Due to the outstanding work of defensive backs coach Duane Akina developing talent in the secondary during his time at Texas, the Longhorns are now known as DBU in a nod to all the players Akina has sent to the league. Defensive ends coach Oscar Giles has done a similarly outstanding job in his eight years in Austin, with Tim Crowder, Brian Robison, Brian Orakpo, Henry Melton, Sergio Kindle, Sam Acho, and Eddie Jones among the defensive ends he's helped reach to their goal of playing professional football.
After each of those seasons in Austin, Giles has kept his unit playing at a high level, usually without skipping a beat. Back in the spring, it looked as if it would be difficult for 2011 to be another data point in that trend following the losses of Acho and Jones, who combined for more than 100 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, and 14 sacks in 2010-- a serious amount of production. More than that, the lack of depth at defensive end looked like as serious an obstacle to overcome as replacing that production.
Fortunately, there were options within the team, as junior Alex Okafor moved back from defensive tackle to his more natural position on the outside and sophomore Chris Whaley joined the fold after moving from running back to H-back and then to the defensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, junior Dravannti Johnson began working on adding weight to become a full-time end after playing a hybrid role throughout the start of his career.
Now, the position looks like it could be one of strength as Manny Diaz prepares to unleash his aggressive schemes on opposing defenses. Entering the fall, there weren't many areas of the team above creating at least some apprehension upon analysis, but there's no question that defensive end was one of them and the reports out of fall practice have done nothing to change that notion. High expectations given the lack of proven experience within the group.
The Star Potential
Back in the early part of spring, telling a Texas fan that Jackson Jeffcoat might not be the best defensive end on the roster in 2011 would be cause for an odd look, at the least. But that looks like the case with Alex Okafor, who built on a spring game that included five sacks to create as much buzz, if not more, than any other player on the team during the fall -- at any position -- by continuing to excel during the fall according to virtually every report coming out of practice from virtually every source.
While the 6-5, 260-pound Okafor is not as good of a pure pass rusher as his five spring game sacks might indicate -- he was, after all, going against Mark Buchanan, who can't even crack the rotation inside at his stronger guard position guard -- his work last season at defensive tackle helped him learn to use his hands and hold his ground against tough interior linemen, work that should benefit him tremendously this season as the strongside defensive end tasked with playing the run strongly. Appearing primed for an all-conference season, Okafor also gives Diaz the ability to play three-man fronts with the Pflugerville product as a five-tech defensive end without the coordinator worrying about a major drop-off in rush defense.
On the other side of the line, to say that sophomore Jackson Jeffcoat is his father's son is to pay a great compliment to both the former NFL star and his technically-proficient son, who looks ready for a breakout season that would have come last year had he not suffered a high ankle sprain early in the season that sapped his explosiveness and ability to hold his base against the run. In fact, that injury was an underrated aspect of the defense's decline throughout the season -- Jeffcoat made that much of an impact, that quickly.
With an understanding of hand placement, leverage, and power angles and virtually every other technical aspect to his craft, Jeffcoat isn't the best athlete at the position -- even on the team -- but he maximizes his strong physical skills with his advanced understanding. And that's why Jeffcoat will probably have a long NFL career despite relatively average athleticism for that level.
Looking back at the stats, it's hard to believe that Jeffcoat only had 1.5 sacks last year after he seemingly flashed at every opportunity when healthy. Expecting 8-10 from him this season if he can stay healthy doesn't seem like a stretch -- he should be the best pass rusher for Texas on the defensive line.
The most athletic member of the group -- and the likely no. 3 overall defensive end when the season begins -- is sophomore Reggie Wilson, the native of Africa who thought he had signed up for soccer when he first put on football pads. Let's just say there was an aptitude from the beginning, but he's far from a finished product. Lucky for Wilson and Texas, Jeffcoat may be just as strong of a resource for him in learning the intricacies of playing defensive end as his successful position coach.
In terms of Wilson's necessary development, limited reps last season in burning his redshirt probably didn't help him this season as much as another year of eligibility down the road would benefit both the program and Wilson. And though the loss of Acho and Jones does mean more opportunities this season, he isn't yet strong enough against the run to take over for Okafor and not as technically proficient as Jeffcoat to earn snaps on the weakside.
About the same height as Sam Acho -- a bit undersized, in other words -- Wilson will have to develop the technical side of his game, because even though he has a fantastic first step, he doesn't have the arm length to keep offensive tackles out of his body. It will probably be another year before he's really ready to go as a significant contributor, but until then, he should at least be effective on special teams.
