Coach Boom not worried about the defensive tackles. Ask any Texas fan about their biggest concern this season and you are likely to receive one of two responses: finding a running back or depth at the defensive tackle position. For your humble scribe, the latter is a much bigger concern, especially given the recent departures of Michael Wilcoxin and Jarvis Humphrey due to medical problems. Will Muschamp, however, does not sound concerned, mentioning yesterday that he is not planning on moving any other players to defensive tackle. Of course, that might be because there aren't really any candidates like Lamarr Houston to spin down this year, but that's another story. In the same statement mentioned above, Muschamp says that he currently has a defensive tackle rotation of six, naming Houston, Kheeston Randall, walk-on Tyrell Higgins, Derek Johnson, Calvin Howell, and Ben Alexander.
Randall and Alexander both need to step up their play, as Randall seeks to prove that he can contribute on the college level and Alexander tries to prove that he is more than just a space-eater on running downs. The wild card in all of this is Higgins, the former scholarship player who left the program for some time before returning as a walk-on (he could be placed on scholarship again in the fall). Known as a 260-pound project when he committed with the 2007 class, Higgins is now up to 280 pounds. A defensive end in high school, Higgins did use his hands well, but needed to work on his leverage and explosiveness -- any contributions from him this year are probably a major bonus, even if he just takes up space and holds his ground.
Of the freshmen, Johnson is probably more physically ready to play, but Howell has better technique and explosiveness. Muschamp clearly plans on using both of them early in the season in an attempt to build depth and discover how much they are capable of contributing. However, Coach Boom also realizes how difficult it is to play the position at such a young age:
It's tough. I always feel like playing as a freshman is harder by position when you get closer to the ball, because it happens faster. The bodies are bigger. When you're on the perimeter, as a wide out or a corner, a lot of times your athleticism can take over. The ball is in the air a little longer and you have a chance to really react and let your athleticism take over as opposed to instinctively playing the game. An inside player, those are tough to play as freshmen, but we're going to do it. Kheeston (Randall) played last year, and I thought played pretty well. We're going to play the best players and if it means it's a freshman, we're going to do it.
Last season, Lamarr Houston alluded to the same type of problems that Muschamp mentioned during his first year in the middle of the defensive line. For Johnson, the speed of the game inside may be a problem given that he played defensive end at a small high school for some unknown reason. Mike Tolleson faces a major challenge to develop any type of technique with Johnson, otherwise he's going to get blown off the ball every play the same way that a two-star offensive lineman was able to knock him down in high school.
Calvin Howell may be a better bet. He doesn't have the bulk to play nose tackle and take on double teams, but he could be effective as a three-technique defensive tackle, particularly in passing situations, when he can use his quickness to be disruptive. The good news is that he held up well in the Army game, never looking overmatched and always maintaining his position.
That phrase, "maintaining position," may be the catch phrase for the Longhorn defensive tackles not named Lamarr Houston this season. And even Houston faces questions about his ability to play nose tackle. An improved secondary and experienced linebacking corps should give the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback this season, so hopefully the defensive tackles just need to hold their own and limit the running game, while taking enough pressure off of Sergio Kindle and the other defensive ends to allow them to get to the quarterback.
More moves for the Predator? Even though not everyone buys into a monster season for Sergio Kindle (yes, there are a few haters out there), projecting Kindle to improve with a full off-season to add some muscle assumes the development of some pass-rushing moves other than speed to power, the primary technique Muschamp teaches. The Texas defensive coordinator has a little different perspective about what Kindle needs to work on:
Well I think more than anything, just instincts in the run game with his hand in the dirt. And then from a pass rush standpoint, have a little bit more of a repertoire as far as changing things up and not just being a speed rusher converting to power, having to counter off of that. You know I learned a lot from Jason Taylor. He didn't have a whole bunch of moves, but he was really good at what he did. We've tried to really work on building on the things he does so well. He's got great initial quickness and take off early in the down, convert that to power, and work in a counter from that. Really that's what we've tried to hone in on just getting really good at those things.
As to Muschamp's first point, Kindle does need to work on defending the running game. Mostly used as a situational pass rusher last season, Kindle could just head to the quarterback without worrying about the running game. This season, as he plays defensive end all three downs, he will have to read and react to running plays instead of just pinning his ears back, something Brian Orakpo actually did quite well last season despite his impressive number of sacks.
Muschamp's second point is that Kindle doesn't have to learn four or five different pass-rushing moves to be effective. Even against the best offensive linemen on Sundays, Jason Taylor doesn't have to use a great variety of moves. If Kindle fails to develop a counter move, then he could have a difficult time this season, making the development of his counter one of the most important storylines of the fall. What that counter ends up being will end up being much less important than actually having one.
Mack and Boom talk leadership. Not only were Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller great players on the field, but they were also the unquestioned leaders of the defense as well. Seriously, who would want to get on the bad side of those guys? Miller reportedly threatened to tear anyone apart who didn't play hard during the Fiesta Bowl. Considering every Longhorn retained all their appendages after the game, it's safe to say he didn't have ot fullfill his threat.
