In the Texas Longhorns, the closest thing to a sure thing is junior Jordan Hicks, who is still a long way from realizing his full potential. Fellow starters Demarco Cobbs, a junior, and Steve Edmond, a sophomore? Both have yet to prove much on the field.
Ask most Texas fans, however, and the group probably isn't a big concern. There's just too much talent there to fret too much, even with the need to replace longtime starters Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, who both turned in excellent senior seasons. Even the coaching staff has sounded few concerns about the starting group, a bit of a surprise since they all do have relatively little experience.
Of more concern is the depth behind them. It's well chronicled that Hicks and Cobbs have suffered through injuries for both of their two seasons on campus. Cobbs had the neck injury in the spring and then an ankle injury in the fall, but at least Hicks has been healthy.
Poor depth at any position is a problem, but throw in a couple starters with injury histories and things start becoming a bit more dicey.
On Wednesday, head coachlaid out the situation:
Tevin Jackson has played well enough to be in the mix but Demarco would start. Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks are backed up by Kendall Thompson, but Dalton Santos and Peter Jenkins had one great scrimmage on Sunday night, and they're stepping it up fast, so we've got some really good competition. [Defensive coordinator] Manny [Diaz] and I feel like really you've got three that are starters and significant players, and then you've got a group back behind them that are trying to get in the mix. So that's not settled yet at all.
It's a good sign that freshmen linebackers Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens are getting some buzz. Enough to earn both of them co-backup designations with Kendall Thompson at the middle (Santos) and weakside (Jinkens), though both are listed after Thompson. The notable absence from the depth chart? Junior linebacker Aaron Benson, who looks like he will never get on the field, but is apparently happy enough occupying a scholarship.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had shared similar sentiments on Monday to those expressed by the head coach two days later:
I thought that Tevin Jackson and Kendall Thompson both made some exciting players yesterday, and they are both still advancing. The young guys, I think Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens are very exciting for us right now. We've got good competition right now, and I am able to roll [in] all those guys and we also have versatility. We have some guys that can play at multiple positions, so I really don't know when the game comes how everybody will rotate in. We still have a week and a half to find that out. Those guys right now are doing a really good job, and we have to have them. We have to have some depth.
Santos, of course, brings a great deal of attitude and physicality to the table, along with some strong athleticism for his size. The smaller Jinkens is at his best when using his safety-like speed to close ground quickly, though it's interesting that the coaches are using Jackson as the backup to Cobbs and Jinkens on the weakside, even though Jinkens is more likely to end up on the strongside in that hybrid linebacker position Diaz likes to use with coverage responsibilities.
Even an offensive coach weighed in on the depth situation there when co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Major Applewhite was asked on Tuesday about the defense in general and ended up talking about the linebackers:
Kind of the question mark going in for the defense is since they saw the secondary's young guys play well, and they know they have so much depth, it has been the linebackers. And I thought that [junior LB] Demarco Cobbs, [sophomore LB] Tevin Jackson, [sophomore LB] Kendall Thompson, and [junior LB] Jordan Hicks obviously, and even some of the young guys [freshman LB] Peter Jinkens and [freshman LB] Dalton Santos, I have seen those guys. And they can play. And that's encouraging. There are a lot of great plays made by guys that played last year in the secondary. You're seeing what you expect out of the front. But the linebacking corps, all the calls that they've made, [defensive coordiator/linebackers coach] Manny [Diaz] has them coming from all over. They're doing a great job. They really are.
One thing for Applewhite to give praise in regards to a direct question, but summing up the issue and then addressing the concern with some praise for what he's seen is a good sign, even if it should be taken with a grain of salt since it is coming from a coach.
As much as the promise of Santos and Jinkens is appealing, asking them to contribute right away would mostly just reflect poorly on the older players in front of them. Last we saw sophomore Tevin Jackson, he was being blocked and pretty much staying blocked in the spring game. Kendall Thompson was giving up plays in pass coverage, including failing to get deep enough on his drop to impact the seam pass when redshirt freshman tight end MJ McFarland caught that long throw from junior quarterback Case McCoy.
Without being able to see them in action, it's tough to say that they've improved throughout the summer and fall camp, but there are enough coaches saying the same thing to at least be optimistic.
And optimistic is good regarding the back-up linebackers because the odds of both Hicks and Cobbs making it through the season don't seem overly high.