Just as many predicted following yet another top-10 recruiting class in Austin, the youth movement has been apparent early and often this season. Through three games, 15 true freshmen have already seen the field for the Texas Longhorns, many of which have made a noticeable impact, even in limited opportunities.
Now following a self-examination inducing loss on the road to California, it’s critical that the coaching staff provides more opportunities for the young playmakers and these five freshmen must see the field more going forward.
Safety Brandon Jones
It seems like every time Brandon Jones steps on the field, he’s making plays. To this point, his reps have been limited to special teams, but he’s still been a force in kickoff coverage with three tackles and has already blocked two punts, while nearly blocking another against UTEP
The latest block went for a safety against Cal.
Struggles in the secondary would be reason enough to give the nation’s top-ranked safety an opportunity to play and his outstanding effort and playmaking on special teams only adds further justification to his need to see the field.
Considering Jones has done nothing but impress in the limited opportunities he’s had, it only makes sense to give him some reps in the secondary, where Texas can certainly afford some playmaking after failing to record a single interception in three games.
It’s unlikely that Jones starts at safety against Oklahoma State, but it would be wise for whomever Texas’ defensive play-caller is going forward to get the former All-American on the field.
Fox end Malcolm Roach
Has any freshman not named Shane Buechele impressed more than “The Baton Rouge gentleman,” Malcolm Roach? The answer is no.
The stud edge rusher has wreaked havoc out of his reserve role in the double Fox or Cheetah defense we’re seeing more of from the Longhorns. Despite playing far fewer snaps than junior Naashon Hughes, he’s already matched his tackle total (seven) and is tied for first on the team in sacks with 2.0, along with two more tackles for loss.
Roach has displayed situational awareness beyond his years and enough athleticism and versatility to even line up with slot receivers in a few situations.
On the field with a SR, 2 JRs and 2 SOs, true freshman Malcolm Roach is the first guy to recognize the screen. pic.twitter.com/RtGxeIIXLr— Ryan Bridges (@RyanBridgesCFB) September 15, 2016
Much like Jones, Roach is a playmaker and considering Hughes has looked to be anything but early on, it’s hard to argue against Roach seeing a starting role, or at least 50 percent of the snaps going forward; his high is 36 percent of snaps against UTEP.
Alex Dunlap of Orangebloods provided some perspective on the significantly heightened productivity would could see from the Fox role if Roach sees more snaps:
In 56 total snaps on defense, Roach has had two sacks, two separate QB hits that were almost sacks, one separate QB pressure and 1.5 separate tackles for a loss. Naashon Hughes in 670 snaps during 2015? Three sacks, three hits and three QB pressures. At Roach’s current (admittedly likely unsustainable) pace he'd generate 25 of each over as many snaps.
So, yeah, this young man needs to be on the field a lot more often than not.
Defensive tackle Jordan Elliott
The 6’4, 318-pound lineman hasn’t seen too many reps through the first three games of his young career, but that’s something that must change entering conference play, especially considering the Texas front has struggled to generate much pressure.
Against Cal, Texas only played three interior lineman, none of which were freshman, and the lack of pressure on Davis Webb late in the game was evident, likely from being gassed in a late game that was tremendously fast-paced.
But even more notable that simply providing depth is the need for someone — anyone — to provide pressure from the trenches. Chris Nelson hasn’t come anywhere close to matching his performance against Notre Dame and despite Texas leading the Big 12 in sacks with 11, only one has come from the interior linemen.
Whether this is due to the vets playing too many reps to be effective on each down or simply not getting enough of a push in general, the line needs to improve and young guys like Elliott could help with that.
After all, Vance Bedford raved about him after the Notre Dame game, saying Elliott “can be really special.”
Wide receiver Devin Duvernay
A key component to success in the veer-and-shoot offense is the effective use of screens, but the ‘Horns haven’t seen the big bursts from playmakers in the open field many expected entering the season. Enter Devin Duvernay, the highest-rated Texas freshman, the likely primary kick returner for the remainder of the season, and the fastest player on the entire team.
Against Cal, Duvernay returned six kicks for 130 yards, including a 28-yard return, but he hasn’t been too involved in the offense yet, grabbing only one catch for 10 yards. He hauled in a long reception against UTEP, but it was called back due to an offensive pass interference call.
The issue for Duvernay has been a bevy of quality options at receiver with the emergence of senior Jacorey Warrick and juniorJake Oliver, as well as Jerrod Heard transitioning to receiver quite well.
“If we can get him on the field, get the ball in his hands and let him do what he can do it’s going to be fun,” Buechele said.
Outside linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch
It’s hard to gauge the productivity Jeffrey McCulloch could have in an increased role because we haven’t had much of an opportunity to see that yet, but it’s equally difficult to imagine a talent as special as he’s projected to be wouldn’t impact the game positively for a Texas defense that’s struggled.
Anthony Wheeler has looked phenomenal and nobody is taking reps from Malik Jefferson, but with Texas running a lot of sets with only three down linemen, The Shark needs to see more reps in the double Fox as part of a linebacking corps that isn’t deep.
McCulloch plays with that same kind of intensity in pursuit that we’re learning to expect from Roach and Breckyn Hager and much like Jones, he’s beginning to make the most of his limited opportunities. Against Cal, McCulloch made three tackles on special teams and two more in the only two defensive snaps he saw throughout the entire game.
The true freshmen we should expect to see much more of entering Big 12 play isn’t limited to just these five, though they’re the most notable.
Wide receiver Collin Johnson and the entire defensive line come to mind, along with linebacker Erick Fowler, who we’re yet to see after being such a prized recruit. But if the veterans, primarily on defense, can’t start stepping up and playing at a significantly higher level than we’ve seen against the only two competent offenses Texas has played, the youth stepping into key roles will only be a matter of time.