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A Post-Camp Look At The 2016 Texas Longhorns Defense

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NCAA Football: Rice at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we took stock of the Longhorns’ offensive depth chart and prospects coming out of Fall camp. Today let’s see what we’ve learned about the Texas D and their prospects of getting off to a hot - or at least survivable - start against Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame O.

Defensive Tackle

Any notion that Paul Boyette and Poona Ford were going to be immediately displaced as starters by a talented freshman class was always fairly silly. They’ve been your top two interior performers throughout camp and each guy is poised to have a very solid season - the problem is that their skill sets are more overlapping than complementary. Poona is a born 3-tech Poonatrator who also has the agility to cross a guard’s face into the A gap, but he’s still got a tough row to hoe against double teams or an upper-echelon guard who locks on head-up and drives him back. Boyette is more suited for a 1-tech role than Ford, but he’s still more consistent when he shoots gaps than when he’s asked to stand strong against the double team. Both these guys should take a step forward from last season and they’ll hang tough and win their share of battles, but don’t expect a Hampton & Rogers redux. (There’s been some late-breaking news that Boyette may be dinged up - no real details as yet, but if you’re discomfited by the 2015 Hassan Ridgeway parallel then you’re not alone.)

Reporting on the remainder of the DT crew has been a bit more muddled, which isn’t surprising. This isn’t an overly leaky staff, and reports that have made their way out to insider-y folks have been more along the lines of “here are my post-practice impressions” rather than “here are the detailed results of our film breakdown.” When you’re working in that environment, field-level observers watching things in real time with plays coming eight seconds apart can easily come away with indistinct impressions of who’s done what to whom on the interior. With that said, here are some consensus-esque impression of how guys have been performing to date:

Chris Nelson appears to have opened a few eyes and improved his conditioning. He still seems like a bit of an odd-body athlete, but he’s got some potentially unique movement skills and could be a disruptive dude on the interior if he’s no longer gasping for breath on the fourth play of a drive.

Jordan Elliott appears to be leading the charge among the true freshmen and may already bring the best combination of gap-shootin’, two-gappin’ and double-team survivin’ of anyone on the depth chart. He won’t be doing all - or any - of those things at a consistently elite level since he’s eighteen years old, but he’s already got the body of an upperclassman and has a Shaun Rogers-caliber ceiling if he finds the Hampton analogue who’ll keep his nose to the grindstone.

DeAndre Christmas (potential Hyphen Curse averted!) brings the best one-gap skill set of anyone in the freshman class and could be a surprisingly effective pass rusher as the season goes along. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him catch or pass Ford for overall 3-tech effectiveness by November as his experience catches up to his superior frame. Elliott and Christmas are your leaders in the clubhouse for projected true frosh snap count.

Reports have been more variable on Gerald Wilbon - there’s some degree of consensus that he’s the functionally strongest member of the interior DL right now, but some reports have him immovable on double teams while others portray him as a mixed bag at best. My hypothesis is that he’s already got that man strenf against a head-on push but that he’s not yet advanced when it comes to taking on blockers who have an angle advantage and can work away from his power or outright earhole him. He’ll have a role to play if he can get that mitigated.

Chris Daniels missed the first part of camp with a mysterious lower leg injury, didn’t appear to have missed many meals between his junior season and his 335-pound reporting weight. He seems to have opened eyes here and there in the last week or two, but his conditioning remains a major question mark and in the No Huddle Era that’s a severe obstacle to playing time - can’t just trot on and off the field based on your wind.

I still have no more idea what to make of Marcell Southall than I did when practice opened.

Defensive End

As opposed to the poisonous upperclass vs young bucks dynamic that threatened to completely submarine the 2015 season, it looks like many of this year’s juniors seniors have fully bought in and accepted the challenge of being pushed by the young ‘uns. Two cases in point are SDE Bryce Cottrell and WDE/Fox Naashon Hughes (we’ll use WDE for our purposes here as it looks like we’re leaning more towards a traditional 4-2-5 than trying to manufacture Fox movement skills for guys who don’t have them.) Cottrell appears to have held on to the nominal starting role on the strong side, while Hughes may be turning the light on when it comes to translating his impressive athleticism into consistent production. I’d have a hard time taking the over on 5.5 sacks for either dude this year, but if they can serve as physical edge-setters with a bit of pass-rush pop then we’re reasonably well ahead of where we were last season.

