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Shooting From the Hip: Defensive Depth Chart

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NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we took a shot at predicting the Longhorns’ offensive depth chart coming out of Fall Camp, and today it’s the defense’s turn.

Nose Tackle

1. Poona Ford

2. Gerald Wilbon

3. Tope Imade

4. Chris Daniels

Poona Ford has met the staff’s high expectations as a disruptive gap-shooting terror at the nose and has also shown an improved ability to stand strong against base blocks and double teams. His play – and health – have been great news at a position where there’s not a solid 40-snap answer waiting in the wings. Of the Remade Body Trio behind him, Gerald Wilbon has improved his quickness and seems ticketed for 10-15 snaps out of the gate while Tope Imade’s slimmed-down frame hasn’t prevented him from dropping an effective anchor at times. Chris Daniels’ program buy-in looked evident from his own remade physique, but it hasn’t translated to much on-field production as yet.

Defensive Tackle

1. Chris Nelson

2. Taquon Graham

3. Jamari Chisholm

4. D’Andre Christmas

Chris Nelson has had a solid camp as the defensive front’s primary run-stuffer, and the emergence of true freshman Taquon Graham has been a welcome surprise for a thin defensive front. Graham was the first freshman to drop the “rookie red stripe” from his helmet, and his ability to cause trouble in gaps at a rocked-up 280 pounds will make him a crucial piece of the rotation. Jamari Chisholm should at least provide emergency depth, and news has been sparse on D’Andre Christmas.

Defensive End

1. Malcolm Roach

2. Charles Omenihu

3. Max Cummins (RS)

Texas looks to have dodged a bullet with Roach’s toe injury as he’s shed his boot and ready to return to action. In his absence Charles Omenihu has demonstrated the strong play that we predicted in this season’s Thinking Texas Football, with his remade frame playing up in a big way when it’s time to hold up against the run. The loss of Andrew Fitzgerald to what sounds like a broken leg messes up depth a bit, but freshman Max Cummins still feels likelier to shirt than not.

B-Backer

1. Naashon Hughes

2. Jeffrey McCulloch

3. Marqez Bimage (RS)

While Naashon Hughes’ emergence into a feared edge rusher looks to be on hold for a fourth straight season, the senior has done enough in the run game and with his coverage drops to hold on to the starting role. Todd Orlando believes in stopping the run first and foremost and then turning loose sub-package attacks once the O is backed up, so Hughes is a good bet to hold on to this role as long as he’s holding up his end of the bargain as an edge-setter. The Shark has been the team’s most effective corner-turning edge rusher and will get plenty of run on 3rd downs – earning more time will depend on his own physicality when it’s ground-and-pound time. True freshman Marqez Bimage has shown some pass rush skills of his own but figures to shirt.

Mac Linebacker

1. Anthony Wheeler

2. Breckyn Hager

3. Edwin Freeman

4. DeMarco Boyd

While he’s not a finished product, some encouraging news out of camp has Anthony Wheeler looking much improved when taking on the dirty-work aspects that the position requires – getting downhill fast, taking on blocks with authority and keeping a shoulder free to shut down gaps. He’s not Ray Lewis just yet, but with solid protection from the guys up front he may well deliver the kind of competent tackle-to-tackle tackling that’s been sorely lacking on the 40 of late.

Breckyn Hager has stuck at second-team Mac rather than kicking over to B-Backer but it doesn’t sound like he’s mounted a serious challenge to Wheeler for starter’s reps. Early on he’s likely to see the most action as a sub-package rusher.

Edwin Freeman’s move to Mac was partly clearing room for Gary Johnson and partly insurance if Wheeler completely failed to launch – with Wheeler playing well he’s been blocked for playing time but could also find himself deployed in a few sub-package roles.

DeMarco Boyd remains a dedicated thumper but he’s fighting a real athletic deficit compared to the guys in front of him.

Rover Linebacker

1. Malik Jefferson

2. Gary Johnson

3. Cameron Townsend

There’s been plenty of buzz building about Gary Johnson’s heat-seeking missile approach to the position, but thusfar no real talk of him supplanting Malik Jefferson. There hasn’t been a ton of news about Jefferson in particular coming out of camp, good or bad – he’ll probably have to prove his progress in all-around linebacking evolution once the lights come on in September. Cam Townsend has been quiet – should Malik and Johnson be out of action, you’d likely see Edwin Freeman jumping over to Rover.

