Poor Linebacker Recruiting, Development Sinking Longhorns

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Misses and slow development at the second level of the Texas defense is having a major impact on the field this season.

Missed tackles. Bad reads. Poor angles. An inability to beat blocks.

The list of things the Texas linebackers are doing poorly encompasses just about every aspect of the position except for busting coverages, which they haven't had a chance to do as much recently as the Longhorns have all but completely abandoned any hopes of playing legitimate zone defense.

Going back and looking at the recruiting efforts at the position sheds some more light on what's going on, starting with the 2008 class.

Class of 2008 -- Emmanuel Acho, Dravannti Johnson

No one will ever question the decision to recruit either Acho, both standouts at a St. Marks, a private school in the Metroplex. Both were considered three-star prospects and overachieved significantly based on those recruiting rankings.

The other linebacker taken in the class didn't work out as well. Always a defensive end/linebacker tweener listed at 255 pounds while at Texas, Johnson was a heralded recruit coming out of high school as an Army and Parade All-American, but made only 26 tackles while bouncing back and forth between stand-up defensive end and linebacker. After the 2011 season, Johnson transferred to the University of the Incarnate Word to complete his eligibility and had three tackles in his debut against Texas College.

Alternatives

The Longhorns get a little bit of a break here because the in-state options were extremely limited. By the Rivals rankings, the top linebacker in the state was Gilmer's Justin Johnson, who ended up playing running back at Oklahoma before transferring to Abilene Christian in the summer of 2009.

The Johnson Texas landed came in second, with Kerrville Tivy's Kyle Prater third, just in front of Acho with Dallas Skyline's Spencer Reeves in between. Prater went to LSU and made two tackles before transferring to Rice and eventually becoming a starter this season after starring on special teams in 2011, while Reeves earned three letters in each of his first three seasons after redshirting, but only made 32 tackles over that span.

Looking at the top 100, it does not appear that any good linebackers other than Acho emerged from that list.

Assessment

The Longhorns did well to take Sam's little brother to achieve a 50% hit rate in the class, which was really about as high as they could get based on the available prospects. For a scary thought, imagine where the 'Horns would have been the last few years without taking the one or both of the Achos.

Class of 2009 -- Tariq Allen, Patrick Nkwopara

Brace yourselves, because this is where things start to get really ugly.

Another Army All-American who had a productive high school career, the 6-2, 240-pound Allen was recruited to play middle linebacker in a time when the position was basically becoming extinct in the pass-happy Big 12, assuming that it wasn't already extinct at the time.

After enrolling early and redshirting, Allen never saw the field in 2010 before leaving the team in January of 2011, apparently with intentions to transfer. He never landed anywhere and briefly re-joined the team last fall for roughly one practice as a walk-on hoping to catch back on, but that experiment didn't last long and it seems that Allen is no longer playing football.

As for Nkwopara, the Nigerian native from South Grand Prairie who was generously listed at 5-11 on the Texas website was the first linebacker recruit taken by Will Muschamp during his time at Texas, though it should be noted that Muschamp had little time to evaluate on his own before offers were extended about two months after he got to campus.

After playing on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2010, Nkwopara gave up football prior to the start of the 2011 season to focus on his academics.

Alternatives

Texas passed over the top linebacker in the state, English native Tom Wort, who is now the starting middle linebacker at Oklahoma. And while Wort has come under fire from Sooner fans at times for his erratic play, the fact of the matter is that he's a solid contributor who had 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions last season, and is one of the top tacklers for Mike Stoops this season.

Abilene product Chris Williams was ranked 35th overall in the state before heading to Nebraska, but he lasted only through December in Lincoln, when he asked for and was granted his unconditional release from the Husker program after redshirting to rehab from a knee injury he suffered as a senior, eventually landing at McMurry University.

Next on the list was Rockwall Heath's Austin Moss, who played some as a freshman and sophomore at Arkansas before falling victim to a spring purge by head coach Bobby Petrino that relieved him of his scholarship, along with two other Texans in a move that destroyed Petrino's reputation in the state. Moss is now at UTSA.

