In Spring, a young man’s thoughts turn to love.
In the dog days of Summer, they turn to Fall, and to what his beloved football team figures to get up to. Dog days and depth chart musings were naturally made for one another, so here’s a crack at what the Longhorn defensive depth chart figures to look like once football is in full swing this Fall (with starters closest to the position image):
That’s not likely to match the first official depth chart we’ll see out of Bellmont later this month, but rather how things could shake out as competition unfolds throughout August and into live action.
Below is a breakdown of each position in Todd Orlando’s D, along with some excerpts from this year’s Thinking Texas Football for some color on who we’re slotting where and why:
Nose Tackle (NT)
Aligning head up over the center, the nose in Todd Orlando’s system is much more a penetrating disruptor than space-eating anchor. Superfreak freshman Ed Oliver spent most of his snaps causing havoc at nose for Orlando in Houston last season.
Starter: Poona Ford
The Poonatrator has started 17 games for the Longhorns and his senior season should be his best in the Burnt Orange. Ford has excellent “get off” and an oft-explosive first step, and despite a stubby build his freakishly long wingspan has helped him to separate from blockers as he has gained strength and technique.
Give Us 15 Good Snaps: D’Andre Christmas
Christmas has unusual natural quickness and the arm length that the coaches value inside, but he lacks power and a conditioning base as the injuries that hamstrung his development also led to bad body composition.
We’re From Missouri: Chris Daniels
Chris Daniels spattered his redshirt with gravy as he spent his first season and the transitional period between coaching staffs to gorge himself, forcing the coaches to weigh him on an industrial scale typically reserved for darted rhinos and Oklahoma fans at the State Fair Snickers fry.
Unfortunately Poached TO Missouri: Jordan Elliott
Defensive Tackle (DT)
When Texas is in its base D there’s not a ton of difference between the two 4i spots (DT and DE) as both line up on the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle, though DT tends to align to the boundary with the B-backer outside him. In Orlando’s 2-4-5 look, the DT keeps his hand on the ground over the guard while the defensive end stands up opposite the B-backer. Length, agility and disruption are valued here. While Texas won’t have a true Orlando prototype, power and punch can do in a pinch.
Starter: Chris Nelson
Nelson lacks the length that the staff prefers, but they love one of his primary strengths: the ability to punch, shock and walk back an offensive linemen into a ballcarrier.
Give Us 15 Good Snaps: Gerald Wilbon
Texas needs Wilbon to spell Ford and Nelson inside and while he shares their compact frames and has a solid ability to anchor inside, he hasn't yet evidenced their ability. If Gerald emerges from his summer cocoon a very poor man’s Casey Hampton, Longhorn fans should rejoice. If he looks like Don Ameche or Wilford Brimley, be less excited.
We’re From Missouri: Jamari Chisolm
Jamari Chisholm will provide depth if he can make it into Texas from JUCO.
Grab A Shirt And A Key to the Weight Room: Max Cummins
Defensive End (DE)
The other 4i spot also asks for length and disruption while carrying a bit more mobility, lining up opposite the B-Backer for a bookend pass rush and standing up in the 2-4-5 alignment.
Starter: Malcolm Roach
The raw, bouncy bear from Louisiana is mobile, violent, has a high work capacity and arrives at the football in an extremely bad mood. He’s country strong with powerful hands and naturally explosive hips that allow him to play inside while remaining athletic enough to run the arc to the quarterback or walk down a running back in the flat.
Give Us 30 Good Snaps Between Here And DT: Charles Omenihu
Despite missing out on the redshirt that he needed, Omenihu is now a 270 pound bodied-up condor with an ideal wingspan, deceptive quickness and a still-developing lower body base. He may also be the most important reserve on the entire defense as the paucity of big bodies inside could turn him into a de facto starter who earns fifty snaps per game spelling multiple positions.
Terrorize San Jose State In the Fourth Quarter: Andrew Fitzgerald
He fits many of the requirements that the coaches are looking for in their brand of defensive end and he has flashed ability in practice, but Fitzgerald needs to get stronger to be able to hold up on the field.
Grab A Shirt And A Key to the Weight Room: Taquon Graham
A stand-up edge-rushing position, Orlando’s B-Backer shares some similarities with Charlie Strong’s Fox rusher role in that he’s also tasked with setting a solid edge on outside runs and dropping off into boundary coverage.
Starter: Jeffrey McCulloch
McCulloch had no idea what he was doing, but he did it full speed and knocked around some opponents. He’s a strong, thickly built athletic player with the ideal physical dimensions to hold up at the B-backer position and he evidenced a little pass rushing ability with a straight-up sack against Connor Williams in the Spring game and the makings of a nasty spin move.
