The good news for the defensive tackle position? It's not the tight end position. Since the nasty injury to Blaine Irby in 2008, the Longhorns have struggled to field anything remotely competent at a position snakebite by injuries.
The attrition at defensive tackle hasn't involved gruesomely shredded knee ligaments, but medical considerations have sapped depth there -- Jarvis Humphrey had to quit football with his kidney condition after only a season, Michael Wilcoxon quit as well, and Calvin Howell lost a season to concussions. Kyle Kriegel moved to offense. Quincy Russell couldn't qualify. All three of the members of the 2010 recruiting class showed up to camp overweight last fall, having apparently done nothing but eat during the summer. Jeff Madden's strength and conditioning program, everyone! No real trends there, except that things haven't worked out as the Texas coaches might have hoped.
As a result, Texas has been looking for another defensive tackle to play next to Kheeston Randall ever since the spring of 2011, a stretch of barely more than a year that feels like a lifetime considering the incredible anxiety of Texas fans evaluating the position over that time. Lamarr Houston, you are missed.
Earlier facetiousness aside, the actual good news is that Kheeston Randall has been playing a high-quality brand of defensive tackle in the middle of the Texas line for most of his college career and will enter his senior season as a potential all-conference performer. The good news is that all the other potential contributors are a year older and should benefit from a summer of grueling workouts. The good news is that 260-pound Alex Okafor won't be playing inside trying to hold his own against interior linemen.
Tall for a defensive tackle at 6-5, Randall can come off the ball low and use his hands to control opposing linemen both rushing the passer and collapsing the pocket. In some ways, he might be less refined as a pass rusher than a kid like Desmond Jackson, as he hasn't shown any ability to hit guys with the type of rip or swim move that can create sacks.will settle for quarterback pressures and tackles for loss with Randall, which the senior should provide on a consistent basis. Given the opportunity to attack a shoulder and do some twisting and stunting, the new scheme should allow Randall to do what he does well without necessitating serious gains in technique.
The Potential Contributors
The seemingly age-old question is who will join Randall as a solid contributor on the line's interior? Calvin Howell and Ashton Dorsey look like the best options, but they are slightly different players with different talents that complement Randall in different ways. At least or must seriously emerge or Manny Diaz will have to bring every bit of his considerable brainpower fully to bear.
A problem with the lighter Howell is that he doesn't yet have a defined identity, according to Scipio Tex:
He has chronic head injury issues and, when healthy, it’s not clear what he consistently offers. What’s his defining characteristic? Strength? Quickness? Power? Technique? Effort? Right. Exactly. I don’t know either. We’re going to find out.
The guess here is that Howell can provide some quickness and could be a threat on some of the end-tackle stunts that Manny Diaz will run this season. That's essentially what he was in high school -- a guy who could come off the ball with some burst to get into the backfield and then use his motor to track down plays. A tougher task will be proving that he can survive the head trauma inevitably caused by collisions in the trenches and hold up at the point of attack, reportedly a weakness so far during the fall.
A better option to take on double teams is Ashton Dorsey, a kid who can uncoil out of his hips to create a strong punch from his lower body and leverage. In high school, he could get under the pads of opposing linemen and use his natural strength and some persistence to create movement. Not an athlete on the level of Howell with his quickness and ability to change direction, Dorsey looks like a future zero or one tech.
As his conditioning and technique improve, particularly in his hand placement and ability to create separation with the same type of violent punch to which offensive lineman aspire on the other side of the ball, Dorsey could end up providing a steady presence inside, even if he doesn't have the upside to become a guy who can rack up double-digit stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Bo Davis and Manny Diaz are looking for Dorsey to become that steady type of presence. Even if Dorsey doesn't start, he's going to be the first defensive tackle off the bench -- he has to be a solid contributor. The pressure is on, particularly given concerns that Howell's concussions could recur.
Undersized at a generously-listed 6-1, freshman Desmond Jackson impressed with his almost unstoppable swim move as a prep. While he doesn't yet have the strength to consistently stand up opposing blockers in the running game, he looks like a possible third-down pass rusher, as that swim move is reportedly giving the interior of the Texas line some trouble. His size always held him back as a prospect, but the Diaz scheme should allow Jackson some chances this season to do what he does best -- slice into gaps and cause havoc in the backfield. Expect a package for 10-15 snaps that will showcase his talents, cover up his weaknesses.
