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Texas Fox end Naashon Hughes is productive, overlooked

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The junior is now a fixture in the starting lineup, but his continued development is important to the Longhorns defense.

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NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Quick bit of trivia — which Texas Longhorns defender led the team in tackles for loss and finished second in sacks in 2015?

Not Malik Jefferson. Not Peter Jinkens.

It was Naashon Hughes, the junior linebacker who will enter his third season at the Fox end position under head coach Charlie Strong after starting 19 of the last 20 games.

On the list of returning players with the most snaps logged on Strong’s defenses, Hughes is near the top now.

Yet, there are no potential All-Conference accolades being thrown around for the Copperas Cove product in the lead up to Big 12 Media Days and Hughes won’t be making that trip, either, reserved as it is this season for four players from the senior Texas senior class.

In the archives on TexasSports.com, a search for his name doesn’t yield a single press conference mention during the spring. There aren’t any highlight videos for Hughes on YouTube or Vines celebrating a huge play.

He’s even got some competition coming for his starting job, as the staff moved former linebacker Breckyn Hager into the role in an effort to get more pass-rushing ability on the field.

A former high school safety, Hughes is a rangy athlete who needed no assistance on 70 percent of his tackles in 2015 while showing playmaking ability behind the line of scrimmage with 9 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

At the end of the season, his production hit its peak, too — against Texas Tech he led the team with 10 tackles (seven solo), 1.5 sacks, and another quarterback pressure. To close out the season, eight solo tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack helped Texas to a victory in Waco.

So there may be some untapped upside left for the 6’4, 237-pounder to unveil during his last two seasons at Texas, though there’s certainly no hype accompanying that possibility. And his best in 2015 was pretty good.

During the summer, Hughes won a middleweight championship in the Battle for the Belts challenge, so there’s no doubt that he can compete with the young athletes on the team.

The question is whether he can help the run defense improve at the point of attack, rather than simply making plays in pursuit. With a host of young and talented linebackers, there may not be much opportunity at the second level if Strong wants to use Hager or a bigger defensive end instead of the hybrid Fox.

Where do things go with Hughes as a junior, then? Does he continue to build on his productive sophomore season with more plays behind the line of scrimmage or does he have to slot into a different role?

No one is paying it much attention, but the answer to that question will likely have a significant impact on the 2016 Longhorns defense.