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Paul Boyette will try to emerge as top-line DT for Texas at head of young group

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With only three scholarship players returning, the ‘Horns will have to rely heavily on the massive freshman class and hope that the senior can be a difference-maker.

NCAA Football: Texas at Kansas John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

There's no denying that 2016 stands as a make-or-break year for Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong. In fact, the significance of the upcoming season for Strong has been talked about and analyzed so much, it's almost become a stale topic of discussion. But this redundant conversation cannot take away from 2016's magnitude -- Strong knows he needs a big year in Austin this upcoming season if he wants fans to believe in his process and keep his job.

For that to take place, he knows his defense is going to be need to improve dramatically this season. After an historically awful season in that aspect (the Longhorns finished 106th in total defense, 111th in rush defense, and 73rd in passing defense), areas across the field need improvement for the Longhorns. With position groups starting to take form, the biggest question mark for Charlie Strong and the Texas defense is up front on its defensive line where little experience returns and big holes need to be filled.

The Longhorns are losing its two starting tackles on the defensive front and lack much experience returning at the two tackle positions. The most glaring example of this lack of depth coming during the Orange-White game when walk on players were playing with the second-string defense.

At defensive end, the picture isn't much clearer as the team loses its starter from last season, Shiro Davis. Although Naashon Hughes returns after starting at Fox last season, people believe his position is up for grabs during Fall Camp. With so many questions and so little known about how the group plays out, defensive line coach Brick Haley will be scrambling to field a strong unit before the season opener against Notre Dame.

The first part of this series will look at the defensive tackles.

Nose Tackle

Paul Boyette, Sr., 2L

Chris Nelson, So., 1L

Gerald Wilbon, Fr., HS

Defensive tackle

Poona Ford, Jr., 2L

Jordan Elliott, Fr., HS

D'Andre Christmas, Fr., HS

Chris Daniels, Fr., HS

Marcell Southall, Fr., HS

Notable Departures

Hassan Ridgeway — NFL Draft (Colts)

Desmond Jackson — Graduation

Alex Norman -- Left program

Starters

On the defensive front, the biggest priority for position coach Brick Haley will be filling in the two tackle positions where his two starters both departed from the program. One barrier to Haley accomplishing that will be the severe lack of experience at the position.

Aside from the two projected starters, Paul Boyette and Poona Ford, the Longhorns return one player with game experience, Chris Nelson, who recorded seven tackles in eight games last season as a reserve. To compensate, Texas will depend on a couple of their five incoming freshmen to immediately play at the tackle spots.

The Longhorns' most important starter at the tackle spot will be Paul Boyette. The fifth-year senior has played in 30 games during his time in Austin and returns as the most experienced player at the position for the ‘Horns.

After a slow freshman campaign, Boyette played every game during his sophomore and junior seasons, including earning six starts last season. That junior season is where Boyette made his mark in the defensive rotation, recording 37 tackles (second-most among defensive tackles), eight tackles for loss, and three sacks. Now, the Longhorns hope Boyette will turn into the corner stone for the Longhorns' defensive line.

At 6'3 and 317 pounds, Boyette couples monster size with unusual athleticism to be an effective player. This combination has proved to be a difficult matchup and should continue to be a problem when he lines up over Big 12 centers.

With the departures of Hasaan Ridgeway and Desmond Jackson, the Texas coaching staff is counting on him to take a big leap during his final year on the Forty Acres. Boyette will be give an early chance to be the veteran leader of the Longhorns' defensive line, but it's a matter of seizing his opportunity.

Boyette looked impressive last season and, with an excellent senior year, could put himself into a position to get attention from NFL scouts.

Starting next to Boyette at the other tackle spot will be junior Poona Ford. Ford, a member of Charlie Strong's first recruiting class, looked like one of Texas' most improved players during his sophomore season. Last year, Ford appeared in all twelve contests for the Longhorns and started five of those.

He went on to record 39 tackles and six tackles for loss, as he developed into a reliable contributor on the defensive front. Against Rice, Ford set a career high with eight tackles, an impressive number for a defensive lineman in a single game.

In an otherwise bleak year for the line, Ford's improvement was a bright spot. That may not be saying much for a group who struggled so much, but Ford figures to be an important piece of the line this coming year.

No game showed Ford's true potential as a player more than the Red River Rivalry. In Dallas, Ford terrorized the Oklahoma offense, recording 1.5 sacks against the highly rated Sooners. On top of his play against Oklahoma, Ford may have had the biggest defensive play of the year last season against Baylor when he recovered his own forced fumble to seal the upset in Waco.

The presumed starter this season, Ford has high expectations from the Texas coaches in 2016. While Ford showed strengths against the likes of Rice and Oklahoma, he did succumb to the failures that other Texas defensive lineman also fell to. Ford is an incredibly talented pass rusher from the interior, but he tends to struggle holding his ground on the defensive front at times, losing the line of scrimmage against bigger lineman.

Standing at 5'11, Ford is a bit vertically challenged for a defensive tackle, and it sometimes hurts him. You would like to see Ford become a stronger player in the interior before he takes over this season after the Longhorns looked dismal against inside run attempts in 2015.

Although he lacks prototypical size you would like to see at tackle, Ford is still a valuable piece for this group. He returns as an experienced part of the defensive line with several examples of great play. For Ford, it's a matter of getting stronger and being more consistent. He needs to find a way to turn his performances against Oklahoma and Rice into a weekly occurrence.