Lagging behind on the depth chart is Taylor Bible, now down to around 315 after ballooning to between 330 and 350 pounds following a shoulder injury his junior season in high school, weight that he carried until entering the program last year. Losing the weight he did assuredly helped regain the quickness off the ball that made him such a must-have recruit as a junior.
Whether Bible ever recovers that form will rely entirely on his work ethic and ability to once again maximize his first step by maximizing his conditioning. Last season, Bible didn't have the conditioning to play more than several games at a time, which should improve at his lighter weight. Still, a squatty, heavy Bible plugging gaps like Ben Alexander won't exactly be the role envisioned for him when he committed to Texas in 2009. Never seeing that Bible would be an absolute tragedy. It's up to Bible and Bennie Wylie to avert that looming loss.
Rounding out the depth chart are Greg Daniels and De'Aires Cotton, two other members of the 2010 class with a relatively long road to playing time. Daniels entered the program as a strongside defensive end, but quickly starting growing into a defensive tackle, a transformation to a 290-pounder that could take another year to complete. Target 2013 as the year that Daniels could really make a strong charge for significant playing time. Until then, just hope that he sticks in the program.
Cotton has generated virtually no buzz at all this fall and looks like a player with no more upside than eventually being someone who can hold ground and keep the linebackers clean. There's certainly a value in a program for that, but without anything even approaching remarkable athleticism for his position, Cotton looks like no more than a bit player for his career.
Chris Whaley made the move over from H-back to defensive end in an effort to shore up depth during the spring. Once called the top high school running back in the country by Mack Brown, the 280-pound Whaley's already taking snaps at defensive tackle in his third year at Texas.
The former running back looks positively Meltonian at this point, having now come close to completely growing into a defensive tackle years behind Melton, now moving inside after playing defensive end at Texas and early in his NFL career, though both made the transition to defense after their second year in Austin. Whaley just has the advantage of a redshirt year, giving his three seasons to find a way to contribute.
A strong athlete with, well, the quickness and athleticism of an extremely oversized running back, the only question about when Whaley becomes a contributor is when he can translate that athleticism into something approaching a refined, technically sound approach, while so flashing what he can provide on the field.
Rapidly approaching pure defensive tackle size, Whaley's easiest path to playing time looks like backing up Alex Okafor on the strongside and providing a steady presence against the run. As he continues to grow into his rapidly-expanding frame, he could turn into a pass-rushing specialist at the three tech or play defensive end in a three-man front. At this point, however, Desmond Jackson looks more likely to get reps on obvious passing downs.
The Big Picture
After Randall, the extent to which any of other defensive tackles can contribute is still unknown. The year of experience for Howell and Dorsey is extremely important in the interior where things move so quickly and keep in mind that Howell's concussions severely limited his development in 2009 -- for all intents and purposes, he was a first-year player last season, as was Dorsey in every sense. Any type of leap would be positive and represent a net gain over 201 and an adequate interior line that shouldn't be responsible for any losses.
With that being said, the type of poor play that surfaced at times last season by the defensive tackles against UCLA and Iowa State and Kansas State and resulted in losses simply can't happen. The group has to be past those type of performances, especially with lingering concerns that the Longhorns don't have a middle linebacker who can get off blocks, a major struggle for Keenan Robinson.
It's not clear that Diaz really values his defensive tackles simply standing their ground and trying to keep the linebackers clean -- he's much too aggressive for that -- but if they are going to be slanting and twisting, they have to consistently make plays in the backfield because despite the strength of the linebacking unit overall, offensive linemen running free into the second level of the Longhorn defense is probably still not a recipe for success.
If Howell and Dorsey -- or another, longer shot down the depth chart -- can't develop into at least somewhat consistent contributors, look for Manny Diaz to use more three-man lines with his clear top three -- Randall, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Alex Okafor, a move that would allow at least members of that talented linebacking corps to see the field at a time in a pure 3-4 alignment.