With five tackles on the season in 11 games, Wilson hardly flashed -- he had no sacks or tackles for losses, but he did flash during the open practice last fall, dropping into the flat and intercepting a pass he returned for the touchdown. Even without anything approaching advanced technique, Wilson's pure athleticism will put him in a position to make plays when he sees the field this season. The question is whether those plays will outweigh the times when he gets pushed off the ball against the run or escorted past the quarterback on a pass rush.
For a more experienced player, the bad news for junior Dravannti Johnson is that he hasn't flashed enough to earn much recognition from practice reports this fall. The good news is that he put on between 20 and 30 pounds of muscle since the spring to better survive in the trenches full time and earned some notice from Alex Okafor during a media availability on Tuesday for being the best of the defensive ends at dropping into coverage, something Diaz will ask of this unit in certain blitz situations.
As a defensive end, Johnson addressed his primary deficiency of a lack of mass and never really had the change of direction ability to play much in space. His most notable moments last season were in the opener against Rice when he completely failed in adequately playing his zone read assignments, crashing down wildly when the quarterback kept the ball.
It was a lasting impression, as Johnson did little to dispel it for the rest of the season. Still he won't be ask to contribute much unless someone in front of him suffers an injury, which is just as well -- he's a fine back up, but not a starting caliber player for the type of top-25 team Texas aspires to become.
Already quite Meltonian when he showed up at around 250 pounds as a freshman, Whaley has only kept growing into his substantial frame -- he's now 280 pounds. In fact, he's well ahead of the developmental curve followed by Melton, as Whaley is already getting reps inside at defensive tackle, the position at which he will likely end up. Melton, on the other hand, is only now moving inside entering his third season in the NFL.
For the moment, completely disregard the fact that Mack Brown decided to recruit both players at running back. Well, disregard it as long as Brown stays away from evaluating running backs. Or at least tell him, "Johnathan Gray, good. Eddie George, bad." Anyway.
An excellent athlete for the defensive end position as a former running back and high school track star, Whaley has received some plaudits for adjusting quickly to the defensive end position, but it's not clear how many reps he will continue to take there as the fall moves along and how much he can contribute if he does stay at defensive end. He's a future full-time defensive tackle who looks like he will only be making a short stop at defensive end and basically a blank page at defensive end, so who knows?
The other defensive end could also grow into a defensive tackle before he gets done filling out his own substantial frame. True freshman Cedric Reed has already added about 15 pounds since entering the program in the summer to reach 255 pounds on his 6-6 that could carry 280 or more. The first order of business will be adjusting to the speed of the college game after playing in a small classification of high school.
He did, however, make a high-profile play in the first Texas scrimmage of the fall, pursuing Garrett Gilbert, staying down on a pump fake, and then tipping and intercepting the eventual pass -- the athleticism is there, but his strength and technique will need development. In high school, he benefited from his high motor, but will need to work on using those long arms to his full advantage and watch his pad level, which can be difficult for taller defensive linemen.
The Big Picture
As talented as this group is, none have contributed at a high level for an entire season yet in their careers, not even Okafor, who looks ready to reach the potential indicated by his five-star rating out of high school, but there are no guarantees with unproven players, even with Okafor and Jeffcoat seemingly ready to become stars.
The Diaz defense should benefit that transition from unproven to major contributors, as it will allow Okafor and Jeffcoat some freedom to switch sides of the defense on their own, freedom should be able to handle responsibly, as both possess high football IQs. Perhaps more importantly, Diaz won't ask them to read and react much, just play hard and fast. It will lead to some mistakes, but it should also lead to some pain inflicted on opposing quarterbacks, especially if the interior of the line can collapse the pocket, something Kheeston Randall does well.
Diaz will also ask his defensive linemen to take some drops in coverage to take away underneath passes. In that area, Johnson has the most experience as a former hybrid linebacker, along with Jeffcoat, who played some linebacker in high school. Okafor spent time working on making the adjustment during summer 7on7 work, but might not be asked to do so as much as the others unless he's made some significant progress.
As it will be with the secondary, the start of the season will be a trial by fire of sorts for Jeffcoat and Okafor taking on the role of being defensive stars and major contributors, but this is as group that should improve substantially by the end of the season as the players acclimate to the new system and develop the familiarity and comfort to play fast and without thinking within it.
The scheme seems to be there. The buy in seems to be there.
Unproven, yes. But in terms of talent, Texas has two defensive ends in Jeffcoat and Okafor their coach probably wouldn't trade for any two defensive ends in the country. And that will shine through, probably sooner rather than later.