Who is Manny Diaz?
Manny Diaz has a lot of issues to deal with in order to get the Texas defense fixed beginning this spring.
Is he a defensive coordinator who can field a unit that suffocated opponents the way the Texas defense did in the latter half of 2011?
Or is he a young, inexperienced coach in over his head in the ultimate scoring league in the country who will continue to produce results like 2012 when the Longhorn defense was – statistically speaking – one of the absolute worst in school history?
He won't take a step in either direction today when the Longhorns hold the first of 15 spring practices that culminate with the spring game on Mar. 30. By the time everyone leaves DKR on that Saturday night, we'll all likely have a better idea of which way it's going to go this fall.
To examine where things went wrong defensively for Texas last season you have to understand Diaz's scheme. If you piece together what Diaz has said he wants to be going back to when he took the job over two years ago – noting that a premium would be put on guys flying to the football and creating big, game-changing plays – it's a high-risk, high-reward system.
There are 2012 numbers that positively reflect what Diaz is trying to accomplish.
The 2.69 sacks per game the Longhorns averaged was the 19th-best total in the country last season. Texas finished sixth nationally in tackles for loss (7.69 per game) and 39th in turnover margin. So the big plays Diaz talked about wanting to generate happened last season.
The problem is there were too many big plays this defense allowed.
Diaz estimated that over one-third of the rushing yards the Longhorns allowed last season (2,498 in 13 games) came on approximately 20-25 carries. From the Ole Miss game (the third game of the season) to the Kansas game (game No. 8) the Longhorns allowed 40 explosive running plays (gains of 12 or more yards) over that six-game stretch.
The Ole Miss game started a forgettable six-game run for the Longhorns.
The pass defense wasn't much better during that time. Texas yielded 31 pass plays of 16-plus yards during that same stretch. Between injuries, poor execution of the scheme and facing some of the top offenses in the country the Longhorns had plenty of excuses for why the defense was so poor last season.
You know what they say about excuses, though.
“It's still all unacceptable,” Diaz said. “That's what you learn.”
Whether it was all Diaz's fault or not is irrelevant to him.
“I don't think about me,” Diaz said prior to the Alamo Bowl. “I care about the kids that I coach. During year I'm happy to be target. You can put the heat on me as apposed to kids. I'm fine with that, and it's a role I'm comfortable with.”
The Kansas game was turning point – if you want to look for one – last season. Starting with that game and the ensuing final four games of conference play the Longhorns led the Big 12 in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and were fifth in rush defense.
Against Oregon State's pro-style offense in the bowl game the defense played perhaps it's best game of the year. The Longhorns held the Beavers to just 103 net yards rushing – a total which took into account the 77 yards lost from the ten sacks the Longhorns piled up. The three takeaways the defense forced also kept the Longhorns in the game.
So when you tie it all together, was it the step down in the offensive firepower the defense faced – nobody would mistake Iowa State's or Oregon State's offense with Baylor's or West Virginia's – or did the defense finally get Diaz's system figured out?
One of Kenny Vaccaro's parting shots was that the Texas defense to have trust going forward that it lacked in 2012.
Whatever it was, the positive end to the season doesn't mean the defensive issues are fixed going into 2013.
“The fix in this defense will occur from Jan. 15 to July 31,” Diaz said. “We have to get physically stronger than we are and more physically fit. We have to become more explosive, powerful people. Then we'll think of ourselves as more explosive, powerful people.”
There's no question this spring needs to be a time where the fundamentals of defensive football – tackling, getting off blocks, leveraging the football and understanding assignments all fall under this umbrella – are stressed to the furthest extent possible.
That's the only way a defense that was wildly inconsistent last season to begin to show some consistency.
“It's a comprehensive issue and so it's a comprehensive fix,” Diaz said. “There's not a day where everybody doesn't need to have a hand in fixing it.”
The fixing begins in it's purest form today. Where Diaz calls it a comprehensive issue is that it's not only fundamentals this defense needs to work on, but it needs to become a unit that trusts in each other.
What Diaz is hoping happens is what Kenny Vaccaro said the team should have learned following the 42-point loss to Oklahoma.
“What our whole team learned from the Oklahoma game is guys were waiting on someone else to make a play and not making the play themselves,” Vaccaro said. “It's all about being relentless and intense, but also being disciplined.
“If Texas ever wants to be a good defense you've got to get a group of 11 guys who love each other and want to fly to the ball.”
The fix not only needs to cover teaching and doing whatever it takes to have players who trust each other on the field. It also means Diaz needs to have heated competition for those 11 spots in the starting lineup.
If Kendall Thompson winds up being the best option at middle linebacker, if Hassan Ridgeway is truly one of two best defensive tackles on the roster, or if Duke Thomas is one the four best defensive backs then those guys need spots on the field.
“I get a chance to be the scorekeeper,” Diaz said. “It's not just about those 15 days. It's about having the dedication every day. We have to mature because we're so young-minded.”
With an older, more experienced team hitting the practice field this afternoon the Longhorns are out of excuses when it comes to youth. With two years on the job, Diaz is also out of excuses and he's got a ton of things to clean off of his plate this spring.
Will it simply be a matter of a year older, a year better for his players? Or is Diaz simply not the right guy for this job in a year where his defense can't be anywhere near as dreadful as is was in 2012?
The question won't be fully answered until the fall, but we need to have an idea of which end of the spectrum he'll ultimately reside after these 15 practices.