To function at an optimal level, defenses featuring an odd front like the one employed by Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando need a dynamic playmaker at the outside linebacker position, called the B-backer by Orlando and the Fox position by former head coach Charlie Strong.
For two years at Houston, Orlando had just such a player in former Tyler John Tyler jumbo athlete Tyus Bowser, a one-time Oklahoma State commit who blossomed into a high NFL draft under his new defensive coordinator. In 2015, Bowser recorded 5.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Last season, he became fully mechanized with 12 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. All that production even though he missed five games after a fight with a teammate.
This spring, the Baltimore Ravens selected Bowser with the 47th pick in the NFL Draft.
Through four games at Texas, Orlando hasn’t been able to coax similar production from senior Naashon Hughes.
Listed at 211 pounds out of high school at Harker Heights, Hughes was a mid-three star prospect who mostly played safety and was ranked above only two other signees in the 2013 class. Like Bowser out of high school, Hughes was a raw athlete without a clearly-defined position.
Considered a development project, Hughes surpassed expectations under Strong after redshirting during Mack Brown’s final year at Texas, starting seven games and cementing himself as a staple in Strong’s defenses.
As a sophomore, Hughes became a key special teams contributor and started every game, as he has for all but five games since then, leading the team in tackles for loss and tying for second in sacks.
The rangy, athletic linebacker looked poised to continue his development as a junior after putting on 30 pounds and working to hone his pass-rushing technique. Yet, instead of improving, Hughes played consistently, but couldn’t match the per-snap production of younger upstarts like Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach.
When Orlando arrived in Austin, however, he opted to move Hager to middle linebacker and Roach to defensive end. The latter has been slowed by a turf toe injury sustained during fall camp and the emergence of junior Charles Omenihu, while Hager has been relegated to working in obvious passing situations in his former role off the edge.
Hughes, meanwhile, is a team captain. On the field, he’s more effective in pass coverage and in holding the point of attack against the run than Hager or back up Jeffrey McCulloch, the talented sophomore known as “The Shark” in high school.
That isn’t to say that Hughes isn’t prone to an occasional mistake, however, as the senior earned some on-field admonishment from junior linebacker Malik Jefferson after losing the edge on Iowa State’s first running play:
Asked about the incident on Thursday, head coach Tom Herman said that he encourages that type of on-field accountability from Jefferson.
Unfortunately, the bigger story is that the trust that Orlando has put in Hughes hasn’t been repaid — Hughes still hasn’t shown any dynamic ability in any facet of the game with two tackles for loss and one sack through four contests.
“I think he needs to give us more,” Orlando said bluntly on Wednesday. “He's a big and strong kid. He needs to pick it up. He knows that part of it. I'm not talking to you like I didn't tell him.”
Hughes isn’t making egregious mistakes that result in huge plays and he’s much more comfortable in pass coverage than Hager has ever looked, but he still needs to translate those coverage drops into interceptions.
Against Iowa State, Hughes had several opportunities he couldn’t convert.
“Some of the plays at Iowa State, we just want him to finish those plays and pick those balls off,” Orlando said. “We need him to do those things that we need for him to be a dynamic playmaker.”
At this point, it seems as if Hughes simply is who he is — a good teammate, a player the coaching staff trusts, and a generally reliable contributor who isn’t particularly disruptive.
With the rest of the defense improving, that may be enough to keep the team in games, but for Orlando’s group to get where he wants it to be, reliable has to turn into dynamic.
Some way. Some how.