While the Texas longhorns offense has already successfully begun to leave its former self, whatever that may have been, from last season in the dust, the defense is still working to evolve and improve on its strengths as a unit.
Along with the offense and defense, we’ve also seen improvements from the special teams units in the early part of the 2016 season.
Thanks to some key players stepping up, a group that felt like could go one of two directions has been leaning towards the positive side of the road through two games.
The starting group of defensive tackles basically consists of three players; 5th-year senior Paul Boyette Jr., junior Poona Ford, and 3rd-year sophomore Chris Nelson.
Boyette Jr., the vocal leader of the group, has been lining up at nose tackle with Nelson and Ford rotating next to him at defensive tackle. All three of those players have received about 30-40 snaps per game so far.
The combination of those three have notched a total of 30 tackles, including 5 tackles-for-loss, in the ‘Horns first two contests, though they are still looking for their first sack.
Behind those three, freshmen Gerald Wilbon and D’Andre Christmas have been providing depth inside, with Wilbon lining up at nose tackle and Christmas at defensive tackle.
On the outside, sophomore Charles Omenihu has been lining up as the starting strong-side defensive end with 4th-year junior Naashon Hughes starting on the other side as the weak-side defensive end.
Omenihu has impressed with six tackles, including one for a loss and one sack.
Behind those two, 5th-year senior Bryce Cottrell and freshman Jordan Elliott have provided depth on the strong-side while sophomore Breckyn Hager and freshman Malcolm Roach have provided depth on the weak-side.
More importantly with Hager and Roach, inserting both of those two into the game at once has allowed Texas to run a 3-4 look, like we saw against UTEP.
With those two displaying early promise, the Texas defense has shown it has the versatility to line up in a three-man, four-man, or five-man front if the situations calls for it.
Depth along the defensive line was thought to be a concern coming into the season, yet through the first two games, the rotation up front has essentially been as deep as 11 guys, with five inside, five outside, and one (Jordan Elliott) lining up outside for now but he could kick back inside if needed.
The 11-man rotation up front has accounted for 61 of the teams 141 total tackles, including 10.5 of the 17 tackles for loss, and three of five sacks.
Through two games, Fox end Naashon Hughes has been solid. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been curious to see if he’ll take his game to the next level this season as a pass rusher off the edge.
He led the team with nine TFL’s last season and was second in sacks with 5.5.
The 4th-year junior needs to get going this season. If not, he could see more snaps get taken by an up-and-coming player like Malcolm Roach.
One of the bigger concerns on defense doesn’t have to do with any of the starters on the field. Instead, one of the bigger concerns has to be the drop off that could take place in the middle should Malik Jefferson or Anthony Wheeler miss extended time.
Both of those two players have been the mainstays in the middle so far. Behind them, 5th-year senior Tim Cole and 3rd-year sophomore Edwin Freeman have come in to give them breathers. But neither have displayed the ability and athleticism Jefferson and Wheeler have.
The quality of depth at linebacker is the concern. And that’s likely why we’ll also see Coach Strong bring in 3 to 4 linebackers this recruiting cycle similar to the way he brought in a slew of defensive tackles to fill the void there this past cycle.
While on the field, Jefferson and Wheeler have made their presences felt. The duo has combined for 26 tackles with 17 of those being solo, including two tackles-for-loss, one sack and two pass break-ups. Did I mention both are just sophomores?
Having the ability to lineup Hager, Roach, Hughes and even freshman Jeffrey McCulloch at fox end basically gives Texas four players it can line up on the edges as outside linebackers to rush the passer or drop into coverage if need be.
The secondary has been pretty solid to start the season. We’ve already seen a handful of guys get on the field. which has displayed the quality of depth Texas has on the back end of its defense.
Though the entire Texas defense, including the secondary, is looking for its first interception, the defensive backs have accounted for 42 tackles, including 4.5 tackles-for-loss, four pass break-ups, the only two forced fumbles so far this season, and most surprisingly of all, four sacks,
To put the sack numbers in perspective, of the 37 sacks the ‘Horns recorded last season, only two were credited to defensive backs (Haines-1, Bonney-1).