Field Corner

1. Holton Hill

2. Davante Davis

3. Donovan Duvernay

4. Kobe Boyce (RS)

It’s nice when you hold a Come to Jesus meeting with a dude and he actually comes to Jesus. That was the outcome of an early sitdown between Tom Herman and Holton Hill, and Hill has built on a strong Spring to solidify his role on the outside and move towards the NFL trajectory that he was on following his Freshman season. Davante Davis had a few up and down moments, but he’s come on of late and has been earning some reps with the 1’s in the past couple of days. It still feels like safety might be his long-term ceiling, but this season he’ll be the first man off the bench at corner. He’s another guy back on the right track following The Great Install Fiasco of 2016.

Donovan Duvernay is athletically limited compared to his peers but continues to progress towards serviceable reserve status. The staff thinks Boyce will be a player in time, but he needs to get stronger – it’s not insane to think that he could see the field at some point this season, but he’s more than likely destined for a shirt.

Boundary Corner

1. Kris Boyd

2. John Bonney

3. Josh Thompson

4. Eric Cuffee

Kris Boyd looks to have largely purged the Chykie-itis and ill-timed Tweeting from his system and is ready to establish himself as one of the conference’s best corners. He’s the best athlete in a secondary that’s full of them. John Bonney has worked more with the corners than the safeties in camp – Davante Davis is probably your first man off the bench if either of Boyd or Holton Hill go down, but Bonney stands ready to provide a steady presence if needed.

Josh Thompson was having an impressive camp and getting plenty of run with the 2’s prior to getting nicked up and missing the second scrimmage. He’ll see action this season and it doesn’t sound like the staff will hesitate to plug him in if Bonney is needed elsewhere. Cuffee has been quiet.

Nickel Corner/P-Backer

1. P.J. Locke

2. Antwaun Davis

There hasn’t been a ton of headlines on Locke coming out of camp, but the word is that he’s quietly taken care of business at a high level all August. If he’s more at parity with other members of the secondary at this point it’s due to guys like Boyd, Hill and DeShon Elliott raising their game throughout camp. Antwaun Davis continues to look good on the hoof and can be a physical presence on blitzes and turning edge runs inside, but his cover skills remain behind younger players both inside and out.

Strong Safety

1. Brandon Jones

2. Jason Hall

3. Chris Brown

Jones has had a few coverage bonks in camp and missed a couple of sessions with a neck strain, but it doesn’t sound like he’s been seriously challenged for the starting strong safety role. His ability to handle the mental demands of the role following limited action in 2016 is great news. The defense has had the better of things during the Longhorns’ scrimmages this August, and it sounds like a lot of that has been due to Todd Orlando doing some late, unpredictable spins into single-high coverage and firing blitzes from all angles. And you’ve got a lot more freedom to do THAT when you’ve got a pair of versatile safeties who can each handle a center field role and also drop down into the box to stuff the run, handle an H-back or man up a slot receiver behind a nickel blitz. Jason Hall can play an important box enforcer role (and looks to be fully recovered from his early-camp concussion) but Jones can key some transformative versatility when he brings all his skills to bear.

Chris Brown has earned plenty of praise during camp and will earn reps one way or another this season. The staff considered kicking him over to corner at one point but he looks to be sticking at safety for now – a move to nickel next offseason wouldn’t be surprising, and could end up being mandatory if P.J. Locke leaves early.

Free Safety

1. DeShon Elliott

2. John Bonney

3. Jamarquis Durst

4. Montrell Estell (RS)

The Kraken is ready to be unleashed – DeShon Elliott had as good a Fall Camp as any defender in Burnt Orange. By all reports he’s married his high-end physical skills with a strong understanding of the various roles and responsibilities that Todd Orlando lays on his safeties. In the immortal words of Mickey Goldmill, that makes him a very dangerous person.

John Bonney figures to be the second man off the bench if Texas needs a fill-in at corner and the first call at free safety. He’s been a steady presence wherever he’s filled in.

There hasn’t been much word on Jamarquis Durst, and while Montrell Estell’s speed and center field range have been as advertised he’ll be a good bet to shirt and learn this season.

The Bottom Line

The zero-sum nature of camp ball always makes it tough to celebrate without attaching a corresponding fret, but the all-around reports of the defense’s strong play feel like good news at this stage of the game. Orlando looks capable of scheming his way to strong spread run defense, and the secondary has been handling multiple coverages to stay a step ahead of the offense as a unit. Depth is still tetchy at a couple of spots, but at least tentative good news at Mac linebacker and some functional depth behind the D-line starters are welcome.

Todd Orlando has earned Tom Herman’s trust, and we’re barely a fortnight away from seeing what his boys can do under the scorching sun of an absurd 11am kickoff bright lights.