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Texas Longhorns Spring Football Storylines: Defense

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Taking stock of the Spring Ball to-do list on D.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

#1 - Hold the Line

Job One for the Texas DL this Spring is simple - stay healthy.  While there's technically a two-deep across four positions right now (we'll count the Fox as a DL for the purposes of this conversation), the depth chart becomes a Shallows Chart in a real hurry if somebody gets nicked:

DT:  Poona Ford (JR), Jake McMillon (SO)

NT:  Paul Boyette (SR), Chris Nelson (SO)

SDE:  Bryce Cottrell (SR), Charles Omenihu (SO)

Fox:  Naashon Hughes (JR), Quincy Vasser (SR)

Job Two is proving that they can be an upper-echelon Big XII unit with the guys on hand.  A still young but wildly talented back seven can play up in a big way this season if the big boys do their part.  That means eliminating soft corners and free-climbing guards in the run game, and no more casual three counts for opposing QBs while five rushers are stymied by five blockers.  If we come out of the Spring excited for the depth and occasional pass rush pop that our 2016 DL haul will bring in the Fall, cool.  If we come out of the Spring desperately hoping that one or more of those guys can seize a starting gig...less cool.

For a team that was soft up the middle far too often, few guys need to step up more than Paul Boyette.  He's not a classic Ted Washington space eater or Casey Hampton soul-eater, but he can be productive as a decently disruptive nose with some reasonable stack-and-shed ability.

Chris Nelson was raw as hell in high school with some sloppy weight, but there's an athlete in there who showed us a glimpse or two last season.  Show us more.

Bryce Cottrell will show more bend and burst than Shiro Davis did last season, but the list of guys with less bend and burst than Senior Year Shiro is pretty much limited to Boris Karloff monster portrayals and cigar store Indians.  Reports from the first practice had him setting up shop in the offensive backfield - hopefully he'll be able to threaten the edge with some consistency while mixing in the big man's counter move to the inside.

Charles Omenihu is reportedly up over 260 pounds and could make for a nice 1-2 punch if his added mass helps him set the edge without robbing him of the quicks that give him his attractive long-term ceiling.  At a broad-shouldered 6'5" he's certainly got the frame to carry plenty of good weight and do bad things with it.

Poonatration is a given when he Poona Ford can jump into a gap, but it'll be nice to see him use his freakishly long arms to better control the OL this season It's tough to set the defensive edge when you're aligning as a 4i (inside shoulder of the offensive tackle) but if that's what's going to be asked we'll need to see him raise his game in that regard.  Second and eight good - second and three bad.

The Fox spot in Charlie's defense demands a jack of all trades, and last season Naashon Hughes answered the call last year without really mastering any of them.  He probably lacks the top-shelf blast-off ability to serve as a true terror off the edge, but if he can notch some one-on-one wins against Connor Williams this Spring it will bode well for his ability to lead the pack for the next two seasons with heat-seekers like Erick Fowler and Shark McCullough coming in.  Now that I look at that previous sentence, I'm actually not sure whether foxes run in packs or not.  I will defer to the wisdom of Snoop Dogg on all nature-related questions from here on in.

Quincy Vasser, Jake McMillon - show us what you got.

#2 - Grabbing the Mike

Are you getting greedy when you lament what might have been in a (well-deserved) Freshman All-America season?  Probably.  But it was clear throughout the bulk of 2015 that Malik Jefferson's frequent deployment in the A and B gaps was far from his highest and best use.  There's a phrase that more than one disappointed serviceman has heard when he learned his new posting:

"You don't go where you want to go.  You don't even go where you're best suited to go.  You go where you're needed."

In 2015 Texas needed Jefferson to at least stem the bleeding between the tackles, even though his run-game instincts were still a work in progress and he wasn't ideally suited to knock heads with 310-pound guards.  A potential Top 25 unit in 2016 needs Malik bringing hell off the edge, flying out to the flat to ruin the quick game and making a nuisance of himself up the seam.  He'll still log plenty of inside backer-type snaps (and there's not a ton of difference between the Mike and Will roles when Texas is in a 4-2-5 alignment anyway), but who's our best bet to bang in the middle and Free Malik?

For some context, here's the reported first and second team from the first open practice - we were apparently lining up in a 4-3 look that we probably won't see much of in Big XII action:

SLB:  Edwin Freeman (SO), Anthony Wheeler (SO)

MLB: Malik Jefferson (SO), Bryce Hager (SO)

WLB: Tim Cole (SR), Cameron Townsend (FR-RS)

We've hardly seen any of Edwin Freeman in Burnt Orange thanks to a 2014 redshirt and an injury-riddled 2015.  His high school tape revealed good instincts and some impressive striking ability, so he'll be a guy to keep a real eye on this Spring.

We saw perhaps more than we wanted to of Tim Cole last season.  He's got some athletic and instinctual limitations that will be tough for him to overcome in terms of carving out a major role (and tough for the defense to overcome if he does), but he busts his ass and can hopefully serve as a sage among the sophs.

Anthony Wheeler has the wheels, but at times last season he could have played with his arms duct-taped to his sides and not had any less success at getting off blocks.  He's reportedly looking robust at 232 pounds, and increased physicality could be his ticket to an expanded role.