One of the major concerns heading into this season revolves around developing leadership on the defensive side of the ball. The three major candidates -- Sergio Kindle, Roddrick Muckelroy, and Lamarr Houston -- are all known as lead-by-example types, in addition to being generally soft-spoken. In that sense, Kindle's fiery pre-game speech before playing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last season was something of an anomaly for him.
For Will Muschamp, developing leadership is pretty simple:
I think we've kind of defined some things for the players. Never having a bad day, and being very inclusive within the team, including everybody in what we're trying to do, learn from mistakes, move forward with mistakes, as long as we get enough guys buying into that. You generally always have a lot of guys that are going to work hard on your football team, and you have a lot of guys on the fence, and we've just got to pull those guys off the fence to the right side, and make them buy into the work ethic, the blue collar attitude, the relentless effort that we need to play with on defense, and that's what we're trying to do.
Instead of worrying about individuals stepping up and taking over that role, Muschamp believes that the attitude the coaching staff instills in the players makes all the difference. Through his own intensity and the intensity of other coaches like Duane Akina, Mushamp believes that once the player buy into that lunchpail philosophy, the leadership will happen naturally.
For Mack Brown, team-building is now a larger priority than it ever has been before in an attempt to make the rather nebulous concept of leadership more concrete for the players:
We've done a lot of the team building stuff and we'll continue to do that. We did bring a guest speaker in and we've given them some books to read. Our coaches and staff are being taught more about leadership. We were on the plane going to Big 12 media days, and I saw Jordan [Shipley] reading the book, which I thought was a very positive thing that he was taking it seriously...So I think just the fact that we're talking about it, teaching it and studying it has helped us all. Our staff is working in that field and we think we can help our players with that instead of just sitting around trying to find it. We're making sure we'll always have it because we are developing it.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the new team-building work may be the younger players, particularly safeties Blake Gideon and Earl Thomas, both mentioned by Brown in his first interview of the fall. Last season made apparent Gideon's leadership skills at a young age, as he directed traffic in the secondary, often making sure that Thomas knew his assignment. As he becomes more comfortable asserting himself with the rest of the team, Gideon could become even more of a leader in the secondary, as could Thomas as he starts to make more game-changing plays. Brown also cited Muckelroy as a player who stepped up during the spring.
In some ways, if the rest of the defense doesn't step up to police itself, more responsbility may fall on Muschamp, a task he no doubt will not shirk, and Colt McCoy, the unquestioned leader of the team as a whole. In the end, there's simply too much on the line this season for the veteran players to allow anyone to take plays off or get themselves into major trouble and there is enough depth at most of the positions for the coaches to make changes if someone isn't playing hard enough or not performing.
Longhorns still in running for Christmas. With Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, DeAndre Daniels, and Myck Kabongo already on board with the 2011 basketball class, Rick Barnes and his staff continue to look for a back-to-the-basket compliment to the bevy of talented guards and wings already committed. One of the top targets is one of the best players in the class and the top center, Rakeem Christmas. Checking in at 6-9 and 210 pounds, Christmas might compare well to LaMarcus Aldridge with a less-developed jump shot, as he runs the court well, plays with a big-time motor, rebounds the ball well on both ends of the floor, and blocks shots as a help defender.
Christmas recently trimmed his list of schools to eight ($): Baylor, Florida, Georgetown, Indiana, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and Villanova. The notable absence from this list is Kentucky, thought to be a frontrunner early in the process -- apparently Worldwide Wes didn't have a chance to sink his claws into Christmas before he narrowed his list. A decision probably won't be fortcoming soon, as Christmas plans on focusing on his high school season and his academics in the fall, rather than traveling around the country taking visits. It might not be until next fall that Christmas has the opportunity to take official visits and while Texas stands a solid chance to receive an official visit, the Longhorns are probably longshots to land Christmas until he does make it onto campus. However, the good news is that extremely able recruiter Russ Springmann is leading the pursuit of Christmas and the star shot-blocker is friends with Tristan Thompson, which may impact his decision.
Lamb also looking to trim list. Few players in the country raised their stock more during the July evaluation period than Jeremy Lamb. In fact, Lamb made Rival's list of nine players ($) who took their game to another level last month. His father spoke with Scout about his son's strengths on the court ($):
His strength is the ability to be versatile. He can shoot the long ball, has a mid-range game and can get to the rim and score or create for his teammates. We have some schools looking at him at point guard only and some as a shooting guard.
Once on the recruiting radar of programs like Georgia State and UNC-Greensboro, Lamb now has more than 30 offers from some of the top programs in the country. Though Lamb has not narrowed his list as Christmas has, despite being a member of the 2010 class, the Georgia product is working to decide where he will take his official visits in the fall. His father says that the Longhorns are recruiting his son "hard" and are still in consideration. Given the recent nature of most of the interest in Lamb, handicapping his recuirtment is almost impossible at this point.
[Update]: Rivals reports ($) that Lamb will visit UConn and is expected to visit Texas as well.