Depending on one's perspective, Tanner Brock was perhaps the biggest miss for Texas or a player they were lucky to avoid, as the Copperas Cove product was highly productive as a near All-American during his sophomore season in 2010 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the opener against Baylor last season and then getting busted for selling pot in the drug sting on campus this spring.

Muschamp recruited star linebacker Jarvis Jones, now at Georgia after signing with USC, but he was always a longshot and Muschamp his only tie to the school.

Assessment

Another year in the which in the in-state talent was pretty poor overall, with the added hindsight caveat that the Longhorns really needed some solid program depth in this class, which they did not get as Allen and Nkwopara both washed out without recording a single tackle between them.

Brock, Wort, or possibly even Moss would have been solid options for Texas to provide that program depth, though it's tough to say whether any of them would have lasted several seasons as back ups before getting their opportunity to play this year.

Jones was a pipe dream and would have represented an absolute best-case scenario.

Class of 2010 -- Jordan Hicks, Tevin Jackson, Demarco Cobbs, Aaron Benson

The most highly-regarded class of the three so far, this was supposed to be a can't-miss group that would represent the post-Robinson/Acho future for Texas. Things haven't worked out quite that smoothly.

One half of the mammoth haul on Five-Star Friday just before Signing Day, Hicks was regarded as a five-star talent and one of the top linebackers to ever emerge from the state of Ohio and was coveted by nearly every major program in the entire country.

To call Hicks a bust isn't fair, but to call him injury-prone may be at this point. His freshman season he was slowed by a high ankle sprain, he broke his foot in the spring before his sophomore season, and then was never really healthy until the Holiday Bowl last season due to a hamstring injury.

Just when it appeared that Hicks had put that all behind him, he injured his hip flexor early in the game against Ole Miss on an awkward tackle and hasn't seen the field since. When he was on the field in 2012, he was the team's best linebacker as the leading tackler and as a leader who was responsible for making many of the defensive playcalls just before the snap.

With Jackson, it's too early to pass judgment on his career. The Garland product enrolled for the summer sessions prior to the 2011 season before being ruled ineligible and spending the year back home getting his academic situation resolved after he had an apparent issue with his transcript.

As a result, it was a last season for Jackson in which he was not able to receive any coaching or play football, which seems to have set him back. With more experienced players in front of him on the depth chart and needing an adjustment period, Jackson played mostly on special teams last season, recovering two fumbles and making a handful of tackles.

This year, the lack of playing time has been a bit of a mystery, as he's the only semi-experienced player other than Benson who hasn't received a shot. Is he really that raw still? The players in front of him haven't gotten it done, so why not give him a chance?

Recruited as an athlete and given a chance at running back for the first several days of fall practice, Cobbs spent the 2010 season at safety before making the move to linebacker prior to the 2011 season. He then broke his arm and missed most of the year and suffered a neck injury that kept him out of most of spring practice.

When he was healthy during the spring and summer, he drew rave reviews for his play in practice, but hasn't translated it to the field this fall, as he's had trouble dealing with blocks, has taken poor angles, and generally hasn't made a single play all season, despite a significant amount of playing time. As a result, he's one of the biggest disappointments on a defense full of them.

The biggest bust has been Benson, who was a four-star prospect with 10 offers when he committed coming out of Cedar Hill, a state power at the high school level. Ranked as the 11th-best outside linebacker in the country by Rivals, Benson redshirted, played some on special teams and as a back-up last season, and has seen a brief bit of action early this season, though he was out against Oklahoma with an undisclosed illness.

Overall, Benson had made only two career tackles and doesn't appear poised to make many more after being passed by several younger players on the depth chart and failing to seriously contend for playing time headed into this season.

In fact, it was something of a surprise that Benson was even with the team this fall when it began fall practice, but he seems happy enough occupying a scholarship.

Alternatives

Texas landed the top two linebackers in the state by Rivals in Jackson and Benson, with current Oklahoma Sooner Corey Nelson next on the list. Nelson was a player heavily recruited by Texas early in the process until he committed to Texas A&M. Nelson then made waves about being open, but the Longhorns were already full by that point and opted not to continue pursuit as the recruitment of Jordan Hicks came down to the wire.

