When the Texas Longhorns offense takes the field in Provo on Saturday evening to go against the BYU Cougars defense, the Texas offensive line will have to be aware of senior outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy on every snap.
The 6'3, 235-pounder made an indelible imprint nationally against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl last year when he recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, blocked a kick, returned an interception for a touchdown, and caused a fumble in the endzone. Yeah, he was all over the place.
In fact, the ability to play all over the place by design is one thing that defines the rangy possible first-round draft pick. Typically used as a stand-up rusher on the edge, Van Noy is capable of disrupting passing lanes both over the middle and on the sidelines, where he can use his movement abilities to break up passes -- he defensed six on the year in 2012 and recorded two interceptions, as well as forcing at least one more because of his presence.
Kyle Van Noy vs San Diego State "Poinsettia Bowl" (via JmpasqDraftjedi)
He also totaled 22 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
As good as Van Noy is coming off the edge, the biggest problem that he can present for offenses is figuring out where he's heading -- in obvious passing situations against San Diego State, BYU allowed him to attack interior gaps from a stand-up position behind the Cougar defensive line, a tactic that can easily disrupt pass-blocking assignments. When interior linemen were able to get their hands on him, he's not big enough to bullrush them, but in those situations the hardest thing for an offensive lineman is to get their hands on him.
Dangerous against the run and the pass game because of his quickness off the ball -- which is strong, but not elite -- Van Noy could provide problems for left tackle Donald Hawkins, whose foot quickness can't consistently match that of the BYU star. Will it come down to Desmond Harrison needing to get a shot at the position to try to stop Van Noy? Offensive line coach Stacy Searels is surely hoping it won't come to that, because Harrison is relatively untested in pass protection right now.
The other solution would be using either a tight end to force Van Noy to play a gap wider defensively or a running back or H-back to chip him, one that diverts resources from stretching and attacking the defense in the ways that co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite would prefer -- it's basically a concession that the offensive tackles can't stop him on their own.
Even when adopting those strategies, Van Noy is capable of reading the eyes of the quarterback to use his athleticism to knock down passes close to the line of scrimmage, which means the quick game to his side of the field can be difficult at times.
Not an exceptionally diverse pass-rusher in terms of moves, Van Noy does use his hands well, which translates to the running game, where he can control and discard opponents to make plays on the ball. Leaving him unblocked on the backside can be dangerous because of his speed. Overall, his motor is another impressive element of his game, as he shows the willingness to consistently track downs plays across the field.
For a player as good as Van Noy, the realistic plan is more about decreasing his impact on the game rather than completely shutting him down -- he will make some plays against Texas, but the Horns will be extremely well served if those plays aren't game-changers as many of them were against the Aztecs in the bowl game.
Beyond what Van Noy can do, how good was the BYU rush defense last year? Try No. 4 nationally in rushing S&P+ and No. 5 nationally on standard downs. As with most good rush defenses, they did it by not allowing long rushing plays -- only one rushing play went for over 40 yards against them last season and the 37 rushes they gave up of 10 or more yards ranked seventh in the country.
In sloppy weather conditions last week, Virginia didn't fare much better than 2012 opponents, as the Cavaliers managed only one run over 10 yards and averaged 2.6 per carry. Of course, Virginia was also a pretty terrible rushing offense last season, ranking 98th nationally in rushing S&P+, so it's not like the Cougars shut down a juggernaut.
The big changes for the BYU defense this season are the losses are defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, who went to the Detroit Lions with the 5th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, and nose tackle Romney Fuga, the 320-pound immovable object of a gap plugger who gave junior center Dominic Espinosa so many issues in 2011. The replacement for Ansah is 6'7, 270-pound sophomore Bronson Kaufusi, who debuted with 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season. The replacement for Fuga, though, is 290-pound Eathyn Manumaleuna, who only played in four games in 2012 as a junior, but did record two sacks.
The 30-pound difference between Manumaleuna and Fuga could be the difference in moving the smaller replacement off the ball in the run game and getting stymied, though Kaufusi is a dangerous player with NFL-caliber size and athleticism and could have a negative impact on the Texas running game himself. And Manumaleuna was active in recording 10 tackles against Virginia, though only one came behind the line of scrimmage.
While Texas eventually found success with over 350 rushing yards against New Mexico Stat last week, the single most concerning factor in the run game was the consistent struggles of inside zone creating any type of significant creases before the New Mexico State defense got absolutely worn out.
Throw in the fact that Longhorn Scott was worried before the season about the ability for this Texas offense to deal with odd fronts in the running game and suddenly there is a recipe for some stagnation -- this may be a game where other aspects of the offense have to open up the running game, especially the horizontal and vertical passing games. To effectively run the football, it may be necessary for Texas to work outside more, as outside zone was effective several times and junior running back Joe Bergeron and redshirt freshman running back Jalen Overstreet both did most of their damage outside the tackles and sophomore offensive weapon Daje Johnson is typically effective getting to the edge on reverses and jet sweeps.
To pass the ball, Texas will have to slow down the pass rush of Van Noy, but running the ball will be much more difficult, as Van Noy is strong in that area as well and the entire front seven, while perhaps not quite as strong as last season, still possesses a lot of talent and positive results in their first 2013 test.
This one is going to be a slobberknocker in the trenches and there are still major question marks about whether this experienced but rarely physically dominant offensive line can create seams and running lanes for the talented running back corps. In that regard, the BYU game is going to be extremely telling.
Texas fans can only hope that it brings good tidings for the future and upside of this team.