"Throw more people in the box," they shouted.
"That quarterback can't even throw," they pleaded.
Even Texas coach Mack Brown was caught on camera, screaming "Fix it" at then-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Less than 24 hours later, Texas had a new defensive coordinator, but an old face in Greg Robinson. And two weeks later, Robinson found himself facing a Kansas State offense that presented some of the same challenges that BYU did. What did he do to counter? Robinson threw in a hefty number of single-deep safety looks in Cover 1 and Cover 3, often stalking a safety up closer to the line of scrimmage to add another alley player against the outside run.
Let's take a look.
Texas going with a single-high safety allowed the Longhorns to attack the run game with another box player. Here, the Longhorns are in nickel, but Mykkele Thompson essentially gives Texas a 4-3 front. Seven is a good number — Kansas State has seven potential blockers. In this case, the Wildcats are going to run option to the boundary, with the angle basically eliminating Kansas State running back John Hubert. So it really winds up being 7-on-6, in favor of the defense.
But wait: there's defensive tackle Malcom Brown eating up two blockers. That means it's really 7-to-5, with the defense bringing two players free. The Wildcats down-block on Brown, likely because Jackson Jeffcoat, the defensive end, is supposed to be Waters's read. As Jeffcoat scrapes off the down block, Wildcat fullback Glenn Gronkowski connects with Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks. Jeffcoat continues to work horizontally down the line, behind Gronkowski's block.
Now, let's get back to Thompson. He plays this well, maintaining outside leverage, meaning that Waters has no choice but to try and cut back inside to Thompson's help. Both Thompson and the ever-pursuing Jeffcoat contact Waters behind the line of scrimmage, though he falls forward for about a half-yard gain. Arriving at the last minute is linebacker Steve Edmond, who flowed to the ball from the backside, and is in place in case Waters slips through.
Thompson's presence in the box allowed him to set the edge here, and he fills in nicely as an alley player. One other aside on this play: Thompson actually grabs Waters' front collar, but is (incorrectly) flagged for a facemask. Still, even if that were the correct call (it wasn't), that's inconsequential to the primary argument.
Here's another example. As you can see, Thompson has walked up pretty much to another linebacker spot. In fact, he's actually closer to the line of scrimmage than Jordan Hicks or Steve Edmond. As a result, Texas has eight guys within five yards or so.
Jeffcoat sets the left edge, and each defensive lineman slides into the gap on his right. Cedric Reed goes to the outside of his blocker, but slides to the inside of the Gronkowski, setting him up for a play on Kansas State running back John Hubert. Hubert makes Reed miss and likely wants to make a cut up inside the Gronkowski's block, but Hicks has slid to the inside of that block, forcing Hubert to cut back outside. That's when he's chopped down by Thompson, who is outside of Gronkowski's block.
The play was mostly doomed from the start. Texas's defensive linemen penetrated well enough that when Hubert receives the handoff, three of the four linemen are behind the line of scrimmage, and the fourth, Chris Whaley, is only a half yard to a yard off the ball.
From that point, it's just a pursuit-in-numbers game. Even after Hubert jukes Reed, his cutback lanes are non-existent, and his forward path consists of one blocker on two defenders aligned on either side of said blocker. Having more defenders than blockers at the point of attack … that's called a win for the defense.
But running a single-deep safety isn't just for run plays. Here, you see another advantage. Adrian Phillips is close enough to the line of scrimmage that he attacks the slot receiver who breaks to the flat. Duke Thomas and Carrington Byndom man up on the receivers, with a single-high safety.
That's four guys in coverage, and means that Texas is sending seven at the Wildcats. Note that Kansas State has seven blockers — five linemen, a tight end and Hubert. Also note that, because of the way Texas is aligned, with defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat in a wide alignment outside of the tight end, it creates a mismatch. You have Jeffcoat, with a running head start, working against a tight end in a one-on-one situation.
Texas will take that matchup every time, and the result — an easy sack when Jeffcoat rips and cuts back inside — isn't unexpected.
Of course, there's a risk in running such an aggressive strategy. As you can see above, Texas comes out with a single-high safety, Quandre Diggs doesn't get a jam on Tyler Lockett, who runs right by him, and it takes Adrian Phillips too long to get over there. Playing a single-high safety has this risk — Phillips has to determine the biggest threat and, at times, he won't be able to make that decision until it's too late. The issue here is this: Diggs appears to have good coverage, but once the ball's in the air, Lockett hits another gear and runs right by him. Diggs needs to be tighter on Lockett's hip to take his 4.3 down to the speed Diggs is running. It seems like a minor deal, but when you're asked to be one-on-one with high-level receivers, as Lockett is, those minor techniques can be the difference between holding in your coverage battles and allowing a big play.
The issue with playing a single-high safety in Cover 3 and Cover 1 is that you leave your corners on islands with a decision to make. Do they go for the jam and risk giving up the big play? Or do they try to play over-the-top and give up the short stuff? It helps to unlock a player like Carrington Byndom, who — thanks in part to his competitive nature — seems to excel at being dropped into those cover-or-perish type situations.
It also helps take away some of the easy over-the-middle throws, thanks to an extra man at the second level, and opens up options for some interesting blitz packages with so many players within striking distance of the line of scrimmage.
The issue, of course, is that 1) it's difficult to play those kinds of coverages against pass-happy spread teams. Last year, Texas employed a ton of two-deep when facing teams like West Virginia, helping the Longhorns hold the Mountaineer passing attack well below its average. And this year, the Longhorns used a bunch of Cover Two and Cover Four against Ole Miss. The benefit, as you saw, was that an Ole Miss spread passing attack that included receiving threats like Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell wasn't able to truly get off the ground. The downside from both of those games is that the Longhorns struggled to outnumber the run, and — particularly in the Ole Miss game — the 'Horns were out-flanked on the edges without a player in place to fill the alley on the jet sweep.
The bottom line is that the Longhorns will have to use both, and some mixtures of coverages, to be effective. The good news is that Texas has shown the ability to execute each for its given purpose. The 'Horns can be effective when running two-deep to prevent opposing passers from slinging it around, and Texas can run single-deep to get guys in the box and slow down an opponent's running game. Execution of simple concepts is actually a significant step forward from where the defense was just a couple weeks ago. Now, it's time to lift another foot and gain more ground from that foundation.