Other Contributors at DT

Beside the two starters, a wealth of inexperience litters the depth chart. Needless to say, a lot of inexperienced players are going to need to come ready to play as soon as fall camp starts. Earlier this year, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford told the incoming defensive tackle class to "get ready to play." Fall camp will be the battle ground where the depth chart begins to fully take shape, but for now, here's how the rest of the position looks to play out.

The lone player with experience returning beside the starters, sophomore Chris Nelson looks to have a leg up on the depth chart heading into fall camp. Nelson played in eight games during his freshman year, but only managed to record seven tackles in limited action. Due to injury, he also missed four games.

So, although Nelson returns with a year under his belt, he doesn't necessarily hold a secure spot on the depth chart. Nelson has all the tools you like to see in a defensive tackle -- quickness, strong first step, play recognition -- but he needs improvement to his game in order to hold off a big incoming class.

First, Nelson will need to improve his run defense this year. Last season, he struggled holding the line of scrimmage and allowed lineman to push him back and get to the second level. Moreover, Nelson needs the physical improvement to sustain a long season.

That not only means holding off injury, but also having the stamina to stay on the field play after play, something he struggles with and is vitally important in the fast-paced Big 12. Personally, I believe Nelson has the tools to be a successful player, but he'll need to improve in those areas to stave off a talented incoming group.

Of that incoming class, we'll start with Jordan Elliott. The consensus four-star prospect had one of the most bizarre recruitments in recent memory, but eventually signed with his long-time-favorite Longhorns on National Signing Day. An Army All-American, Elliott was ranked as the third-best defensive tackle prospect in the state of Texas and the 115th overall player in the country according to 247Sports Composite Rankings.

Elliott carries impressive size for an incoming recruit, coming in at 6'4, 318 pounds. That size alone makes Elliott an attractive option for heavy playing time in his freshman year.

In addition to that impressive size, Elliot has quick feet and elite quickness for a defensive tackle. During his recruitment, Elliott ran a 4.35 shuttle, the fastest of any high school defensive tackle in the country. In the run game, Elliott shows nice physicality at the point of attack and can hold the line of scrimmage with his strength. As a pass rusher, Elliott shows nice bull rush abilities and can turn into a disruptive player on the interior. Like any player out of high school, Elliott needs time to refine his technique in several parts of his game to become a truly dominant player, but the physical tools should excite Longhorn fans.

Another big time addition on the defensive line to the 2016 Texas recruiting class was D'Andre Christmas. A consensus four star prospect, Christmas earned all-city honors and also received an honorable mention for Louisiana 5A All-State honors from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association.

Christmas joins the Longhorns program as an early favorite to receive playing time thanks to his massive size and already elite first step. Displayed in his high school tape, Christmas possesses an explosive power in his game that many defensive tackle prospects lack at this stage in their careers.

Along with that explosive first step, Christmas has a big frame with the ability to carry even more weight. In an ideal world, Christmas would probably redshirt and develop more strength, but the defensive line situation is nowhere near ideal. That being said, the New Orleans product looks poised to take over because of his explosive abilities that will translate to the college level immediately.

At the nose tackle spot, incoming freshman Gerald Wilbon will immediately jump into the action to provide depth. Another signee out of Louisiana, Wilbon was one of the longest standing pledges for the Longhorns during the last recruiting cycle and proved to be a big get at a need position. After losing senior Desmond Jackson, the Longhorns were missing a big, physical run plug in their line rotation.

Wilbon, unlike other players in his class, has the size (6'2, 329 pounds) and power to come and help at nose tackle right out of high school. Wilbon's greatest strength at nose tackle may in fact be his innate knowledge to play at low pad level and maintain leverage, something most high school recruits struggle with.

Wilbon doesn't have quickness or a dominant move that can abuse offensive lineman, but nonetheless he's a great option to play at nose. If Wilbon can learn to better his technique, he has the physical tools to turn into a solid option at nose guard for the Longhorns.

Back to the other defensive tackle position, I see two players potentially redshirting from the incoming class. Those two would be Chris Daniels and Marcell Southall. Daniels is a highly touted recruit from Euless Trinity with great versatility who can play across the defensive line. It's hard to say where Daniels will end up, but he doesn't project as an immediate contributor. That's not a bad thing, either. Defensive tackle is one of the hardest positions for high schoolers to come out of high school and compete.</p>

One of the highest rated players in his class, Daniels has incredible upside as a collegiate player. Of all the defensive tackle prospects, he has the strongest upside as a pass rusher because of his quickness and strength. As a run stuffer, Daniels isn't shabby either. When he plays at the correct pad level, he's an incredible force and difficult to move off the line of scrimmage. Daniels will benefit from a year in the program, practicing and learning the system and where he fits in on the defensive front. His versatility will make an incredible asset for Charlie Strong down the line

Marcell Southall is another redshirt candidate for the coming year. There were questions if Southall would reach campus after academic issues, but recent reports suggest that Southall is set to join the program. Southall comes to Texas as an incredibly raw athlete, but his physical tools are impressive.

He's a strong, sturdy athlete who could potentially carry a lot more strength on his frame if he works hard in the weight room. In high school, Southall often times overpowered weaker opponents on the interior because of his natural ability.

He needs time to develop his skills and technique, but he has the physical tools to do some damage at the tackle position. Southall is a project as a college player, but a redshirt year will benefit him and help him become a serious threat.

Conclusion

After a disappointing year on the defensive line last year, the Longhorns will need some new faces to step up in 2016. There are some talented pieces on the roster, but Charlie Strong needs some players to stand up and perform. If the Longhorns have any hope of performing better as a defense, it will start with the development up front.