Between the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary, no position group has more sacks than the DB’s right now in 2016. They have four of the team’s eight.
At corner, sixth-year senior Sheroid Evans along with sophomores Davante Davis and Holton Hill have received the majority of the snaps.
Behind those three, sophomore Kris Boyd has been the next man up followed by 4th-year junior Antwuan Davis (though Davis slides over to nickel at times as well).
At safety, the listed starters continue to be senior Dylan Haines and junior Jason Hall. But after Haines got knocked out of the Notre Dame game and missed the game against UTEP the following week, 5th-year senior Kevin Vaccaro has been on the field the most of any safety.
Behind the starters, sophomore DeShon Elliott and true freshman Brandon Jones have been seeing time when the starters need breathers.
Both also bring a high-level of athleticism to the field, with Jones having the most potential of any safety in the group.
When Texas runs its base 4-2-5 with a nickel corner on the field, sophomore P.J. Locke has pretty much had the position locked down. And when he’s not on the field, Texas inserts Antwuan Davis in at nickel when they run their nickel defense.
Inserting a nickel on the field not only helps defend against the pass-heavy spread offenses Texas will see throughout the season, it also helps decrease the number of inside linebackers Texas needs to utilize at one time from three to two, alleviating some of the depth issues at those positions.
Similar to the offensive line, what this defense probably needs most is this season and another full off-season to develop into the freakish force it has the potential to be.
If you aren’t buying that, just look at the list of first and second year players playing in the two deeps on defense right now. It includes the following...
Defensive line: Charles Omenihu, D’Andre Christmas, Gerald WIlbon, Jordan Elliott, Breckyn Hager, Malcolm Roach.
Linebacker: Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler, Jeffery McCulloch
Secondary: Davante Davis, Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, P.J. Locke III, DeShon Elliott, Brandon Jones
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 15 first or second year players that are listed on the two-deeps and have gotten onto the field this season. And that number goes up to 17 if we include third-year sophomores Chris Nelson and Edwin freeman.
If this defense was in its adolescent stage last season, it feels like it’s in its late teenage years right now. And the rest of the conference should take notice as it develops.
Some of the team’s biggest improvements have been on special teams. After a rough start to his freshman season, sophomore punter Michael Dickson is currently second in the nation with a average of 52.9 yards per punt.
Don’t underestimate the value Dickson brings by being able to flip the field on an opponent when the offense stalls and Texas has to punt.
The ‘Horns have found some stability kicking field goals with grad-transfer Trent Domingue. He may not have the strongest leg, but he’s hit all three attempts this so far this season with his longest being a 43-yarder against UTEP.
Another good sign on special teams has been Texas’ ability to block field goals. Naashon Hughes blocked one against Notre Dame to open the season, and Brandon Jones blocked another against UTEP the following week.
The blocks were the first since 2013, according to the Texas SID department.
Back when Mack Brown was leading Texas to 10+ win seasons, specials teams was always a unit that could be expected to make plays throughout the season. And when special teams is making plays, it usually means there’s talented depth on the roster.
The one area of special teams everyone is still waiting to see make a play is in the return game. Neither the punt return nor kick return teams have done much at all.
I’m not ready to say the issues is the return-men themselves. Warrick, Boyd, Duvernay and Porter all seem like capable returners. But something has to give sooner than later. Starting deep in your own territory consistently is never a plus.
The defense continues to show potential and the special teams has taken a step up in different areas. But as Texas approaches the stretch of spread offenses on its schedule, it’ll need the defense to continue to develop and come together to avoid putting too much pressure on the offense.
Looking at Texas Tech, having to rely almost entirely on your offense looks miserable. Luckily for Texas, its defense has a lot more pieces to work with and has a chance to be one of the better units in the conference when its all said and done.