With starting linebackers Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler both set to graduate after this season, the pressure was on Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to land a large linebacker class in the 2019 cycle while finding some potential instant-impact recruits.
Consider it mission accomplished.
Orlando has already signed four players at the position, including the nation’s No. 64 player and No. 4 outside linebacker, Westlake (Cali.) Westlake Village product De’Gabriel Floyd and potential instant-impact junior college product Caleb Johnson. Both prospects will enroll in January.
The Longhorns defensive coordinator managed to finish with the final major target on Monday — Caleb Johnson of Fullerton College. He took his official visit for the Baylor game just days after decommitting from Iowa State. Since then, he’s also took official visits to Arkansas, Colorado, and Oregon, but the appeal of playing at Texas was too much for him to pass up.
The 6’1, 215-pounder plays a lot like Gary Johnson and will have three years of eligibility remaining after taking a medical redshirt this season. And, in fact, Gary Johnson’s success at Texas influenced Caleb Johnson’s commitment.
“Definitely, seeing his success and everything coming from JUCO, and we’re relatively the same size, that was a big factor,” Johnson told Orangebloods. “And I feel like the coaches saw him come in be one of their best players, so I feel like they have trust in JUCO players and have success at the University of Texas.”
Caleb Johnson doesn’t have the elite speed of Gary Johnson, but there are some definite similarities in terms of size and skill set. Caleb Johnson is extremely fast and extremely physical, even showing the ability to take on and defeat blockers, which Gary Johnson didn’t show on his junior college film and hasn’t shown on the field for the Longhorns.
“[I’d] fit very well,” Johnson previously told Burnt Orange Nation when asked how he would fit Orlando’s defense. “I think Rover is the perfect position for me... I’m planning on starting wherever I go.”
Floyd is the crown jewel of the group, even if Johnson commits and emerges as a player with a higher chance of contributing as soon as he steps on campus.
As a junior, Floyd did it all for his high school team, playing Wildcat quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, safety, cornerback, and serving as a punt returner.
As a senior, he’s focused mostly on playing linebacker at Westlake Village, but he has still spent some time playing from deep position.
He’s arguably one of the most versatile linebackers in the country, not to mention one of the most physical. At around 240 pounds, he also has a 35.6-inch vertical leap, an elite number given his weight.
And while Floyd has Austin ties that helped Orlando land the No. 3 prospect in the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Floyd’s commitment is extremely meaningful as the Longhorns attempt to establish a California-to-Austin pipeline.
The pure inside linebacker of the group is Katy Cinco Ranch’s David Gbenda, who is now officially the state’s highest-rated linebacker with the announcement from LSU commit Marcel Brooks that he’s headed to Baton Rouge as a defensive back and wide receiver.
Gbenda broke onto the scene following a strong junior season that saw him rack up 56 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, and two passes broken up, then committed to Texas at the end of September. The natural inside linebacker is a little bit undersized for the position and will need to continue adding weight, but he’s a solid athlete — he posted a 4.36 shuttle and a 32-inch vertical this spring.
”Seeing how I haven’t been playing football as much, but I have a work ethic that’s really at the top because I’m learning every day,” Gbenda told BON about his game. “My athleticism on the blitz and really just my natural instincts. With the defense, I see myself fitting more as the Rover. But I’m good at blitzing, so I can fit in that role, too.”
Those instincts will be key, especially since Wheeler has shown how valuable those instincts can be in translating physicality and athleticism to the field on Saturdays.
The whirlwind recruitment of Orlando (Fla.) Jones product Marcus Tillman Jr. by the Longhorns didn’t last long — he visited the Forty Acres for the Stars At Night camp in late July and committed hours after receiving his offer.
No small accomplishment for Orlando considering that he was a one-time Florida commit who also considered Clemson and Ohio State, taking visits to both schools before shutting down his recruitment.
“Coach Orlando is real,” Tillman told 247Sports EJ Holland. “He tells you how and what it’s going to be, and his style fits me playing on the edge.”
So while Tillman is a consensus three-star prospect, he’s close to becoming a four-star prospect and may achieve that feat late in the cycle. Regardless, he’s another good athlete who posted a 35-inch vertical and 4.30 shuttle at 6’1 and 220 pounds.
Like Gbenda, Tillman appears to have good instincts for the position — watch how quickly he diagnoses whether a play is run or pass on his senior film. He also appears comfortable playing through traffic, whether it’s offensive linemen or other blockers. And while Tillman doesn’t have elite speed — he ran a 4.85 40-yard dash at a camp for The Opening — he does have enough sideline to sideline speed to make plays.
Texas also holds two commitments from players who could help out at linebacker — Plano East safety Tyler Owens and Richmond George Ranch weak-side defensive end Peter Mpagi.
Owens is a candidate to play the Joker position in the Lightning package and brings better height, length, and speed to the position than freshman BJ Foster, as the late-rising prospect is 6’2 and 202 pounds and runs a 4.48 40-yard dash and a 10.34 100m. Basically, he’s a freakish athlete.
Mpagi is 6’4.5 and 224 pounds, so even though he’s listed as a weak-side defensive end, he’s likely to start out at B-backer for Texas.
As a senior, Mpagi certainly demonstrates burst off the ball, overall twitchiness, and some evidence of technique with his hands. Explosiveness is a genetic trait and Mpagi has it. He’s not an instant-impact recruit at B-backer, but let him develop for two or three years and those natural traits combined with some polish could produce a truly impactful skill set.
As the recruiting cycle heated up following National Signing Day last February, it became quite obvious that the linebacker position was the biggest need in the class. And since the in-state recruiting class isn’t particularly good, Orlando had to scour the entire country to find targets. So he did. Then he landed them.
By late March, Orlando had already added Floyd, a huge coup. Throughout the summer months, Texas trended with Gbenda before eventually landing him. Tillman came on board. Johnson emerged as a target and then committed this week.
Throughout that stretch, Orlando found two other prospects in Owens and Mgapi who add depth and versatility to the other two linebacker positions in his defense that are either technically classified as a linebacker or play a similar role.
With Johnson in the fold, Orlando has put together a remarkable linebacker class given the difficulties posed by this particular cycle. Floyd, Johnson, and Tillman Jr. will all be on campus in January, so the future is clearly now at the position.