AUSTIN (AP) — Individually, the Texas secondary last season was as good as it gets. Collectively, it couldn’t have been much worse.
The Longhorns had three senior starters, including Thorpe Award winner Aaron Ross, and each was drafted by the NFL. Yet opponents passed the ball up and down the field, regularly ripping Texas for long touchdowns.
They never resolved the oddest of conundrums as they fell from national champs to second in the Big 12 South. Now No. 4 Texas is looking for improvement from a mostly new group.
“We do want to do a better job of disguising, a better job of covering people, and a better job of trying to disrupt trick plays so we don’t get caught just standing there watching them score,” coach Mack Brown said as his team prepares for the Sept. 1 season opener against Arkansas State.
The numbers last season were alarming.
Texas ranked 99th in pass defense, giving up 3,071 yards and 21 touchdowns. Making matters worse was the way teams picked the Longhorns apart with halfback and wide receiver passes that suckered the secondary into thinking run before the throws went deep.
Considering that Ross and safety Michael Griffin (first round) Tarell Brown were all draft picks, how did this happen?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said safety Marcus Griffin, Michael’s twin brother and the only returning starter in the secondary. “The only thing we can control is this year.”
It will be up to a group of veterans and newcomers to put a stop to the ugly numbers. Seniors Drew Kelson or Erick Jackson will likely start at strong safety. Senior Brandon Foster and junior Ryan Palmer could start at the corners with a group of talented young players at each position fighting for playing time.
“The older guys won’t give it up without a fight,” Mack Brown said.
Marcus Griffin is being counted on to fill the vocal leadership his brother provided last season and Thorpe Award winner Michael Huff did in 2005.
“I’m naturally a quiet person,” Griffin said. “I’m used to my brother doing all the talking, but I’m going to have to start doing some of it now. When the younger guys have questions, it’s my job to answer those questions because they look up to me for help.”
He’d also like to stay healthy. Griffin twisted an ankle in the second game last season, a 24-7 loss to Ohio State. His hobbling around forced other players to take chances and the Longhorns got beat for two passing touchdowns, including one right before the end of the first half. Griffin later twisted his other ankle and played in pain all season.
“I was just trying to manage (the pain) all season,” Griffin said. “Against Ohio State, I’m surprised I was still able to play.”
Texas did little to change its schemes to mask the problems in the secondary. Former defensive co-coordinator Gene Chizik mostly stayed in base defenses, rarely taking chances with blitzes that might have caused more problems for opposing quarterbacks.
Chizik is now the head coach at Iowa State and Duane Akina, who shared the co-coordinator’s role last season and was in charge of the secondary, is calling the shots now.
Akina showed more daring in the Alamo Bowl victory against Iowa. Texas gave up two long touchdowns but also appeared more aggressive.
“We are going to be a real physical defense this year,” strong safety Erick Jackson said. “(Quarterback) Colt McCoy mentioned that we have been coming at him with crazy blitzes so far, things he hasn’t seen before … At any time, anybody could be blitzing.”
Akina must also rein in a secondary that was undisciplined at times, getting caught out of position on the trick plays. Nebraska, Baylor and Kansas State all scored on halfback or wide receiver passes. The 15 passing touchdowns Texas allowed over the last seven games averaged 32 yards.
One thing Akina won’t have to worry about is speed. He has said this year’s secondary will be a faster bunch than before.
“They’ve got what I can’t coach. I can try and coach some of these other things seeing the game, but I can’t teach them to run faster,” he said. “I can get them tougher.”