamentals. A defense that plays hard and can execute consistently at a high level will be the key to its success this season, he said.
Veterans on the team will also help. Partly plagued by youth and inexperience last season, Texas will return several important defensive players in 2020, including junior linebacker Joseph Ossai who starred in the Longhorns Alamo Bowl victory over No. 11 Utah last December.
“I think the bowl game against Utah probably showed some signs of what his future could look like,” Ash said. “We’re very excited about Joseph. We’re very excited about the whole defensive line … I like where he’s at and he really likes what we’re doing with him.”
Talent and ability on the team isn’t just exclusive to Texas’ experienced defensive players. Ash said he believes the Longhorns have several new players who could contribute on defense, including freshmen defensive linemen Vernon Broughton and Alfred Collins.
“They’ve been getting a lot of good quality reps,” Ash said. “They’re big, they're athletic, they can use their hands. (They are) pretty disruptive guys, and they can rush the passer. So if you got some guys like that, you can find a place to use them somehow, some way.”
Even as the conversation shifts more to football in the coming weeks with Texas set to play UT-El Paso Sept. 12, the current situation still looms over the Longhorns’ heads. Ash may still be getting to know many of his new players, but he and the rest of the Texas coaching staff said they are supporting the athletes off the field whenever they need it.
“(Mental health) is a really big deal right now and it’s not going to go away,” Ash said. “I think our current situation has compounded it more so than ever. The first part of it is trying to get them comfortable with talking about it and coming to us as coaches and them understanding that we’re not going to think of them any differently, we're not going to cast judgement on them. No, we’re going to get them help.”