Charles “The Omen” Omenihu remains the highest-ceilinged and most intriguing guy in the DE rotation. He’ll probably serve as the primary pass rusher from the strong side, and he’s got the bend and burst to challenge left tackles as well. Unless another Fox guy steps up strong, I’m hoping to see Omenihu flip-flop and end up on the field for 70+% of the defensive snaps in one spot or another.

Bryce Hager has taken to the weakside end position like a duck to water, and he’s got solid athleticism for the position to go along with a relentless demeanor. Figure him for significant question marks in the head-up run game, but he’s shown the ability to chase things down from the backside and use his arms well enough to okey-doke a left tackle and dip around him on the pass rush.

Malcolm Roach is currently running as your third-team Fox and offers physical potential that could lap the guys ahead of him once things start clicking. He probably grows into a strongside end in the next year or so, but should be able to contribute 7-10 aggressive snaps a game this season if called upon, It’s kind of nifty that this year’s third-team weakside end is already more physically impressive than last year’s starting strongside end.

Quincy Vasser feels like survivable strong side depth at this point - haven’t heard much about him throughout camp.

It’s been largely quiet on the Andrew Fitzgerald front - still very high on his long-term potential, but snaps will be tough to come by at SDE if both Cottrell and Omenihu stick in that spot.

WTF what about Erick Fowler I thought that dude was going to be an elite edge rusher, you asshole?” one might ask, if one had a surfeit of caffeine and a deficit of politeness. Well, read on.

Linebacker

lt remains the Malik Show at linebacker, and #46 remains on track to be this defense’s most crucial difference-maker. He’s nominally the Mike while Anthony Wheeler is listed as the Will, but Malik often finds himself in either a strong-side overhang role or lined up between the DT and DE on one side with Wheeler mirroring that position on the other. They’ll both have to fill a variety of roles this year, but don’t fret that the #FreeMalik campaign is dead because he’s nominally playing the same position as Steve Edmond. Malik should be improved-not-outstanding at meeting the guard in the hole, but his pass drops have improved dramatically and he remains a pure terror as a detached edge rusher.

The buzz about Anthony Wheeler was going strong in the Spring and hasn’t really abated. He’s packed on muscle and developed a newfound confidence in diagnosing and attacking runs between the tackles. His primary job was to offer enough head-knocking potential to give Jefferson more freedom of movement, and he looks to have met that brief. He’ll still be somewhat dependent on protection from the boys up front, but that’s true of just about every linebacker you can find. He’ll look like a different guy in the run game this season while also capably dropping back into hook zones.

Edwin Freeman remains a wheelsy, toolsy guy who’d be getting a lot more run if a guy with Top Fifteen Pick athleticism wasn’t sitting in front of him. Sorting out the LB depth chart is tricky since they still list a nominal Strongside Linebacker who’ll rarely see the field in the Land of the Spread. Freeman is probably your starting SLB, and it’s not out of the question that he’d be the first man up if either Malik or Wheeler went down. While his game is still more speed than power, he’s coming along the Wheeler Physicality Curve at a decent clip and figures to play 20+ snaps a game one way or the other.

Cam Townsend has added some good weight and continues to fly around - his path to significant playing time isn’t immediately clear, but he’s the kind of guy you could get creative with in some Dime-type looks given his elite wheels.

DeMarco Boyd just keeps on making plays - a guy who I’d ticketed for fullback a while back just keeps knocking guys on their back in practice. He’s likely the Longhorns’ most physical between-the-tackles run defender and also managed to bag himself a Pick Six in the final open practice. He’d be limited to a (traditional) MLB role and probably given the simplest of pass coverage assignments if pressed into duty this year, but he already presents a better run-game option than any of last year’s freshman LBs.

