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 second part of this series will look at the defensive ends.
Strong defensive end
1A: Charles Omenihu, So., 1L
1B: Bryce Cottrell, Sr., 3L
Andrew Fitzgerald, Fr., HS
Quincy Vasser, Sr., 1L
1A: Naashon Huges, Jr., 2L
1B: Breckyn Hager, So., 1L
Erick Fowler, Fr., HS
Malcolm Roach, Fr., HS
Derick Roberson -- Transfer
Shiro Davis -- Graduation
Starting Ends Breakdown
In 2016, the Longhorns will need substantial improvement from its defensive ends. Prior to 2015, defensive ends Bryce Cottrell and Shiro Davis were hyped to be disruptive pass rushers on the edge who would apply relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Well, as we all know, that turned out about as well as the Thunder's offseason. Not only did the two fail to to prove they were dominant forces, but the Longhorns struggled to find anybody on the edge to force pressure, which led to opposing offenses picking apart the Longhorn secondary.
To improve the disastrous edge rush, the Texas coaching staff hopes sophomore end Charles Omenihu will pick up the slack. The new and improved Omenihu bulked up to 6'6, 254 pounds after the offseason and looks much stronger coming into his sophomore year. A player many presume will have a big year, Omenihu had an impressive spring, including a solid performance in the Orange and White game. During that game, he made a habit of getting to the quarterback and making plays, including embarrassing tackle Tristan Nickelson.
Omenihu gives the Longhorns the speed on the edge that it missed last season. So far, he's shown nice quickness on the outside and continues to develop rush techniques that make him an even harder blocking assignment. On top of his quality rush techniques, he now has the strength to take on offensive tackles.
Omenihu has the playing experience too, as he appeared in all twelve games last year, and understands the college game better. Considering his remarkable strength increase and already solid rush technique, Omenihu looks like he could be one of the Longhorns most improved players in 2016.
Omenihu will compete with senior Bryce Cottrell to take over the starting end spot. Cottrell came into 2015 looking to solidify himself as a pass rusher, but he didn't necessarily apply the consistent pressure the Longhorns needed. Yes, he recorded four sacks last season, but the Texas coaching staff seems to believe that Omenihu will slide in and do a better job.
It's hard to argue with that, as Omenihu looks like a strong player, but Cottrell will get his fair share of reps in 2016. Cottrell is a good pass rusher with an undeniable ability to get to the quarterback. He's played in 32 career games and will be a nice veteran option for Charlie Strong to turn to.
However, his biggest weakness may be in his down-to-down play. Cottrell needs to better himself on rush defense and learn to not take himself out of the play. He's also been criticized for sometimes playing too passive. He's an attractive option because of his pass rushing skills, but Omenihu may have higher upside in that category. For Cottrell to take over the end spot, he will have to show coaches he's a reliable player to keep on the field at all times.
On the flip side of the line, another positional battle will begin to play out at the Fox position during fall camp between Naashon Hughes and Breckyn Hager.
Junior Naashon Hughes returns to the Longhorns after starting every game for Texas in 2015. Last season, Hughes was second on the team with 5.5 sacks and led the team in defensive tackles. Hughes' numbers are strong, but there are concerns as to whether he'll hold onto the spot at Fox.
Personally, I think Hughes is a strong contender to emerge as a leader for the Longhorns defense. Sure, he'll face stiff competition at the position against Hager and freshman Erick Fowler, but it seemed Hughes began to put everything together toward the latter part of 2015.
In the final two games of the season against Texas Tech and Baylor, Hughes recorded 2.5 sacks, 18 tackles, and two tackles for loss. He's shown he can rush the passer and he's outstanding against the run. Consider the following statistic from Pro Football Focus -- in 184 rushing snaps, Hughes missed zero tackles. Zero. For a team who struggled mightily against the run, it's an even more impressive stat. Count me as a member of the Naashon Hughes fan club.
Battling for the Fox spot with Hughes will be sophomore Breckyn Hager. During the 2015 season, Hager spent his time at the linebacker position where he worked into the rotation near the end of the season due to injuries. While Hager did fairly well there, coaches moved him to the Fox spot to tap into his potential as a pass rusher where he excelled in high school. Since his move to the edge spot, Hager has impressed the Texas coaching staff, especially rushing the passer.
"As far as blitzing, he's our best blitzer, to be honest," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said during the spring. "When he's in the game, we try to find ways to get him involved rushing the passer because he's caused some havoc."
Hager's ability to rush certainly adds a new dynamic to this position battle. Out of high school, Hager's true position was at defensive end, so he's already accustomed to what the position is like. I imagine Hughes will start at that spot, but Hager will get an opportunity to show what he's capable of. As he showed in the Orange-White game, Hager could be a nice piece for the Longhorns to apply more pressure on the quarterback.
Other Contributors at DE/Fox
With both end positions shaping up to be position battles, other back up ends may see less time compared to other positions on the field. However, there will also be several guys asked to provide depth at the end position behind these starters.
One of these players will be incoming freshman Andrew Fitzgerald. On National Signing Day, Charlie Strong called Fitzgerald "the dark horse" of the 2016 recruiting class. Fitzgerald was ranked as a top-100 player in the country according to 247 Sports Rankings and had one of the biggest jumps in the rankings during the recruiting season.
Coaches love Fitzgerald's blend of size, athleticism, and motor, and believe he'll be an impact player in his freshman season. Fitzgerald is the type of player that Charlie Strong loves -- a player with great natural abilities who also relentlessly works to better himself every day. Fitzgerald wasn't a big name during recruiting, but Longhorn fans should get to know his name because he'll be a big time player at Texas.
At the Fox position, the Longhorns arguably have their most talented recruit from the 2016 class in Erick Fowler. Like Southall, Fowler had early grade concerns, but the coaches expect him to make it into school and compete during fall practices. Fowler comes to Texas as one of their highest rated recruits as he was ranked 74th in the nation according to 247Sports Composite Rankings.
More importantly, he represents a bright future for the Fox position on Charlie Strong's defense. Fowler looks like a natural at the Fox because of his tenacious pass rush and natural strength. As a edge player in high school, Fowler showed nice range and the ability to close on ball carriers in a hurry. He also possess incredible strength and drives through the ball carrier with a force that coaches cannot teach. Fowler is the type of player who could jump into the college game and make an impact right way. If he makes it to the Forty Acres this fall, it'll be a significant addition to the Texas defense.
One name I haven't mentioned that many are probably surprised at is senior Quincy Vasser. The junior college transfer played in eight games last season, but didn't make much of an impact in any game he played in. In his time on the field, it seemed he underwhelmed the coaching staff and left a lot to be desired.
Vasser was one of the highest rated recruits out of the junior college ranks during the 2015 recruiting year, but he has struggled adjusting to the faster game. With so many additions to the defensive line and other players improving faster than him, Vasser looks like the odd man out.
Freshman Malcolm Roach is another first year player who will probably redshirt this upcoming season. With depth ahead of him, he'll have an opportunity to adjust to the college game and contribute early in 2017. A Louisiana native, Roach is an often overlooked prospect of the most recent Texas recruiting class.
That's easy to understand with guys like Fowler ahead of him, but Roach is a solid prospect. Like Fowler, he's an explosive tackler and a violent player on the football field. While he picked up weight during his senior year, he maintained his speed that allowed him to travel across the field from linebacker to defensive end. Having that experience will allow the Texas coaches to find the best position for Roach and where he can help the defense the most. His impact will not be in 2016, but Roach is a name to keep in mind in the future.
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.