Then, despite calling himself "Mr. A&M", Nelson switched his pledge to Oklahoma on Signing Day, doing the Aggies pretty dirty.

The next linebacker in the rankings represents the biggest miss -- current Oklahoma State impact player Shaun Lewis, ranked 35th in the state by Rivals. Coming from Willie Lyles' neck of the woods in the Fort Bend/Missouri City area, Lewis has been what Texas wanted Cobbs to be this season, except that he's now being doing it for three years as a rangy linebacker capable of covering and defending the run.

His teammate, Caleb Lavey, was evaluated a little bit more thoroughly by Texas and was on the fringes of the radar coming out of Celina before turning himself into a solid contributor at Oklahoma State.

Assessment

Circumstances out of the control of both Hicks and Jackson have limited their impacts so far, while Cobbs is now a disappointment unless he can turn his career around Benson officially a bust at this point.

Given the production that Oklahoma State has gotten out of Lavey and Lewis, it appears that the Longhorns missed on both. If Lewis was indeed connected to Lyles, that would have been a non-starter for Texas at that point as Lache Seastrunk, Trovon Reed, and Ahmad Dixon became embroiled with the former Houston-area street agent.

But Lavey was a prospect that Texas could have pursued and there were some concerns that he was too pure of a middle linebacker to survive in a spread-happy league, he's held his own as a good college player now for several years, which is more than even Hicks can really say right now.

Class of 2011 -- Steve Edmond, Kendall Thompson and Chet Moss

Both in their sophomore seasons after playing little as freshmen, Edmond and Thompson have been two of the primary culprits in the struggles this season. They were the top two targets for the Longhorns, despite speculation early in Edmond's recruitment and throughout Thompson's time on the radar as a prep that they would end up as defensive ends.

Given how well they've played early this season, a cynic might suggest that they would be better off there. Except for the fact that they can't take on and win battles against offensive lineman. Which would be kind of a problem at defensive end.

It's still early for both, but Edmond seems to have little comprehension of the position that he played in high school and looks lost out there. He's a step slow due to his size, he takes bad angles, and reacts slowly at times. In other words, he's several steps slow, overall. He run blitzed a lot at Daingerfield playing in their 3-3-5 defense, so maybe he just came to Texas lacking an understanding of the fundamentals and hasn't picked them up yet during him time under Manny Diaz.

There have been a few more sparks from Thompson, perhaps, but he is suffering from many of the same issues as Edmond except that he actually

As for Moss, he was moved to fullback just after arriving on campus and had some personal problems that led to him missing much of last fall and the spring. Like Benson due to lack of playing time, Moss was on the edge of washing out.

Alternatives

Texas offered Dallas Skyline linebacker Anthony Wallace early in the process, the only linebacker ranked in the top four in the state Teas didn't land, but he ended up having connections to Baron Flenory and, surprise, surprise, ended up at Oregon. Even had he not been associated with Flenory, Wallace was another guy who was projected by some to end up at defensive end and hasn't lit the world on fire as a Duck as of yet.

A spread linebacker like League City Clear Springs prospect Trevon Randle would have been another option, but he transferred from LSU to Houston, so he doesn't look like a guy that Texas missed on at this point.

Assessment

Moss looks like a lazy take and the class that most heavily bears Muschamp's marks hasn't grown under Diaz, but also looks like a group that is a little oversized for the league in which they're trying to compete. That's an early assessment and both players could prove that wrong, and Moss could end up playing some at fullback, but right now, it's a disaster that is being exposed when these guys should at least have one experienced linebacker other than Jordan Hicks battling them for playing time.

It doesn't look like Texas missed on any linebackers who have been strong early for other schools, as least not from among the top prospects in the state.

Class of 2012 -- Dalton Santos, Tim Cole, Alex De La Torre, Peter Jinkens

DLT was apparently promised by one or both of Mack Brown and Will Muschamp the fall of his junior year, so he got an offer in February, promptly committed, and then was moved to fullback, Cole played well as a sophomore on the good Brenham team that lost to Johnathan Gray and Aledo in the state title game and was always going to be offered because of his friendship with Malcom Brown.

