Ash plays it close to the vest on specifics of No. 14 Longhorns’ defense

26 Aug By

Apart from the 4-3 alignment the Longhorns are adopting in their new base scheme, new Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash has remained guarded as far as the details and nuances of the team's new system (photos courtesy of texassports.com).

AUSTIN, Texas — If you expect Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash to gush about his players and their efforts in preseason drills in the Longhorns’ run-up to their season-opener against UTEP Sept. 12, well, you had better think again.

Nor should you anticipate even a glimpse into what kind of defense Ash, Texas coach Tom Herman and the 14th-ranked Longhorns are set to unveil against the Miners three weeks from now. But you should be confident that Texas, which is switching to an attacking 4-3 scheme in the offseason in order to get more pressure on the quarterback and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, will be physical, gang-tackling and ball-hawking on every snap.

“I’m not going to be giving away any secrets about what we're doing defensively and I don't want to talk in detail about too many individuals,” Ash said Tuesday in a Zoom conference call with the media, his first availability since his hiring at Texas last December.

“For us to play well on defense, it's about the fundamentals, and to play really hard. We want to use our hands, and we can pursue the ball, and we can tackle well. We want a defensive unit that can execute consistently at a high level, and we don't beat ourselves with mental errors, and we want a defensive unit that's fanatical about getting the ball. We need to create takeaways to win at a high level.”

The challenges to teaching a new scheme to UT's deep and talented defensive unit have been expounded by Ash and his staff’s lack of “hands-on” coaching due to COVID-19.

“Based on the current situation that we were dealt throughout the majority of this year, I'm very pleased and pleasantly surprised that we are further along than what I thought we would have been,” Ash said, “and that's a credit to the players. They have bought into what we're doing, they've spent an insane amount of time on their own in the summer learning what we're asking them to do.

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“We're not game-tested by any means, but I feel good with what I'm seeing in practice.”

Ash talks a lot about how the Longhorns are a “committed team and a connected team” and also about the process of accountability that his players have brought to their work on and off the field. 

“As a new staff we were not around our players very long before we were shut down, and we didn't get a ... you know ... a great opportunity to really connect with our guys,” he said. “We've had to do it through the computer, and I think we had a good plan.

“It's one thing to go through Zoom meetings and teach them the Xs and Os, and it's another for them to get out and actually perform it, to react to the different things and do it fairly quickly.”

While Ash was hesitant to point out the performances of specific players, he did respond when asked about the progress of the team’s freshmen.

“I'm really pleased with our overall freshman class on the defensive side of the ball, from the front to the linebackers to the back end,” Ash said. “We have several guys that I think are going to contribute to our football team, whether it be on defense or on special (teams). They've got a bright future, and hopefully we can get them game ready sooner than later.”

Other items addressed by Ash on Tuesday included:

  • An evaluation by the defensive coordinator, given begrudgingly, of junior Joseph Ossai’s progress at rush defensive end. “Joe’s in a different position than what he played last year. I think the ball game against Utah (Texas’ win in the Valero Alamo Bowl) probably showed some signs of what his future look like. We're very excited about Joseph. We’re going to expect him to make a lot of plays and he’s a guy we're going to lean on both in the run game and in the pass game. He’s got big play potential. I like where he's at, and he really likes what we're doing with him.”
  • A confirmation of where Ash will coach from on game days. “My plan is to coach from the field. Until I become a head coach I'd never been on the field, I'd been in the press box, my whole career. We’re putting people in the right place with the right eyes on game days to get the right information. Right now, for me and our staff, it would be best served for me to be on the sideline.”
  • A note or two about the different tackling techniques the Longhorns are learning in the preseason. “Our tackling system and style is different than what they've been used to. Without any invested reps during spring that was a concern, but I feel pretty good about where we're at right now. We didn't really rethink how we teach tackling. We had to rethink about how we could get the reps that we needed to improve our tackling – that was probably the biggest conversation piece that we had.”
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Steve Habel is a senior contributing writer for Horns Illustrated. He has covered Texas sports since 1989 and was this magazine’s senior editor for 24 years. You can follow him on twitter @stevehabel .