While Steve Sarkisian serves as a lightning rod atop the Texas Longhorn football program, much of the burden for rebuilding falls on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. While the first year and a half the Texas defense has not been as rugged as fans would wish, the Longhorns have surrendered leads in five of the nine games they have lost under Sarkisian, however the unit has shown signs of improvement over the last several weeks.
Kwiatkowski came to Austin after coaching with Chris Peterson at Boise State and Washington. He was the architect of defensive units that were the class of the Pac-12, and he was able to create those units without the benefit of top-rated recruiting prospects found at blue blood programs that vie for championships year in and out. Kwiatkowski is also an outlier in the world of college football because of his length of tenure at each coaching stop. He coached at Washington for seven years and was at Boise State for seven before that. This shows his ability to build relationships and solve problems within a given framework in a business where many would simply pull up stakes and look to greener pastures when offered.
At Texas, Kwiatkowski is building a unit that is schematically complex, yet flexible enough to present different looks to offenses while also taking advantage of the strengths of his players. Texas easily shifts from three to four man looks and presents different coverages to confuse offenses. And in recent games the players look more comfortable and aggressive as a result. This past week against West Virginia the physical play by the Longhorn secondary in particular had a noticeable impact on the Mountaineer ball carriers. The physicality eventually took its toll, as several passes were dropped by West Virginia receivers late in the game. The fact that the Texas defenders were able to step up the aggressiveness of their play, shows a growing comfort level with the system and should lead to further improvement as the season progresses.
The physical play we saw against West Virginia seemed to be an extension of the effort the Longhorns turned in against Alabama earlier in the season. Texas held the Tide to 20 points and played with an edge that was noticeable. Aside from one long run, the Longhorns held Alabama to only 81 yards rushing and throughout the game the Texas front was able to pressure Alabama star quarterback Bryce Young.
Critics would point to the defensive shortcomings in games like Texas Tech where the Longhorn defense allowed the Red Raiders to convert on six of eight fourth downs. This led to a Tech come back from a halftime deficit and allowed the Red Raiders to steal the win in overtime. But in many instances that kind of difficult experience is part of the process of building the type of unit that can ultimately win championships. Sometimes failure can be the best teacher, and after one week the lesson seems to have been learned well.
This week the Red River Showdown will present the Longhorn defense a prime opportunity to prove that the lessons of the past have been learned. If what we saw against West Virginia is the new normal for the Longhorn defense, Texas will be in position to compete not only this weekend, but in the Big 12 championship race this season.