In the 2010 and 2011 classes, the Longhorns received commitments from five defensive tackles and a strong argument could be made that those five players represent five of the six or seven best interior defensive linemen in the state for those two classes. At one of the most difficult positions on the field to fill, Mike Tolleson and Will Muschamp have secured the position's future and, assuming Texas can avoid the excessive attrition the program's defensive tackles in the last several years, placed the 'Horns in a position to avoid what has become a tiresome annual rite.
For three years, hand-wringing about the defensive tackle position has been one of the major themes of the interminably long off-seasons. First, it was the departure of Derek Lokey and Frank Okam after the 2007 season, two longtime starters on the line that raised cause for concern. Into that void stepped Roy Miller, a role player to that point in his career, while Aaron Lewis spun down from defensive end to provide quality depth and experience.
So did Lamarr Houston and the 'Horns stoned most opposing rushing attacks (third in the country at just over three yards per carry) and led the country in sacks. Miller and Lewis departed following the 2008 season, leaving Houston, who struggled at times in adjusting to the speed closer to the football, to replace Miller's significant production and disruption, no small task.
Now, the story continues, as Houston has finally departed for the NFL after a sensational career in Austin, along with senior surprise Ben Alexander, strong and immovable against the power rushing attacks Texas faced last season.
So, once again, as college football teams do every season, the Longhorns will look to replace the production lost from the departed seniors. When asked about the importance of the position at the Big 12 Media Days, head coach Mack Brown did not hesitate to lay out what could become a dire situation:
It's our true key on defense. Kheeston Randall is here with us today. He's a junior. He needs to step up and play like Roy Miller and like Lamarr Houston from last year.
And then we've got numbers at that position, but we do not have quality experience. We have to look at a number of guys to see what fits. We can go to a three-four, we can move Sam
Acho in there. We'd rather not move Sam in. All of a sudden, you're looking at Calvin Howell, Tyrell Higgins, Kyle Kriegel, you're looking at freshmen. That's one of the keys for us to determine in preseason.
As Brown mentioned, like Miller and Houston before him, it's Randall's turn to take over the spotlight inside and turn in a dominant season.
If Randall is the expected linchpin, Sam Acho is the wildcard. In a bit of truth twisting, the Longhorns are claiming that Acho operated inside 40% of the time -- if anything, Acho simply played some 3-4 defensive end, but didn't spend any time further inside. That will change this season and the question is to what extent.
So despite all the effort and success the last four seasons in securing commitments from defensive tackles, the position continues to be an extremely difficult one at which to build depth. Departures like those of Michael Wilcoxon, Jarvis Humphrey, and, now, Derek Johnson, have sapped that depth created on those various Signing Days and left Texas with little experience. Redshirt freshman Calvin Howell's played only three games last season due to a serious concussion and time out of the program slowed down the development of junior Tyrell Higgins. So it goes, apparently, at Texas.
Virtually all hopes of reprising the stingy rush defense -- no. 1 in the nation at 2.21 ypc -- and interior push provided last year rest on the broad shoulders of the mammoth Kheeston Randall. Now capable of playing with steady, low pad level despite his 6-5 height, Randall has both the strength and the quickness to take on double teams lined up over or shaded on the center and still collapse the pocket on passing downs.
Of all the players on the team, with exception of Garrett Gilbert, Texas can least afford to lose Randall. The combination of the lack of experience and proven playmaking ability behind him makes him crucial to the middle of the Texas defensive line and an injury or off-field mistake would leave the 'Horns in an extremely precarious, and, perhaps untenable, situation.
When Mack Brown announced that Acho was spending most of his time practicing inside during the spring, it was a move made for two major reasons -- to push players like Howell to take their game to a higher level and because of Muschamp's preference for as much speed on the field as possible. Texas has insane depth at the defensive end position and little inside, so it made sense to work with Acho at defensive tackle, the sturdiest of the defensive ends.
Acho claimed at the Big 12 media days that he didn't add mass to make the transition, so the Texas coaches are clearly hoping that he won't have to play a significant number of rushing downs inside or slow his speed off the edge; the elder Acho ideally will play as a three technique in obvious passing situations in that attempt to put more pressure on the quarterback with speed inside.
These two players have the biggest discrepancy of all the defensive tackles between the pressure that is on them to contribute -- significant, because one of them will have to step up and log some serious snaps this season -- and their collective experience and past production, which is virtually nil. If neither player is able to provide quality play, the Longhorns could find themselves scrambling to cover up their deficiencies inside.
