The Texas Longhorns could see some changes in their defensive backfield on Saturday against West Virginia.
UT has not defended the pass well this year and exhibited poor tackling in all four games. And with the nation's No. 3 scoring offense coming to Austin, the Longhorns are considering a change at strong safety.
Adrian Phillips has struggled in that role after splitting time between corner and safety last year. The junior has started all four games this season, but saw his playing time diminished last week in a win over Oklahoma State after missing tackles on two touchdowns in the first quarter.
Phillips couldn't corral Joseph Randle on a 69-yard touchdown run, the second play of the game. He also failed to bring down receiver Josh Stewart on a 44-yard touchdown pass that saw Phillips lead with his shoulder, rather than wrap up.
"At some point, the players have to know that the ultimate accountability is playing time," said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. "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."
On Monday, Texas listed Phillips as an either-or starter at free safety along with sophomores Mykell Thompson and Josh Turner.
"We're going to look at it to see which of those is the first safety to go out there with [free safety] Kenny [Vaccaro]," head coach Mack Brown said. "It's a hard call. So we've got some hard decisions to make this week."
Thompson and Turner each saw an increase in playing time at safety against Oklahoma State. The Longhorns hope that experience will benefit them this week against West Virginia. Still, neither has started a game for Texas.
"They definitely handled that well, being able to come in on short notice," said junior cornerback Carrington Byndom. "You never know when your time is going to be, so them being able to come in and step in like that was really good for us. That definitely will help them. They got pretty good experience against a quality opponent. It's definitely given them confidence."
While Phillips is under the microscope this week, he was not the only culprit on a defense that missed 12 tackles against Oklahoma State. Diaz said the linebackers struggled without junior Jordan Hicks, who missed the game with a hip injury. Hicks' availability for Saturday's game is unclear.
But no matter who the Longhorns send out to defend West Virginia's high-powered offense on Saturday, tackling will be the key.
"We cannot continue to tackle poorly," Brown said.
By Austin Laymance/Special to the Star-Telegram