The most influential individual in Texas’ turnaround during this season of turmoil is not mentioned on any of the 131 pages in the Longhorns’ 2013 media guide.
But that does not prevent the folks in orange from appreciating what they have gotten in eight weeks of effort from defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who joined the staff Sept. 8 as an emergency replacement for predecessor Manny Diaz.
Diaz became the fall guy after the Longhorns allowed a school-record 550 rushing yards in a 40-21 loss to Brigham Young. When Texas coach Mack Brown tweaked his staff, he said Robinson would be judged by how well the defense played in its matchups against Big 12 opponents.
The feedback, thus far, has been eye-opening.
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Texas (5-2, 4-0 in Big 12) heads into Saturday’s game against Kansas (2-5, 0-4) with a share of first place in the league standings. The Longhorns have seen their defensive averages drop by 150.8 yards and 10.8 points per game during their last four contests, all victories against conference foes. And they have dropped without linebacker Jordan Hicks, Texas’ leading tackler who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in a 31-21 victory over Kansas State in the Big 12 opener on Sept. 21.
Most of that improvement is attributable to Robinson, a longtime NFL assistant who tweaked Diaz’s schemes during a couple of bye weeks. He’s getting positive results with basically the same defenders who put Texas on a collision course with a .500 record and a postseason coaching change during their September struggles.
“He’s brought tremendous confidence to our defense in a short period of time,” Brown said of Robinson. “He’s done an amazing job.”
The biggest stunner has been the improvement against the run, which reads like a misprint.
Texas has allowed 491 rushing yards in four games against Big 12 opponents. That is 59 fewer yards than BYU gained in four quarters against Diaz’s defense. Against Big 12 opponents, Texas has permitted just 122.8 rushing yards per contest, a 60 percent decrease from the non-conference mark (308.7).
The list of league victims includes both of last year’s co-champs, Kansas State and No. 10 Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1), as well as TCU and Iowa State. While that group is not a murderer’s row of elite rushing teams, both OU (No. 16 nationally, 234 yards per game) and K-State (No. 53, 180.3 average) rank among the top half of FBS schools in rushing. And both finished well below their season averages with Robinson calling the defensive shots from the opposing sideline.
Robinson’s use of a five-man defensive front, unveiled against OU, played a major role in limiting the Sooners to 130 rushing yards, 104 below their season average. TCU managed just 246 total yards, with 45 on the ground, in last week’s 30-7 loss to Texas.
But Robinson’s biggest contribution has been a renewed swagger that permeates the team. The improved defense has been instrumental in flipping public perception about this team since its controversial, 31-30 escape from Iowa State on Oct. 3.
“His credibility comes from talking to him. He’s been at the NFL level. He’s seen where we want to go,” said defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, son of former Dallas Cowboys’ defensive end Jim Jeffcoat. “Growing up in a football household, I know he knows his stuff. He’s similar to the guys that I met through my father who were coaches as well.”
In a nutshell, Robinson has simplified Diaz’s defensive schemes. He’s eliminated the smoke and mirrors from a thick playbook filled with creative wrinkles designed to fluster NFL quarterbacks. At Texas, it mostly confused Longhorns’ defenders, who frequently missed assignments and tackles because of indecision.
“When you know what you’re doing and you’re able to play without all the complex thinking, it allows you to play fast,” said cornerback Carrington Byndom.
Players cited a greater emphasis on tackling fundamentals, relentless pursuit and a heightened attention to detail under Robinson, 62, who won two Super Bowls calling defensive signals at Denver (1997, 1998) and helped Texas reach its first Rose Bowl as the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator in 2004.
“He wants you to be a technician. He wants everything done right, from the right spot,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “If we don’t do things right in practice, he makes us go back and we re-do those things. He’s changed everything, really.”
Brown called Robinson “the best I’ve ever seen at getting guys to buy in and chase the ball” on every down. He shared a recent example, when Robinson confronted a player who had been loafing during practice.
“What he basically said was, ‘You try about half the time. And you’re so talented, if we can just get you to try all the time, you’ll be a great NFL player,’” Brown said. “So he beat him down and picked him up at the same time. That’s who Greg is.”
He’s also been the primary contributor to Texas’ recent turnaround. Even if he’s nowhere to be found in the team’s 2013 media guide.
Texas Tech motivation
There has been no place to turn in the Texas Tech locker room this week without seeing the number “98” prominently displayed, per the edict of first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury. The digit signifies the combined margin of defeat suffered by No. 15 Tech (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) in its losses the past two seasons to No. 18 Oklahoma State (6-1, 3-1).
The teams meet Saturday in Lubbock with Big 12 title hopes on the line after OSU routed Tech, 59-21, last season and by a 66-6 margin in 2011, the Cowboys’ last visit to Lubbock. Tech’s last victory in the series came in 2008. But Kingsbury, a Tech alum, wants his players to focus on the last meetings because most were involved in those losses.
“We’re playing a team that has embarrassed us the last two years,” Kingsbury said. “I expect our guys to be highly motivated.”
Tech tight end Jace Amaro vowed that will be the case. Amaro said: “This is a new year, a new season and we’re not playing like we did last year.”
Linebacker Branden Jackson said the team’s optimism stems from Kingsbury, who replaced predecessor Tommy Tuberville in December.
“When we had coach Tuberville, it was … we lost, we’re panicking. We’re in full frantic mode,” Jackson said. “Now, we know what we did wrong and what we have to improve. We just get ready to move forward.”
First-time visitor: West Virginia plays Saturday at TCU (2:30 p.m., ESPNU), marking the Mountaineers’ first football game in Fort Worth. It will be the third career meeting between the Big 12’s newest members. TCU prevailed last year at West Virginia, 39-38, in two overtimes. West Virginia knocked off TCU, 31-14, in the 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl.
Long-distance Longhorns: Texas (5-2, 4-0) has scored 10 touchdowns on plays of 45 yards or longer this season. Those TDs have been scored by eight different players (WR John Harris, WR/KR Daje Johnson, QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Mike Davis, WR Kendall Sanders, RB Johnathan Gray, WR Marcus Johnson).
High-scoring Cowboys: No. 18 Oklahoma State (6-1, 3-1) has scored at least 20 points in 46 consecutive games heading into Saturday’s matchup at No. 15 Texas Tech (7-1, 4-1). OSU’s streak marks the second-longest since Division I was split into FBS and FCS schools in 1978.
TCU 24, West Virginia 19 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ESPNU): Horned Frogs must win this one to continue clinging to any realistic bowl hopes.
Texas 41, Kansas 14 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Longhorn Network): Longhorns’ defensive turnaround since September has been significant, should be enough to stymie Jayhawks.
No. 15 Texas Tech 35, No. 18 Oklahoma State 32 (Saturday, 6 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4): In a coin-flip proposition, side with the home team. That would be Texas Tech.
Kansas State 38, Iowa State 24 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., FS1): Wildcats finally battle back to .500 mark, assure Cylones of a bowl-free postseason.
Last week: 5-0