AUSTIN, Texas — The assumption is there will be footballs in the air Saturday night at Royal-Memorial Stadium when No. 8 West Virginia visits the No. 11 Longhorns.
So there were suggestions in the air that personnel changes might be in store for a spotty Texas defense that will face arguably its toughest test of the season when quarterback Geno Smith and the Mountaineers' highflying offense invade Austin.
Coach Mack Brown, while emphasizing not everything is doom and gloom with the defense, did note that the Longhorns might tinker with the two-deep, specifically at linebacker and in the secondary. The starter under the most intense microscope is free safety Adrian Phillips.
In Saturday's 41-36 victory at Oklahoma State, the same issues that have plagued the defense all season — missed tackles, allowing big plays — arose again. Brown said Monday that the Longhorns missed 12 tackles on seven plays against the Cowboys. Three of the misses resulted in 109 yards and two touchdowns.
“We cannot continue to tackle poorly,” he said.
Phillips was involved in the poor tackling that led to both scores. On OSU's second play from scrimmage, the Longhorns' junior didn't wrap up running back Joseph Randle, who broke free and went on for a 69-yard score. The Cowboys' second touchdown, a 44-yard pass to receiver Josh Stewart later in the first quarter, came after Phillips launched his shoulder at Stewart without trying to wrap him up, and bounced off.
Consequently, on the depth chart released Monday, Phillips was listed in an either-or status as starter with sophomores Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner at the safety spot opposite strong safety Kenny Vaccaro.
“We're going to look at (the trio) to see which of those is the first safety to go out there with Kenny,” Brown said. “It's a hard call, so we've got some hard decisions to make this week.”
Phillips has started all four games at strong safety. He ranks fifth on the team with 19 tackles, and also has broken up one pass. Regarded as the Longhorns' most versatile defensive back, he started five games at cornerback in 2011, moving to safety this season with the departure of senior Blake Gideon.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who has seen his league-leading unit in 2011 plummet to No. 8 in total defense this season (No. 9 in rush defense), agreed with Brown that playing time is at stake.
“At some point the players have to know that the ultimate accountability is playing time,” Diaz said. “I think our guys understand what has to be done. They understand the fix. But at some point, it's going to be hard to play a guy that you can't trust to get the guy on the ground.”
While Phillips struggled last week, the most issues are in the linebacking corps. Missing Jordan Hicks with a groin injury — the junior's availability for WVU also is in doubt — regulars Demarco Cobbs and Steve Edmond, and first-time starter Dalton Santos, often found themselves out of position, a big reason why Oklahoma State rushed for 275 yards.
Of the linebackers, Diaz, who coaches the position, simply said, “We struggled.”
Despite all the problems, Texas' defense rose up when it had to last week. The Longhorns limited two OSU forays into the red zone to field goals, including late in the game that allowed UT to drive for the winning TD. The defense also denied a two-point conversion attempt, and a Vaccaro interception led to a touchdown.
“Nobody will give our defense credit for what it deserves this week. Everybody will bash them,” Brown said. “The things they didn't do well, we're like you. We're scratching our heads and trying to figure it out, and right now we don't have the answer.”
But the players remain confident, even with the looming visit of Heisman Trophy favorite Smith and two of the nation's top receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
“I feel like we're a very confident group,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “It's going to take a lot to bruise egos on this defense.”
MCT Information Services