Mono-Task Edge Assaulter: Breckyn Hager
It remains to be seen what Hager’s interior linebacking soft skills are like when he’s not stunting, but it’s a reasonable guess that his father - the leading tackler in Longhorn history - may have a few tips to impart. If Hager doesn’t win the starting job at middle linebacker, don’t be surprised to see the staff pit him against Hughes and McCulloch for the B-backer job.
15-20 Snaps of Concentrated Senior Leadership: Naashon Hughes
Like Walter Sobchak, Naashon doesn’t roll on Shabbas - when Saturday arrives, the game day spotlight burns Hughes like a freckled Irishman in the Seychelles. Bewitching potential has earned him 26 career starts over his Longhorn career, but he’s been removed from his starting role at some point every season. The 5th year senior must show more physicality at the point of attack, assertiveness and fire.
The weak side linebacking role in Orlando’s system is primarily employed as a blitzer/coverage hybrid who is largely protected from blockers and has a great deal of opportunity for opportunistic playmaking. The ideal Rover is cat quick and versatile enough to disrupt on blitzes, pursue enthusiastically against the run, or nimbly lock down an area in coverage with active feet and his head on a swivel. While designed for a guy with legs, though, no linebacking position goes without knocking heads and neither Orlando nor Herman himself will put up with a patty-cake play style here.
Starter: Malik Jefferson
Miscast at middle linebacker last season, Malik made several jaw-dropping athletic plays while also earning multiple facepalm-worthy game grades. In his new Rover responsibility, Jefferson has a job that suits his skill set. Placed in space where he has a good view of the action, he’ll be able to blitz, cover or defend the run with the advantage of distance and perspective. If Jefferson stops getting frozen by over-thinking and simply lets it go in the newfound simplicity of his role, he can be a game changer.
15 Snaps And More If Malik Doesn’t Take On Guards Like He Means It: Edwin Freeman
Once a former safety learning to play linebacker, Freeman is now a linebacker that will get to play more like a safety. Like Jefferson, he can get lost in traffic but he has good overall athleticism and dexterity. He will back up Malik at Rover, where he can better flourish in a scheme that will validate his surname.
Emergency Depth: Cameron Townsend
Cam is in a jam - namely, a logjam behind more talented players.
Mac Backer (Mb)
The fundamental role of this athlete hasn’t changed that much since the days of Tommy Nobis. He must be a sure tackler, an aggressive striker and a purposeful blitzer. The Mac backer doesn’t have to be big, but he’d better be angry with the instincts to play downhill, through a blocker’s shoulder and into the ball carrier.
Starter If He Adds 20 Linebacking IQ Points: Anthony Wheeler
Wheeler has more than enough physical ability and work ethic to win and hold the job, but he has yet to demonstrate consistent fundamentals. Orlando’s pure teaching ability comes highly regarded, and Wheeler will serve as an excellent test case.
Starter if He Adds 10 Pounds And Pounds The Playbook: Gary Johnson
Gary Johnson arrives this summer with a significant amount of hype and JUCO film that suggests the Longhorns are getting a cheetah with a nose for the ball. If he can build his body up to a jaguar, Johnson will push for a starting job at middle linebacker or Rover. He’s behind the curve schematically and will need to be a quick study.
Backup Bludgeon: DeMarco Boyd
DeMarco Boyd was a staff favorite last year while redshirting, but a new staff means new eyes and Orlando has a vision for better size and speed at middle linebacker. Boyd is a relentless fighter who will do everything in his power to change that perception.
Field Corner (FC)
Cornerbacks in this defense must be swivel-hipped and aggressive with long arms and very short memories. Size is helpful for disrupting releases at the line and rerouting receivers towards help and while they won’t be on true island coverage too often, they must possess the competitiveness to welcome that challenge.
Starter: Holton Hill
Hill put together a fine Spring and has discovered a newfound urgency heading into his junior season. An urgency likely informed by finding out what a NFL paycheck looks like compared to working the swing shift at Cinnabon. Hill possesses unique skill for a player his size and he’s a prototypical NFL cornerback.
20 Snaps If His Head’s On Straight: Davante Davis
Davis regressed as much as any player on the defense last season - which is a significant statement - and was banished to the bench after starting the first four games. Davis lacks recovery speed and a larger awareness of his role in the defense, but he’s a striker with fantastic length and fine ball instincts.
Learning the Ropes: Donovan Duvernay
Donovan Duvernay is an undersized cornerback who, while lacking his brother Devin’s mastery of time and space, has made a favorable impression with his effort and coachable nature.
Hopefully Redshirting: Kobe Boyce
Boundary Corner (BC)
What’s true for the field corner is mostly true on the boundary in this system, though the guy on the boundary side is more likely to find himself locked up in true one on one coverage as safety help ranges to the field.