Erick Fowler looks to be starting life on the 40 as a Malik-style Mike. While the bulk of his high school highlights involved him raining down hell off the edge, he logged plenty of snaps inside as a senior as teams like LSU had requested to get a look at his between-the-tackles skills (the Bayou Bengals were reportedly recruiting him as an inside guy). He’s got the physicality and aggression to stand up against the interior run game while offering terrifying potential as an interior blitzer. More potential than Malik, if we’re being honest - #46 is evil off the edge but was all too content to hold up and play patty-cake with the guard on interior rushes where he lacked a clean lane to the QB. No such worries with Fowler, and there will also be plenty of chances for a nominal Mike to come off the edge. It also won’t hurt Fowler’s short-term development and long-term eligibility prospects to tuck himself securely under Malik’s wing.

Cornerback/Nickel

Holton Hill and Davante Davis remain the men on the outside, and while either is likely to have the better practice on any given day both dudes have burgeoning lockdown potential and the length to survive when singled up down the sideline. They’ll get beat - every corner gets beat sometimes - but mental busts like we saw against WVU last season should be lessened and their physical capability continues to grow.

Kris Boyd would be starting in a lot of places already, but the staff has elected to have him focus on outside corner rather than cross-training at nickel. His athleticism is off the charts but he’s still grasping some positional nuances, so it’s understandable that they don’t want to overload his plate just yet. Boyd has the skills to earn rotational snaps even if Davis and Hill are balling out, and he offers an insurance policy at the position that even Vern Schillinger would be proud of.

Sheroid Evans continues to have some rusty moments and get caught peeking in the backfield, but nobody’s running past him once he’s up to gear and he’s showing a Mykkele Thompson-esque senior year affinity for contact. Hie thee to California, find the biggest redwood you can and knock on that sumbitch before discussing an injury-free season for Evans, but if he’s good to go there aren’t four better #4 corners in the country.

P.J. Locke has remained the unchalleged #1 option at nickel corner since Spring Ball and hasn’t given the coaches any reason to question their decision. Even though he got cooked by Jerrod Heard on a 50-yard TD strike in Saturday’s scrimmage, his coverage has been all-in-all impressive at what can be the toughest coverage spot on the field. A rocked-up 205, Locke will also be looking to make it three straight years that the nickel spot knocks out an opposing QB on a Read Option keep to the field.

Perhaps the most interesting recent news in the secondary has been 5* freshman safety Brandon Jones cross-training at nickel. The staff obviously puts a premium on both physicality and cover skills at the position, so it speaks volumes to Jones’ feet that he’s getting work here (his physicality was never in doubt and was further reinforced by his Battle For The Belts wins this summer).

Antwaun Davis has bounced around a bit but has also gotten some work at backup nickel. It seems like he’s been recruited over at every likely starting spot, but he should provide quality depth.

Eric Cuffee and Chris Brown have shown reasonably well but figure to make their mark on special teams if at all this season.

Safety

As of now, Dylan Haines and Jason Hall still look like your starting safeties against ND. Both guys kind of are who they are at this stage of the game - it would be great if Hall in particular could recapture the aggression and movement skills that he seemed to lose after his midseason injury as a freshman, but there’s not a ton of indication that he’ll be that player again. Haines continues to get everyone lined up well, find himself in the right spot for INTs and find himself on the wrong end of the stick if he’s singled up with speed in space.

DeShon Elliott and Brandon Jones are pushing both guys, but with Jones cross-training at nickel we’re likely to see Elliott logging more snaps at safety over the course of the year. Strong has commented on Elliott’s physical ability as well as his need to play smart and keep everything in front of him. He’s a dream box safety with reasonable cover skills when he’s got his assignment down, and he’s likely to unseat Hall sooner rather than later though probably not by 9/4.

Strong and Bedford continue to find themselves in a bit of a Catch 22 at safety - their defensive concepts thrive when they can disguise coverages and get tricky post-snap, and it’s tough to do that without safeties who A) know what the hell they’re doing, B) can help make sure everybody else knows what they’re doing and C) show reasonable fluency playing a deep quarter, playing a deep half, playing a deep third, dropping down to serve as a force player against the run and maybe even singling up a slot. It’s been frustrating as hell waiting for guys with the physical tools to handle C) smarten up enough to manage A) and B) but by the second half of the season we may be closer than ever.

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