Just call the Texas Longhorns spring defensive line the walking wounded -- out of the 12 scholarship players in coordinator Vance Bedford's trenches, six are limited by injuries or will miss the entire spring.
For the pessimists out there, it represents a major setback for multiple young players. Optimists, on the other hand, might point to the ample opportunities for some veterans with little game experience to emerge, while other veterans seek to impress the coaches without the necessity of splitting valuable practice repetitions.
Before delving more deeply into the position, here's the list of defensive linemen who will miss the spring -- senior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson (foot), junior defensive end Caleb Bluiett, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chris Nelson (shoulder), redshirt freshman defensive end Derick Roberson (shoulder). Meanwhile, junior college transfer Quincy Vasser (knee) and junior defensive tackle Alex Norman (back) are the defensive lineman limited by injuries.
Will Hassan Ridgeway capably fill the big shoes of big Malcom Brown?
The behemoth 6'4, 307-pounder known as "Green Mile" started the last 10 games of 2014 after taking over for injured Jackson and started to more consistently show the incredible skills that intrigued observes in flashes during his redshirt freshman season. Ultimately, Ridgeway finished second on the team in sacks (6.0) and fourth in tackles for loss (11) and posted a career high with seven tackles against Kansas in his first start.
In beginning to maximize his prodigious talent, Ridgeway improved his conditioning, as the former high school defensive end wasn't capable of playing more than one or two plays in a row with maximum effort in 2013.
Another obstacle to overcome was Ridgeway's low-key nature, a trait Beford pointed out last fall.
"One of these days, Hassan is actually going to get mad," said Bedford. "He is one the nicest young people I've ever been around. If he ever gets mad, I'm going to be the first person to leave the room because he will hurt somebody. My man could be a beast."
Now attempting to replace high-motored Malcom Brown, Ridgeway will have to deal with more attention from opposing offensive linemen while carrying a much higher burden to create constant disruption. The physical talent is there. If the conditioning and overall drive can match it, then Texas will have an All-Conference performer and potential All-American at defensive tackle once again in 2015.
One NFL Network producer agrees:
Hassan Ridgeway might be one of the best defensive lineman in college football next year... #Longhorns— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) March 12, 2015
As long as he can get mad and stay mad, the sky is the limit for Ridgeway.
Can Paul Boyette Jr. and Naashon Hughes step up?
Departures and injuries will allow both players the chance to emerge as critical members of the 2015 defensive line.
Hughes has all the athleticism in the world, but drew the ire of the coaches for missed assignments and occasionally bone-headed plays from the Fox position he manned starting with the game against Oklahoma. However, his versatility is truly unique because his high school experience as a safety and linebacker helps him operate effectively in space.
As for Boyette, his career looked stalled when he missed last spring due to an injury and sat buried on the depth chart until injuries to Jackson and Norman allowed him to see the field. Boyette took advantage, recovering two fumbles to lead the team and registering two tackles for loss against Oklahoma State. With Desmond Jackson out, he'll likely have a chance to work with the first team next to Hassan Ridgeway and could increase the line's overall upside with by taking advantage of the opportunity.
Is Shiro Davis a Gaskamp candidate?
Now possessing only one remaining season of eligibility, the raw Shreveport kid who ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at The Opening in 2011 isn't anything more than unrealized potential and a historical footnote as one of the few Signing Day commitments for former head coach Mack Brown. A starter early last season at the Fox end position, Davis had a career game against BYU with three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks before losing his starting job there and becoming Cedric Reed's back up on the strong side.
Since Vasser won't have the opportunity to completely wrest the starting job from Davis this spring due to his injury, it's the Louisiana product's final chance to show he can hold up against the run at a position of need. His athleticism hasn't ever really translated to effective pass-rushing ability, so what are the odds he can put things together at a position that demands physical play at the point of attack?
Perhaps working under Brick Haley, the position coach who recruited Davis at LSU, could finally turn some of that potential into production.