Analyzing the immense impact of CB Ryan Watts on Texas football in 2022

Ryan Watts, Texas football
Ryan Watts, Texas football /

One of the most impactful new additions to this Texas football defense in 2022 is the former Ohio State Buckeyes redshirt sophomore transfer cornerback Ryan Watts. Texas’ starting boundary cornerback proved to be a vital NCAA Transfer Portal addition during the 2022 offseason.

Co-DC/LB coach Pete Kwiatkowski, cornerbacks coach Terry Joseph, and the Longhorns have found themselves a nice starting duo at corner this season with Watts and senior D’Shawn Jamison. Watts is a quality boundary cornerback that has more than enough length, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds.

And Jamison adds an experienced and reliable presence as the starting field cornerback opposite of Watts.

Going back more than a half-decade, this could be the most consistent and formidable starting cornerback duo for Texas. Despite a down game in the loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys a couple of weeks ago, Jamison is playing some of the most consistent and best football of his career at defensive back.

Meanwhile, Watts has proven to be a solid option as an every-down boundary corner (outside of the unfortunate lingering injury issues he’s dealt with in the last month or so) in his first year as a full-time starter.

What has made Watts such a valuable commodity for this Texas defense, though?

Here, we are going to look at the positive impact that Watts has made on this defense in his first year with the program, both from a statistical and schematic perspective.

How Ryan Watts helps Texas football matchup better in pass coverage

It goes without saying that Watts is a good fit for what PK and the Longhorns are looking for out of a physical boundary cornerback. At 6-foot-3, and with a wingspan just north of 82 inches, Watts brings more than enough length to the table to contend with some of the bigger and more capable outside receivers in the Big 12.

Watts’ physical profile and skill set are not only a nice fit with what PK wants in a boundary corner, but it also helps the rest of the secondary perform at a higher level and in a more cohesive fashion.

To illustrate the difference that Watts makes for this Texas defense this season compared to last, let’s take a look at what PK had at cornerback last fall and how the situation has changed this year.

Josh Thompson wasn’t playing in the right role last season to maximize his skill set

Last season, the starting boundary corner for much of the season was Josh Thompson. And while Thompson is a very capable defensive back that is already getting some live-game reps in the NFL as a rookie that was an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars, it looks like he was a little bit miscast in the Texas defense last year as a boundary corner.

The first reason why Thompson wasn’t the right fit at boundary corner for PK’s defense is the fact that he is 6-foot and 195-pounds with a shorter wingspan than the DBs we usually see filling this role in this scheme. Thompson didn’t have the size or physicality to line up only a few yards off the line of scrimmage and press in man coverage.

To make up for the lack of physicality and length on the boundary, Texas would often line Thompson at least five or seven yards off the line of scrimmage in zone coverage looks. Of the 234 snaps that Thompson took in pass coverage last season, more than 90 percent were in a zone scheme.

Soft zone coverage plays to a lot of the strengths in Thompson’s game. He has great instincts and speed in pursuit of the ball carrier. To put it simply, Thompson has a great nose for the football and can find the ball carrier to bring him down much quicker than most Big 12 defensive backs.

It’s also worth noting that Thompson is a very rangy DB in zone coverage that can effectively cover a number of different routes at all levels of the field.

Yet, there are some issues that came to the surface when PK was playing so much zone defense with the corners last season. The biggest problem was that the defensive backs often got lost in pass coverage as they weren’t fully adjusted yet to the new scheme.

PK’s zone defense last season required a full understanding of the cover concepts in this scheme and an extreme awareness of technique and positioning on the field at all times out of the safeties. That asked too much out of some of these safeties in Year 1 under PK.

Instead of playing the specific roles that they were supposed to (i.e. helping to stop the run and limit explosive plays over the top), the safeties were often out of position, especially in pass coverage. That resulted in a lot of explosive plays where the secondary looked all out of sorts against some of the more capable passing offenses in the Big 12 last season.

We also saw opposing offenses almost exclusively beat Thompson in the short passing game and over the top.

Another issue for Thompson in this miscast role last season was pass play tackling. All the room that was left by Thompson playing soft zone coverage allowed for a ton of space underneath for receivers after the catch. That led to a missed tackle rate on passing plays of a whopping 25 percent for Thompson in zone coverage last season.

That is the highest missed tackle rate for a Big 12 cornerback in zone coverage in the last five years.

Moreover, a lot of the issues we saw come to the surface for PK’s defense (especially in pass coverage) last season were minimized so far this fall. And a lot of the positive strides that this defense made year-over-year should be largely credited to the improvements Jamison made during the offseason and the addition of Watts at corner.

Watts being able to handle the role of playing press man coverage without getting burned one-on-one by the wideout frees up the safeties to actually do their jobs this season.

A good example of this is the increased safety support in the box in run defense. Check out some of these plays in run defense in Red River that safeties Jerrin Thompson and Anthony Cook were able to make since they were freer to support run defense. Watts is able to be isolated on the outside instead of Thompson having to dedicate himself to helping over the top.