Starter: Kris Boyd
Kris is slated to start after a productive Spring and the simplicity of man-heavy coverage assignments seem to have unlocked the best version of the Gilmer product. Boyd, like his counterpart Hill, still has a lot to prove under live fire, but he looks like an athlete reborn.
Stay Healthy, Kris: Eric Cuffee
Eric Cuffee was Collin Johnson’s permanent posterizee in the Spring game and looked generally unready for prime time. In fairness to the redshirt freshman, Johnson will make a lot of cornerbacks look like a gawking onlooker at a David Blaine street magic performance, but we expect Cuffee to be passed by the 2017 and 2018 classes.
Hopefully Redshirting, But Snaps Wouldn’t Be Shocking: Josh Thompson
We liked Thompson as a junior because his film showed a heady, competitive, physical player who played the game fast and recklessly, and we liked him even more as a senior as he kept those attributes while sporting a noticeably bigger body and quicker first step. Thompson feels like a typical Beast Texas late bloomer.
Nickel is a demanding role in Todd Orlando’s defense, and the Big XII conference as a whole is a crucible for slot defenders. Asked to man up with a speedy slot on one play and out-muscle a flexed-out tight end to set an edge in the run game the next, nickel corners need a unique combination of size, speed and savvy. Fortunately, the Longhorns figure to roll out one of the nation’s best.
Starter And Possible Secondary MVP: P.J. Locke
PJ Locke is a surer breakout bet than a sailor with a latex allergy in a Caracas brothel. The versatile nickel/safety is smart as a whip, has the work ethic of a longshoreman, is athletic enough to play man coverage on slot receivers and tough enough to hold the edge against a physical running game.
Rocked-Up Slot Blitzer: Antwaun Davis
Somehow, the strongest and fastest member of the secondary is also arguably its least instinctive. Davis a good teammate and hard worker, but he lacks feel for the ball in the air, is tight out of breaks and struggles to keep eye discipline. He’ll back up PJ Locke at nickel.
Learn Now, Lead Later: Chris Brown
Chris Brown is a ferocious competitor who will bring the wood and keeps plenty of it on his shoulder in the form of chips. He has underrated awareness in the passing game and has natural instincts that can’t be taught, and he’ll steal snaps if he can demonstrate more pure coverage ability.
Strong Safety (SS)
Safety is the prestige position that ties this defense together. No defensive player will have more asked of them and no one will line up in as many places. If cornerbacks are afforded the blinders of singular focus, the safeties in Orlando’s defense must be able to play fast with eyes wide open. The strong safety can ideally handle multiple tasks, but will spend most of his time walking up next to the B-backer and Rover to threaten blitzes, outnumber the run, or confuse a quick route.
Starting If He Sponges From Craig Naivar: Brandon Jones
Jones is still adjusting to the speed and decisiveness required in the college game, but he has the tools to perform as a three tool safety who can support against the run, play man coverage or range deep. Coaches often opt for experience over potential given what a blown coverage yields against spread offenses, but Jones has upside worth chasing and his ability to man up a slot receiver behind a P.J. Locke blitz can add major diversity to Orlando’s attack.
Starting if Jones DOESN’T Sponge From Craig Naivar: Jason Hall
Limited in coverage by average speed, Hall’s role won’t be to shut down receivers one-on-one. The coaches value his sure tackling and maturity and believe he can be a stabilizing force for the Longhorn defense, but a Spring practice hamstring tear was a serious setback. Jason will need to demonstrate full recovery and show that his starting skins on the wall offer a better package than Brandon Jones’ overall athleticism.
Free Safety (FS)
Job One for the free safety is controlling the back end with the range and instincts to do an Earl Thomas impression. If multiple safeties can be task-versatile with the Free dropping down to the boundary and the Strong rolling back to center field, the Longhorns defense is cooking with gas. That versatility will allow the defense to be simple, but look complex from under opposing center.
Starter: DeShon Elliott
While Elliott’s primary forte is perceived as punishing ball carriers and receivers after the catch, his overall athleticism checks out and he’s capable of playing single high coverage, erasing ground laterally and sealing off the back end. He ranges well for his size and has shown a solid ability to attack shorter routes out of a dead stop or back pedal.
Senior Duct Tape: John Bonney
John Bonney is a versatile jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none athlete who has impressed the staff with his offseason dedication in the weight room, classroom and as a team leader. Bonney doesn’t have the talent of his primary rivals for the starting job at safety, but he can be a very useful reserve and a significant stabilizing force who could earn snaps if the starters don’t perform.
Grab A Shirt And A Key to the Weight Room: Montrell Estell