Bryce Breckyn Hager is listed as the second-team Mike, though he spent some of his snaps as an edge player last season and spent others chasing more ghosts than Ray Stantz.  (I would have said Peter Venkman, but he spent most of his time chasing Dana Barrett.) Interior linebacking instincts may not be hereditary, though making any final judgments on a true sophomore is kind of silly.  While it might not help to grow a sweet mullet/stache combo like his dad's:

Britt Hager_80s

It certainly couldn't hurt.*

Cam Townsend is in the 220's after barely tipping the scales at two hundy as a true freshman.  He can fly, but he'll likely do any 2016 damage in the weakside role.

DeMarco Boyd seems to have arrived on campus with a bowling ball build at 5'11", 240.  Not saying it's bad weight necessarily, but it wouldn't be shocking if he's knocking heads as a fullback rather than an inside 'backer before it's all said and done.

Dalton Santos was probably a long shot to contribute before he injured a toe prior to the start of Spring ball.  Now...matters are worse.  It's probably best to consider any 2016 contribution from Santos as pure gravy at this point, and it wouldn't be shocking if his best path to playing time ends up being the Alex de la Torre route.

#3 - Sorting the Secondary

Here's your initial secondary depth chart:

LCB: DeVante Davis, Antwaun Davis

RCB:  Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, Sheroid Evans

Nickel:  P.J. Locke, John Bonney

FS:  Dylan Haines, Kevin Vaccaro

SS:  Jason Hall, DeShon Elliott

Holton Hill and Davante Davis are locked in on the outside, and it will be fun to watch their dueling progressions to true lockdown corner status.  148 combined inches of fast, loose-hipped and well-coached is just what the doctor ordered in an air-it-out conference where you can rarely count on a safety being free to save your bacon.

The nickel spot is intriguing.  I've been lighting a candle for Kris Boyd to grab the nickel role and hump it into submission since his size and aggression could make him a great two-way disruptor in a demanding role.  With that said, I'm getting more and more intrigued by P.J. Locke.  He's listed on the official roster as a safety, but played nickel in the first practice after getting some late-season looks there in 2015 when Duke Thomas shifted to safety.  He's apparently up to 205 pounds, and if he's carrying that weight without compromising his change of direction he might provide the right mix of physicality and sticky cover skills.  John Bonney had a tough 2015 but looked a bit more at home at nickel than he did on the outside - it's not clear if he's got the head or the feet to truly thrive in this system, but it's early days yet.

Sheroid Evans makes Dalton Santos look like Cal Ripken Jr., so it's easy to shrug and await the seemingly inevitable trip to the trainer's room.  He at least seems to have added some good weight to his track-star build and reportedly looked as fleet as ever, so a Poor Man's Mykkele Thompson Renaissance might not be completely crazy.

At safety, all eyes will be on DeShon Elliott to see if and when he overtakes Jason Hall for a starting role.  It'll be when and not if unless Hall can get back to the kind of confident play and easy athleticism he showed as a pre-injury freshman - he just hasn't looked like the same dude since.  Elliott's got the kind of speed and striking ability that will be tough to keep off the field.

Many fans would like to see Dylan Haines overtaken by...anyone, really, but he's a near lock to hold onto his role through Spring ball and likely into the Fall.  Haines' athletic limitations are real, but they don't prevent him from serving as a steady presence in center field or jumping the occasional route when he drops down into underneath coverage.  They DO make it tough for him to stick in man coverage and to clean up other guys' messes - like most safeties, he'll end up looking like a jackass in the open field for things that aren't really his fault.  It's possible that Locke gets a look at his spot in the Spring and not totally inconceivable that Brandon Jones comes in ready to quarterback the secondary from Day One in the Fall, but Haines is your odds-on leader to lead that spot in snaps this season.  The good news is, he'll mysteriously start to look a lot better as the guys around him raise their games.

#4 - Keeping Pace

The prospects of a truly up-tempo and rep-intensive practice regimen were raised in yesterday's piece, and by all reports Sterlin Gilbert exceeded those expectations on Day One.  Snapping the ball within seven or eight seconds after placement was the norm, and although Charlie had to blow things up once or twice to get a substitution he wanted the defense hung tough with the new mas rapido regime on O.  One of the concerns on Gilbert's arrival was whether Strong would allow practice to become a pace-heavy affair that emphasizes repetition over lengthy teaching moments between snaps.  So far, so good in that regard.  The defense's conditioning and mental toughness should get a bump as Spring rolls on, and the implicit demands to work in the film room and instantly understand your role against different looks should make for a smarter bunch as well.

#5 - New Attitude

Did Strong and Bedford forget how to coach defense last offseason?  No.

Will the back seven endure anything close to the number of botches they encountered while running a virtual Children's Crusade in the back seven last season?  No.

Did unsightly counting stats against one of the three toughest offensive schedules in the country mean that you were really one of the worst defenses in the nation?  Not only no, but hell no.

But with all that said, this defense needs to believe that it can compete with the elite without guys like Malcom Brown, Ced Reed and Quandre Diggs leading the charge.

On the heels of a 5-7 season, the positive vibes around the program have exceeded just about every reasonable expectation.  Guys' authentic excitement about the direction of the program came through on the Drive To Errrbody in February, and just about every public and private report on yesterday's action mentioned a crackling sense of energy and purpose.  For all those positive vibes to coalesce into authentic confidence, though, the Longhorn defenders will need to grow individually, understand how they click in the collective whole and start bullying the offense.

They'll get their next chance this Wednesday afternoon.

*This has been your nobis60-approved Daily Dose of 80's