Horns secondary looking forward to USC challenge
The Texas secondary is versatile and talented, which is why the Longhorns are confident against Reggie Bush and Co.
LOS ANGELES -- They are among the tenets that defensive coaches hand down from generation to generation. Corners cover better than they tackle. Safeties tackle better than they cover. Those are the rules that secondary coaches use to find a lineup, and those are the rules that offensive coordinators live by to find mismatches.
And those are the rules that mean nothing to the Texas Longhorns. They have four positions in the secondary, and five players who can fill any of them. There's a reason that senior strong safety Michael Huff won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back.
Huff is the leader. Junior free safety Michael Griffin, a former running back, combines the range to play center field with the biggest hammer on the defense. His teammates talk about his greatest hits as if they were on a CD.
Senior Cedric Griffin (no relation) mans one corner, but regularly fills in for Huff. Junior Tarell Brown, a physical corner and All-American trash talker, covers the other side. The fleet junior Aaron Ross is the nickel back.
Together, they are the biggest reason the Longhorns finished the regular season second in the nation in pass efficiency defense (91.34 rating) and fifth in pass defense (155.9 yards per game). The former statistic is notable because Texas intercepted only 10 passes this season, a whopping 12 fewer than USC.
"Maybe they throw more when they're behind out there," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "When we're ahead 60-0, they don't throw much."
It doesn't seem to matter. This secondary has been effective at the task it will undertake in the Rose Bowl Game (Presented by Citi) Wednesday night (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) -- stopping the big plays that have led to so many USC blowouts.
"We match them up in man coverage," Brown said. "They're not out of position. Then you can match them up outside. You can put nine inside. That helps you stop the run."
Their interchangeability also blunts one of USC's sharpest weapons: The ability to take tailback Reggie Bush, line him up wide and take advantage of a bigger, slower defender. Instead, Trojan offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said, "You've just got to win matchups. [Tight end] Dominique Byrd has got to beat his guy. Reggie has got to beat Huff, or whoever is on him. The game is going to come down to one-on-one matchups."
Huff has made it clear that he relishes the opportunity to take on the Heisman Trophy winner, should the Longhorn coaches give it to him.
"Oh, yeah, I'll be on him," Huff said. "If I'm the best, I want to play against their best player. If I play well against their best player, then the team will do well."
Huff has the physical tools -- at 6-1 and 205 pounds with 4.34 speed -- that a defensive back needs to deal with Bush. But the Texas coaches love Huff because his brain twitches faster than his muscles.
"What separates him from a lot of the good ones, and why he's a great one, is he's got the mental part of the game as well as anyone I've ever been around," defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said Sunday. "He does a great job of making sure everybody is in line."
Including, it turns out, Chizik himself. Against Texas A&M, Chizik sent in a nickel coverage.
"We lined up," Huff said. "I saw we didn't have the linebacker. I did what the linebacker did. I got a sack, and forced a fumble."
Chizik sent in the wrong formation? Huff nodded. "I just blitzed," he said. "I didn't think about it."
Why not call timeout and get it straight? Huff looked as if he had been asked to turn down a steak dinner.
"I would never call timeout," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to blitz."
Huff, like any confident defensive back, doesn't like to play zone. He said the Longhorns have played more man this season under Chizik, in his first season at Texas. Chizik preaches an aggressive play, yet he confirmed Huff's estimation that they play zone roughly 60 percent of the time. That's aggressive?
"Any time you play zone," Chizik said, "you have a lot more eyes on the ball. When the football breaks the line of scrimmage, you should have a lot of people coming to the ball. You have better angles."
Fortunately for the Longhorns, whether in zone or man, Mike Griffin defines aggressive defense. He is the enforcer. The Texas receivers know what Griffin can do.
"My freshman year," sophomore Limas Sweed said, "I ran across the middle on a slant route, and I didn't see him. He hit me dead center in my chest. I stayed on the ground for five minutes, just holding my chest. I haven't gotten hit that hard in a game yet."
Sophomore wideout Billy Pittman pointed to the left side of his torso.
"I was running over the middle," Pittman said. "He hit me in the ribs. That's the hardest I've been hit all season. He'll knock your head off."
Even Huff has learned the hard way what Griffin can do. "I definitely get out of his way," Huff said. "He used to be a little skinny guy who didn't want to hit anybody. Now he's hitting everybody."
Griffin started out as a running back but moved over to defense as a freshman. Asked what he recalled about his first hit as a corner, he said, "I don't know. I had my eyes closed."
Griffin warmed to it quickly, perhaps as a way to distinguish himself. "Huff is good at covering," Griffin said. "I may as well be good at something else."
With these five backs, the secondary is good at just about everything, save interceptions.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.