In September of 2016, former Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong instructed then-defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and defensive line coach Brick Haley to find a way to get Breckyn Hager on the field.
In response, the Texas defensive braintrust to play Hager at Fox end opposite Naashon Hughes on either side of a three-down front. Hager responded with his first career sack and a team-high eight tackles. By the end of the season, the Westlake product led the ‘Horns with six sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
Through the first six games of the 2017 season, however, Hager was largely a non-factor — moved to middle linebacker during the spring, the 6’4, 245-pounder had only three tackles and one sack heading into the game against Oklahoma State. Hager mostly played in obvious pass-rushing situations.
The staff was struggling to figure out where to utilize a player that head coach Tom Herman described on Monday as a “tweener.”
“It's like what is he? Is he a linebacker? Is he a defensive end? Is he an outside linebacker? Is he an inside linebacker? The one thing he does is gives you effort,” Herman said. “So we've settled in with him at defensive end.”
Sensing an opportunity to finally let Hager loose, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando decided to employ the team’s “Lightning” package more often against the Cowboys.
When Oklahoma State lined up in 10 personnel (four wide receivers, one running back) or 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one H-back, and one running back), Orlando played Hager and sophomore Malcolm Roach at defensive end, senior Poona Ford at nose tackle, junior Malik Jefferson at linebacker, and
Hager responded with the first multi-sack game of his career, added another tackle, and also had a quarterback hurry in which he nearly forced a fumble by Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph.
The natural pass-rushing ability and relentless energy of Hager made a clear difference in the game and could continue making a difference for a defense that ranks tied for 50th nationally in sacks.
Now that Hager is settled in a defensive end, the questions are whether he can defend the run and whether that particular package has any utility against teams like Baylor that are more aggressive in creating displacement and being physical with running plays like inside zone and power.
There’s no question that the Texas defense is more effective at getting to the quarterback when Hager is on the field.