Jinkens survived some early rumors about his associations with Baron Flenory and committed to Texas early after some talk that A&M declined to take a pledge from him.

One of the prospects who fell through the cracks in the coaching change, Santos switched his commitment from Tennessee late in the process and pretty much instantly became the best-looking prospect in the group, even if Rivals had him ranked no. 52 in the state and Jinkens at 17.

Alternatives

Jinkens was the only linebacker in the state ranked by Rivals in the top 20 of the state, so there weren't a lot of highly-ranked players again, though Brian Nance of Euless Trinity, who ended up at Baylor, was probably the best athlete of the group, though he had some grade concerns and there was apparently some miscommunication or something between the Texas staff and the Trinity coaching staff at some point in the process.

Despite producing a great deal of talent over the last few years, the Longhorns haven't seriously recruited any players from the school since Eryon Barnett, whose career in Austin was most notable for being the fourth member of the Pizza Trio and failing to identify, though his Sunday trip to the strip club with a giant stack of one-dollar bills is and will always be pretty classic.

Denton Ryan's Jordan Richmond was another possibility, as was Jeremiah Tshimanga from North Richland Hills, though he's a tweener and could end up at defensive end and Richmond is only marginally more athletic than his high school teammate DLT.

Other than that, it was another down year in top-tier talent at linebacker in the state, though there could be several players to emerge who were not highly considered coming out of high school.

Assessment

It's obviously still too early to say much about this class, but the early grade would surely be poor if the group didn't include the late addition of Santos, who is already earning playing time at linebacker and played so well on kickoff coverage in the first several games.

Cole would always have been a necessary take because of his connection to Malcom Brown, even assuming that he doesn't contribute at Texas, which is a long way from being determined, obviously. Jinkens has the athleticism to actually fit the Big 12, but had some problems tackling in the open field.

There's a lot of pressure on Santos moving forward, not only because the older players aren't contributing, but because none of the other two linebackers from his class left at his position are sure things to becoming starting-level players.

The Takeaway

As much as the scheme and teaching ability of Manny Diaz have contributed to the poor linebacker play this season, poor efforts on the recruiting trail, the injuries to Jordan Hicks, and the lost year of Tevin Jackson have really hurt the Longhorns.

Not to mention two lazy takes that have ended up at fullback.

All told from the 2008, 2009, and 2010 classes, Texas has one current contributor. Who has been hurt virtually his entire time on campus. That is one out of eight overall, with two incomplete grades. So a generous three for eight, with two of those players (Allen and Nkwopara) combining for zero career tackles. An entire wasted class in 2009 by Will Muschamp.

Diaz is dealing with some of the mistakes on the recruiting trail that Muschamp made, the misfortune of an injured Hicks, but his ability to provide any type of coherent set of principles for his linebackers to develop this year reflects as poorly on him.

Another shocking element of this -- the lack of talent at linebacker in the state of Texas over some of these years. Even in hindsight, it's hard to find guys that the Longhorns really should have offered. Drug dealer Tanner Brock? A guy connected to Will Lyles in Shaun Lewis?

Perhaps Caleb Lavey, Tom Wort. Both would be better than what Texas is trotting out right now, assuming Diaz could put them in positions to succeed.

So many of the other top prospects have washed out, and there haven't even been many top prospects, all things considered. Of those linebackers thought to be the best in the state, the Longhorns have landed many of them. Just as shocking is the fact that the development of so many of those players has been poor.

The Longhorns need to target players with skillsets like Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho -- guys who are 6-2 or 6-3 and in that 220-235-pound range (even though Robinson was taller, he was a remarkable athlete), as Deoundrei Davis and Naashon Hughes will be when they get to Texas, with the range to execute the diverse demands of playing linebacker in the Big 12.

Rather than pure middle linebackers.

And they may need to go out of state at times to find them.

Until then, Diaz needs to start doing some effective teaching to the young players as he atones for some of Muschamp's mistakes and deals with some bad luck with Jackson and Hicks.

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