Don’t call it a 7-on-7 team any more.
When the Texas Longhorns signed the greatest haul of defensive backs in modern recruiting history on December 20, critics loudly noted the lack of defensive linemen. The burnt orange faithful bemoaned the situation and fretted over the status of Houston Westfield defensive tackle Keondre Coburn, who opted not to sign during the early period.
Seven weeks later, the Longhorns signed five defensive linemen after making “big-time strides” on the recruiting trail and fulfilling one of head coach Tom Herman’s key promises from the early signing period.
“In February we’re going to sign a really good defensive line class,” Herman promised.
To be sure, there was reason for skepticism. The Aggies led for the state’s top pass rusher, Joseph Ossai. Nebraska was the perceived favorite for Missouri product Daniel Carson. Katy defensive tackle Moro Ojomo was still a relative unknown. Jumbo Louisiana athlete Mike Williams wasn’t even on the recruiting radar. At the last minute, position coach Oscar Giles missed on five-star edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson in the 2017 class and failed to sign a high school defensive tackle.
Even though Herman liked the position the Longhorns were in, but there wasn’t a lot of agreement within the fanbase.
Then, with a major assist from Assistant Director of Player Personnel Bryan Carrington, Giles closed strong.
Carson committed in January, followed by Williams. Ojomo joined the class on Tuesday, while Ossai went public with his commitment on National Signing Day. Coburn struggled with his decision, admitting that he didn’t sleep well before announcing, but felt a load lift off his shoulder when he faxed his National Letter of Intent to Austin.
“I helped bring the recruiting class to Texas, so I couldn’t just leave those guys,” he told the Austin American-Statesman. “I’m about loyalty and I would’ve felt bad if I abandoned the mission. It wouldn’t have felt right to go anywhere else.”
He probably wasn’t the only one — the early signing period sparked a run on defensive linemen.
“It becomes, I mean, a feeding frenzy out there, especially in a thin position, in a certain class,” Herman said. “If you were a D-lineman, man, you were getting recruited by everybody after December 21st. That made it a little bit overwhelming I think for some of those guys because everybody in the country needed D-linemen. There were very few to choose from.”
The competition for defensive linemen put pressure on the Longhorns to close with the small number of high-level prospects remaining, increasingly the already-high stakes. With Chris Nelson, Jamari Chisholm, Charles Omenihu, and Breckyn Hager all departing after the 2018 season, the Longhorns needed desperately reinforcements.
“These guys are going to be expected to come in, get their feet wet, provide us with quality, championship-caliber reps, then be ready to take this thing over full-time as sophomores,” Herman said.
Herman’s most effusive praise was for Coburn and Ojomo.
“I don’t think, I know we signed the two best defensive tackles in the state of Texas in Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo. Those guys are going to be expected to compete very early in their career.”
At 6’3 and 334 pounds, Coburn is the pure nose tackle, big and strong enough to anchor at the point of attack against the run, but quick enough to shoot gaps when the Longhorns decide to slant or twist the defensive line. In Florida for the Under Armour All-American game, Coburn’s motor ran so hot that he was chasing plays all over the field, doing his best impression of former Texas star Malcom Brown’s high school film.
In Ojomo, the ‘Horns have a prospect who is exceptionally young for his class at only 16 years old. He’s already 6’3 and 280 pounds, but his father is 6’5, so Ojomo is holding out hope for some growth as he works to keep his weight under 300 pounds. Playing at Katy gave him his fill of taking on double and triple teams at nose tackle — at Texas he’ll play further outside, like Nelson did as a junior playing the four technique.
Speaking of technique, Ojomo has an advanced ability to use his hands for someone so long, combining that skills with a burst off the ball that will make him difficult to block in college. For a scintillating prospect, imagine that first step maximized at age 20 after a few years working with strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight.
The frame of Carson might be more projectable — he’s listed at 6’5 and 260 pounds, but carries his weight like he’s 240 and appears to have a wingspan longer than his height.
“I think Daniel is a phenomenal player, a great frame, is going to be a really, really big dude,” Herman said.
Expect him to eventually play between 280 and 300 pounds. They key will be to maintain his athleticism, which doesn’t always jump out on film in the same way as someone like Ossai, but it’s there. In fact, Carson can reportedly run a 4.8 40-yard dash.
As a senior his length and quickness helped him post 73 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries, both of which he returned for touchdown. Oh yeah, and a blocked field goal for good measure.
The sleeper in the class, according to Herman, is Williams, who played quarterback in high school. Anyone looking for a good time should watch the 6’2, 250-pounder viciously run through and around virtually every defender on the field for a 99-yard touchdown run:
Want to see new defensive line commit Mike Williams go 99 yards while at QB? This is pretty absurd. pic.twitter.com/8FBTcMvDiK— EricInsideTexas (@EricNahlin) January 24, 2018
“I loved his film,” Herman said.
One doesn’t have to wonder why.
However, what really stood out to the Texas head coach when he went to visit the Dunham School in Baton Rouge was the flexibility of the big athlete.
“I walked into his high school,” Herman said. “He had a bar on his back with 315 pounds. His feet were perfectly straight together, and he did six reps of a squat touching his butt to his heels. Then he jumped on the power clean, power cleaned it butt to the heels with his feet straight ahead. Whoa, that’s a really, really flexible, athletic dude.”
As Williams attempts to convert to the defensive side of the ball, he’ll need that flexibility as he works to keep his pads low and out-leverage opponents. It may take some time, but there’s some serious potential there.
The senior season for Ossai featured the Nigerian native harnessing his significant potential on the field after coming late to the game. His eight sacks and 15 tackles for a loss are impressive numbers, but it’s his ability to run the arc that makes him the state’s best pass rusher and pop on film. As a run defender, Ossai showed a high-level ability to hold the point of attack or slant across the face of offensive linemen to get unto the backfield. Not many high school players can achieve so highly in those areas at less than 230 pounds.
Despite that aptitude, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando wants to move Ossai to B-backer in college, which will force him to learn how to take some pass drops and play in space.
“I don’t care where I play as long as I can go rush the passer,” Ossai told the Austin American-Statesman. “I’ll drop into coverage some, but not much.”
So how much of a difference can seven weeks make? All the difference in the world, as it turns out. Now the Longhorns have a defensive line class that makes up for the attrition in the last year and sets up the program for future success in the trenches. Especially considering the developmental ability of Giles, who is widely known as an excellent teacher.
And may even get some credit as a recruiter now, too.
“My hat is off to Oscar Giles for staying the course,” Herman said. “This was a bit of a rollercoaster ride, especially in state at defensive line. We finished really strong.”