Entering his freshman season, there was some buzz that defensive tackle Calvin Howell had surpassed Jamarkus McFarland as a prospect. After suffering from a serious concussion in practice in the week before the Oklahoma game, Howell missed the rest of the season and received a medical redshirt. Like most young players, consistency will be the key for Howell and the Texas coaches are undoubtedly hoping, needing, him to take a big step this fall.
Higgins entered the program undersized at around 250 pounds and ended up leaving for some time to due to personal reasons. He's now a non-scholarship player and has bulked up to around 280 pounds, still on the small side for a defensive tackle, but much closer to an adequate mass to keep from being blown off the ball consistently simply due to his size.
The Young Spin-downs
As mentioned above, Texas plugged leaks in the middle of the defense in the past by spinning defensive ends inside, in part due to pure need and in part to get more speed on the field in the pass-happy Big 12. However, players like Aaron Lewis and Lamarr Houston were major members of the rotation at defensive end before sliding inside. The two newest spin downs, Tevin Mims and Kyle Kriegel, both entering their second year in the program, don't have that luxury, with Kriegel having redshirted and Mims only receiving spot action late in blowouts last season.
For both players, the lack of time in the Texas strength and conditioning program is a major impediment -- the fact is that neither player has the strength or mass to hold up on the inside at this point, though Mims is probably farther along in his development and could contribute at defensive end in both the 4-3 and 3-4 and perhaps as a situational pass rusher as a three technique, but is probably another year from contributing much in the rotation. Kriegel is considered a longer-term project.
Unless Howell has made a major leap this summer and curbs his appetite for Robert Killebrew-style penalties or Higgins suddenly shows the strength to hold his position, contributions from Ashton Dorsey or Taylor Bible may become necessary.
Bible probably ate himself out his best chance to contribute as a freshman following surgery last summer and still has to regain his conditioning to become the quick and disruptive force he was as a junior. It's easy to write off the young defensive tackle until he gets his conditioning to a level where he can not only compete hard for a handful of snaps at a time, but also regain the quickness he had clearly lost by the Under Armour All-American game. While it's perhaps harsh to write off any possible contributions for him before he's even participated in a practice at Texas, it's equally disappointing that Bible allowed himself to put on so much weight last summer.
Dorsey reportedly is carrying some bad weight as well, but not to the extent of Bible and he has a solid combination. The problem is it's such a major adjustment for defensive tackles and it's so much more common for lapses in technique to define the play of a freshman defensive tackle than battles won in the trenches overcoming raw technique with sheer athleticism.
So as much as Dorsey has the quickness to shoot gaps and the motor to pursue plays, until he learns to play with better pad level and consistently get a violent punch with his hands, he's going to have as many negative plays as positive and Texas coaches probably cannot expect to get many quality snaps from either freshman this season and would probably prefer not to have them pressed into early action.
The most obvious solution for Will Muschamp if Calvin Howell or Tyrell Higgins fail to earn significant playing time is to play more often with three down linemen. Randall has already shown the ability to hold up against double teams and more 3-4. The undersized defensive tackles in the group could perhaps make greater contributions playing as five techniques than at the three tech, encouraging Muschamp to experience with different formations along the line.
Playing more often with three down linemen means more pressure on edge players like Alex Okafor or Dravannti Johnson to step into a role of playing the run physically along the line, while still getting to the quarterback from the Buck position made popular the last two seasons by Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle.
Struggles from the interior defensive line will force the linebackers to come downhill more aggressively and effectively and hit and separate against bigger offensive linemen. It's a tough task, but one that could become necessary if Randall fails to live up to expectations or gets injured because the Longhorns just don't have anyone behind Randall who is guaranteed to be able to take on double teams effectively -- in that sense, Texas will probably miss the departed Ben Alexander more than anyone could have expected when he entered his senior season last fall.
Overall, Muschamp will probably be able to wring another strong year out of this group despite being slightly undermanned (but really, what team in college isn't inside?) as long as Randall can stay healthy and whoever plays next to Randall can help plug the middle to put opponents into the passing situations in which Acho can excel. During spring practice, Muschamp spent some time experimenting with stand-up rushers on either side of the formation. The utility of that particular scheme is highly in question when facing strong rushing teams, as the Texas rushing offense gashed that unit in practice.
Several years of examination on the subject only resulted in strong performances on the field, so it's easy to say that this season will be the same. However, the players who stepped up in the past had quality experience and had made some plays before stepping into larger roles. This year, besides Randall there just isn't anyone on the inside who has done it on the field in college and that's a concern that hasn't been there to the same extent the last two seasons. This could well be real-er, folks. Dammit, now I sound like Chip Brown. Or maybe it won't and Muschamp will find ways to camoflouge whatever weaknesses present themselves.