Cook is also able to move down closer to the line of scrimmage on this play instead of providing support to Watts between the numbers in pass coverage.

Proficiency of Watts in pass coverage

Watts has shown to be a very capable corner in pass coverage, even against some of the better outside receivers in the Big 12. He is showing good technique and timing off the line of scrimmage. Watts’ length allows him to easily make contact with the opposing receiver at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the route.

Once Watts is downfield covering the route, he’s staying positionally sound and timing the throw well to play the ball.

Watts’ positioning and timing are really being put on display as a major strength in red zone defense. Check out this interception he had against Oklahoma State in the red zone, which flipped the momentum in the game at the time. He turned his head at the right time and made just the right amount of contact to stay physical, but avoid drawing a flag (which tends to be the biggest risk of playing physical man coverage).

Yet, the physicality that Watts brings to the table shows up in more ways than one. Watts is timing the hits that he makes quite well. This play against Texas Tech sees Watts recognize the short dump-off pass quickly and deliver a stunning blow to the wideout, forcing an incompletion when the receiver had a lot of room to run if he had missed that tackle.

Last but not least, Watts is doing a nice job of recovering and still making physical plays in pass coverage without getting penalized when he’s initially beaten off the line of scrimmage. It’s imperative when playing in press coverage that the cornerback can still recover if they’re not able to initially disrupt the route.

This play shows how well Watts is able to recover after initially getting beat to the punch on the short slant route to get the pass breakup against West Virginia and force a huge turnover on downs.

To sum this up, there are multiple ways that Watts has made a positive impact on this defense by bringing the right level of physicality and man coverage skills to the table.

Stats prove Watts is making a sizable difference

One of the biggest issues I had last season with the way the corners were playing was the inability to stop big plays. In Big 12 play alone, Thompson gave up passing plays of at least 30 yards three times and an additional three passes of between 20 and 29 yards.

I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming Thompson for giving up all these explosive plays. A lot of these plays were due to confusion in the back end of the defense as a whole. That puts blame on both the players and the coaches calling these plays, not just Thompson.

Meanwhile, Watts has given up just one passing play of at least 30 yards in Big 12 play, and one of between 20 and 29 yards.

While there are still at least four more games to play this season, that is a clear improvement in terms of the ability of Watts to limit explosive plays.

It’s worth mentioning that he’s doing a lot of this without any safety help over the top, which is even more impressive.

Another indication statistically of the impact Watts has made on this defense is the way he’s limited touchdowns. Despite being targeted more than a half-dozen times in pass coverage against Big 12 opponents in the red zone this season, Watts hasn’t allowed a single touchdown.

In fact, Watts is the only Big 12 cornerback to have not allowed a single touchdown in conference play this year while posting an allowed QBR under 60.0.

Watts holding up in pass coverage this well in the red zone, along with the strides the rest of the safeties and Jamison made during the offseason, has resulted in a more effective red zone defense for the Longhorns.

According to NCAA stats, Texas ranks 28th in the FBS this season in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score just under 78 percent of the time. Last year, Texas ranked 52nd in the FBS in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score 82 percent of the time.

Texas has also reduced the number and frequency of red zone passing touchdowns year-over-year.

Lastly, Watts is showing the ability to consistently make the necessary tackles in pass coverage and even in run defense. We talked earlier about how Thompson missed a quarter of his attempted tackles in coverage last season and the issues that created for this defense.

In Big 12 play this season, Watts has only missed roughly seven percent of his attempted tackles in pass coverage. And he’s missed around 15 percent of his attempted tackles in pass coverage for the entire season.

Watts was definitely not perfect in terms of missed tackle rate in pass coverage for the entire season, but he has progressed as the season moved along.

It also would be doing Watts a disservice if we didn’t bring up his proficiency in run defense from the cornerback position. So far this season, Watts is the third highest-graded Big 12 cornerback, and one of the top five defensive backs in the conference, in run defense.

And of the three highest-graded Big 12 corners in run defense this season, Watts is the only one with an average depth of tackle of fewer than five yards. That is indicative of his ability to make the tackle to limit successful run plays from opposing offenses, which makes a huge difference coming from a boundary corner.

Watts has only nine combined tackles, five stops, two run stuffs, and just one missed tackle in run defense this season.

It’s clear to me, and most Texas fans at this point, that Watts was a huge get out of the transfer portal for Texas last offseason. And if it wasn’t abundantly obvious that he’s important to this defense, just look at the difference it makes when he’s on the field compared to off in the last few games due to nagging injury issues.

Yet, it looks as if Watts should be able to play, despite a nagging hamstring injury, against the Kansas State Wildcats in a big game in Week 10.

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Through bits and pieces of eight games played with the Longhorns this season, Watts has 31 combined tackles, three pass breakups, one tackle for loss, two quarterback pressures, and one interception. He has helped improve this defense and will be much-needed in pass coverage down the stretch this season during a challenging November slate.