In part one of our series, we took a look at some potential X-Factors for Texas on the offensive side of the ball in 2014. Today, the defense.
For the first time in a while, where high-level production might have seemed an afterthought in seasons past, concerns surround a few defensive positional groupings on the Forty Acres -- namely, the secondary and linebackers. Even though the defensive line promises to be one of the best units in the Big 12 (if not among the country's best), their performance as a collective will be paramount to keep some of the pressure off of the linebackers and defensive backs, especially in situations where new faces are on the field. Unfortunately, these situations are likely to be common.
Here are three guys who the Longhorns will need to rise to the occasion and make an impact in 2014:
About the only certainty among the Texas defensive backs is that senior cornerback Quandre Diggs will be the unit's vocal and spiritual leader, setting the tone from one Saturday to the next. Good things are being reported about sophomore corner Duke Thomas, who should reasonably be the opening day starter across the field from Diggs -- but as far as the safeties go, there is a world of question marks.
Enter Dylan Haines. The 6'1, 195-pound sophomore from tiny 2A Lago Vista in CenTex has shot his way up the depth chart with a combination of high situational IQ and a solid build, reminding many of Blake Gideon at his best. The comparisons to Gideon, however, may be quickly invalidated, given the range and perception Haines has shown thus far, impressing Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford in the process.
The initial door was cracked open for Haines with the suspension of Josh Turner and the dismissal of Chevoski Collins, and he has seized the opportunity. Look for the surprising walk-on to compete head-to-head with guys like Adrian Colbert and Mykkele Thompson for playing time this fall. Given he's seeing a fair share of snaps with the No. 1s early in camp, however, that competition may have already happened.
Tempering factors: Josh Turner's return and consistent focus. Mykkele Thompson finally putting all of the pieces together.
I know what you're thinking. Peter Jinkens has been on campus for three years now, he's had an opportunity to prove himself as a linebacker already. If you are thinking this, you wouldn't be wrong. Well, not technically wrong.
Here's why Jinkens will have an unique opportunity to see some plays this season: If Jinkens is on the field with a healthy Jordan Hicks (let me emphasize healthy) then the natural tendency will be to key on Hicks' movement, leaving Jinkens to show off his own "plus" athleticism and nastiness (both of which manifested in some highlight reel plays in 2013). There's no bigger punisher when he's on his game than Peter Jinkens.
If Jinkens is on the field with Dalton Santos, opposing offensive linemen will have their hands full with the level of violence the two can bring in the pass rush or in run pursuit. Again, the natural tendency will be to key on Santos, giving the opportunity for Jinkens to make big plays. The knock on Jinkens has been his slow development in terms of football IQ, but his need to read formations and predict plays won't be at as much of a premium if he's able to play alongside a healthy Santos and/or Hicks.
Am I suggesting Peter Jinkens will deliver on the promise we saw from him in 2012, after a semi-regression in 2013?
Sure, I don't see why not.
Tempering factor: Steve Edmond finally playing well enough to consistently take away Jinkens' minutes.
In the recent conversations I've had with fellow BON writers, one name is always a topic of conversation: sophomore defensive tackle Hasaan Ridgeway. Although Ridgeway is part of a defensive line that is as talented as it has been in some time (led by goliaths Ced Reed and Malcom Brown), his opportunity to make a substantive impact is ripe for the taking.
Ridgeway passes the eye test as perhaps the best athlete on a Texas defensive line chock full of them. At 6'4, 309, the Mansfield product is still reliant on brute force at this point in his career -- something that is both a benefit and a detriment. At a minimum, for a few plays per game, you can count on witnessing Ridgeway batter-ram and punish opposing offensive linemen and stand them on their feet. Ridgeway's lack of technical ability and understanding of more complex blocking schemes, however, could keep him from being a more full-time contributor.
All of the above would change with an injury to Brown or Desmond Jackson, in which case Ridgeway's play count goes from 20 or so a game to double that in a heartbeat. If Ridgeway's technical prowess can somehow quickly equalize his physical strength under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Chris Rumph, the Longhorns could have a first-class bruiser on their hands.
Tempering factor: A surprising rise by Alex Norman or Marcus Hutchins.