Do the Horns really have the fourth-best DL in the Big 12?

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, the ranking seems low. But does further consideration back that up?

In discussing the Texas Longhorns defense, the one area where there are few question marks is along the defensive line, a unit that should be the strength of the team.

After the breakout season from senior defensive end Cedric Reed and with an expected breakout season from junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown, the top two players along defensively in the trenches for the Horns could be as good as any defensive end-defensive tackle combination in the country this fall.

In the estimations of ESPN, however, that combination isn't good enough for Texas to rank any higher than fourth in the Big 12.

Here's how those rankings look:

1. TCU -- With the return of star defensive end Devonte Fields after missing most of last season with a foot injury, the Horned Frogs will have the most fearsome pass rusher in the conference back. As good as Reed was last season, it's hard not to view Fields as the Big 12's top defensive end.

But quick, name the starter on the other side of Fields. Not so easy, right? How about senior Jon Koontz, who contributed nine tackles for loss, but only had 29 tackles total. Call him pretty average.

Inside at defensive tackle, neither Chucky Hunter nor Davion Pierson made many plays behind the line of scrimmage, so while they may do their jobs well on the inside to help keep the two TCU linebackers clean, they aren't really difference-makers, a fact that should probably knock the Horned Frogs down this list.

2. Oklahoma -- Not so long ago, this position was a major concern for the Sooners. This time last year, actually. In the intervening months defensive end Charles Tapper had a breakout season with 5.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 49 tackles overall to team with former tight end Geneo Grissom and Chuka Ndulue to form a unit with three proven commodities as starters.

The ranking here is also putting a lot of emphasis on young players contributing in a way that they have not in the past -- most of the blurb focuses on redshirt freshmen Matt Romar, Charles Walker, and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.

Though Jake Trotter notes that this defensive line could go three deep as the deepest in the conference, there's a lot of projection in the statement since Romar, Walker, and Okoronkwo haven't played yet in college.

In light of the unproven nature of the Oklahoma depth, they could probably get dropped here, too.

3. Baylor -- For simply historical reasons, it's hard to believe that the Bears could have a better defensive line than the Longhorns, but recruiting has been picking up defensively for Baylor in recent years and it's starting to tell, along with the major addition of Shawn Oakman from Penn State.

At 6-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is the premier candidate as the most physically freaky of physical freaks in the Big 12 and could be in line for a monster season after putting up 12.5 tackles for loss last year even though he wasn't a full-time player. With only two sacks last season, Oakman needs to improve upon his ability to get to the passer.

On the opposite side of the defensive line, junior Jamal Palmer quietly finished second on the team with five sacks and added 11 tackles for loss for good measure, making him one of the more underrated defensive ends in the conference. Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu should add some depth there.

And with the return of former five-star prospect Javonte Magee from whatever kept him away from the program last year, the Bears now have three talented contributors at defensive tackle in addition to Beau Blackshear and Andrew Biillings, the latter the former Texas target.

Shockingly enough, this may end up being the top group in the conference.

4. Texas -- As mentioned earlier, the proven commodities here are Reed and Brown, who should be All-Big 12 first-team performers this fall if they can stay healthy.

The question marks are at the other positions -- senior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson played well against West Virginia replacing the injured Chris Whaley, but hasn't ever taken the next step or shown the penetrating promise that he did in high school with his developed swim move.

Since there isn't any proven depth behind Jackson, the Longhorns are basically one injury at defensive tackle away from having to play Alex Norman or give some snaps to a true freshman like Poona Ford, who hardly has ideal height for the position.

The wild card there is sophomore Hassan Ridgeway, who has all-conference potential and the consistency of a career back up. If the light can flash on for Ridgeway to provide depth or take over the starting job from Jackson, the upside is much higher for the entire group.

The graduation of Jackson Jeffcoat means that the other defensive end position is unproven, too. In the Orange-White game, the returns weren't overly positive for junior Shiro Davis, who still may not be ready to take the next step. However, sophomore Caleb Bluiett after his second strong spring game in a row and Derick Roberson could make an impact in pass-rushing situations if Davis can't.

Unfortunately for Texas, even the top position group on the team faces some serious question marks.

*****

So, with the lack of depth at defensive tackle and unproven players at the other defensive end position across from Reed, are the Longhorns really underrated when Trotter slots them at fourth in the conference? What would it say about Texas this fall if the team's best unit isn't in the top three in the Big 12?

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