Playing on the defensive line can often be a completely thankless job. The common image of the defensive end specifically is the prowling quarterback headhunter, but in reality they do far more than we think. They take on blocks to free up linebackers, they stunt into multiple offensive linemen to give another lineman a clear shot at a sack, and they hold the edge of the defense to make sure nothing hits too quick out wide. Branden Jackson, despite not having the greatest statistical year, did all of these things and more for the Red Raiders this year. If there was a weak link on the defense, it sure wasn't Pete Robertson and Jackson, who should be one of the strengths of our team next year.
Let's start with this year's game against Kansas, where Jackson played one of his best games of the season
Here we see Branden lined up in a "3" technique, or on the outside shoulder of the guard. Texas Tech is in a 3rd down defense, trying to get as much speed on the field as possible. The stunt is a guard-first twist, trying to create pressure by having Jackson take up two offensive linemen and opening up gaps for the blitzing Sam Eguavoen or Andre Ross to get to the quarterback quicker. The stunt works like a charm. The Kansas tackle's eyes immediately snap to Jackson, who is coming right at his inside shoulder. The decision to focus on Jackson as opposed to Eguavoen coming in from his linebacker position means that Eguavoen now has a clean shot on the quarterback. Despite not being in on the tackle, Branden Jackson came through for his team on a crucial third down by being the object of the offensive line's attention and allowing a teammate to make a huge play.
In the third quarter, we once again find Texas Tech in a crucial third down.
First we must note the positioning that Branden Jackson is in. He is in a "7" technique, lined up across from Kansas' underrated tight end, Jimmay Mundine. Ironically, during this short clip the announcers are praising him for being on the Mackey Award watchlist, given to the best tight end in college football. Kansas runs a speed option play to the strong side of their offense, which in theory should work. The two wide receivers should be able to block the corner and the "Raider" hybrid position, Mundine should be able to "reach" Jackson, and the option portion should take care of Sam Eguavoen or the safety, whoever gets there first. The play should be able to get the measly one yard that the Jayhawks need to get the first down. Brandon Jackson, however, had different plans. Instead of allowing himself to be zone blocked by the normally strong Mundine, he bulldozes him into the backfield. This forces an almost immediate pitch from the quarterback, as the play is designed to hit the outside, and Jackson is sealing the edge quickly. The second that Jackson forces the pitch, the play is effectively over, as now the first defender to arrive to the scene, whether it's J.J. Gaines or Sam Eguavoen, has a one-on-one tackling opportunity 5 yards in the backfield. Even if Gaines, who got there first, fails to corral the running back, the time it takes the running back to shake him is the play's undoing. This was one of my favorite plays of the year, as Kansas had called the perfect play for the situation, and we ended up blowing it up anyways.
Early in the 4th quarter, in what is a theme for this game, Jackson makes another huge play on third down.
Once again we have Branden Jackson lined up in a "3" technique, only this time, instead of running the speed option, Kansas is running a form of the "midline" veer play out of the shotgun. The midline may look like a simple read option play, but instead of reading the defensive end, it reads the defensive tackle. Jackson comes through unblocked, which for a defensive linemen is either the best feeling in the world or the worst. It only means two things: you just beat the offensive linemen off the ball so bad that he didn't touch you, which is rare, or you are being read for an option play or screen. Instead of charging up the field based on pure instincts, Jackson settles on the line of scrimmage and forces a tough decision for the Kansas quarterback. Due to his positioning at the time of the handoff Jackson has a shot at making the tackle on either the running back or the quarterback, and this causes the quarterback to hesitate. As a result of that split second of hesitation, neither the running back or the quarterback properly get a grip on the ball, and the ball pops out before Jackson hits anyone. Despite the fact that he didn't actively caused this fumble, he held to his positioning which forced the indecisiveness that caused the fumble. Not only that, he ended up recovering it too.
On a similar note, let's peek into the first half of the game against Arkansas, before we were gassed and subsequently bludgeoned by the Razorback's size and power.
Arkansas is running straight downfield, no questions asked in this play. The entire center of the line gets knocked 2-3 yards off of the line of scrimmage. Brandon Jackson saves this play from going for 7 or 8 yards due to his positioning and patience. Right off the bat, he recognizes that the play is a run and engages the tackle. He sees that the play is moving towards the middle of the field, so instead of pressing the offensive lineman straight into the backfield, he presses him into the middle. He ultimately presses the lineman straight into the path of the running back, disrupting the whole play. Sam Eguavoen gets the credit for the tackle for a loss, but without Jackson being physical at the line of scrimmage is what makes the play work.
The next play against Arkansas comes late in the second quarter during one of the Razorback's brutal drives. With the score tied at 21-21, this drive is absolutely crucial for the Red Raiders going into the second half.
Here, Jackson is lined up outside of the tackle in a "5" shade. There is no tight end on his side, so he has an open side to work with. Arkansas is in their classic I-formation, and runs what appears to be a fullback dive. However, the quarterback ends up pitching the ball to the running back, who is going in the opposite direction of the blockers. The entire purpose of this play is to fool Jackson. If Arkansas can get him in hot pursuit down the line of scrimmage after the fullback, they've already won the play. Jackson stays true to his assignment though, and holds the edge of the defense, keeping his shoulders parallel with the line of scrimmage. He is unblocked, and his correct read allows him to make the play in the backfield. This play highlights a part of what I believe can be sometimes missing from the Texas Tech defense: trust. It may seem cliche or corny, but every member of the defense has to trust that everyone else is going to do their jobs, and not try to do it for them. Branden Jackson could've easily come flying in after the quarterback, but he trusts the other half of the defense to do their jobs, and simply does his. The finished product is that a play that could've gone for a lot more yards ended up being stuffed in the backfield by a defensive linemen holding true to his reads.
Now let's watch a play where Jackson's pass rushing opens up the door for Texas Tech.
Here we have the wide-open Oklahoma State offense in a shotgun formation with two running backs to either side of the quarterback. The left running back motions out into the strong side of the formation almost immediately. The motion might indicate a jet sweep, swing pass, or screen, or it might just be a regular downfield passing play. The play call appears to be a swing pass, but the play is immediately covered by a linebacker, and the Oklahoma State quarterback, Daxx Garman, is forced to look at his other reads. The instant the ball is snapped, Jackson reads pass, and immediately goes after the quarterback. He uses a standard "bull-rush" pass rush move, and is nearly immediately in the lap of Daxx Garman. He actually ends up throwing the offensive lineman back into Garman, knocking him backwards but not completely down. Garman is forced to fall right into the waiting hands of Pete Robertson, who is credited with the sack on the play.
Last year was a huge struggle for our defense. We couldn't stop the run or defend the pass, and that led to some of the worst defensive performances I've seen from the Red Raiders in some time. But there were bright spots in those dark times, and the underrated play of Branden Jackson was one that shone the brightest when brought into the Film Room.