There’s a big hole in the middle of the Texas Longhorns defense following the departures of the Big 12’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and the Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year.
With nose tackle Poona Ford and linebacker Malik Jefferson off to the NFL, head coach Tom Herman said on Monday that other than quarterback, finding replacements at those positions are the biggest concerns that he has with spring practice now underway.
“I would be doing Poona and his contribution to this program an injustice if I didn’t say we were concerned about replacing him,” Herman said on Tuesday. “That guy, as I told you numerous times last year, probably the hardest practicing defensive lineman I’ve ever seen since Casey Hampton.”
Ford took a big leap from his junior to his senior season, finishing with 30 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble, numbers that somehow understate his impact. Tasked with taking on double teams and keeping the speedy linebackers behind him clean to pursue the football, Ford was arguably the most important player on defense. Yes, perhaps even more important than Jefferson, whose loss was mitigated in the Texas Bowl.
“Any time a guy plays that well and not just behind the scenes, not just a guy that we laud but maybe doesn’t have the pelts on the wall on game day, that guy produced,” Herman said. “I think more than anything it’s going to be can we replace his production up there. Yeah, I’m concerned.”
The top candidate to replace Ford is senior Chris Nelson, who started seven games at defensive end last season before giving way to lighter, faster players as the Lightning package took center stage. As a result, Nelson’s production dropped from 45 tackles and six tackles for loss as a sophomore to 18 tackles and three tackles for loss as a junior.
The season didn’t end particularly well for Nelson, either, as he suffered an elbow injury during Texas Bowl practice and didn’t play in the game. Since he still has some scar tissue in that elbow, he’s limited in practice at this time.
The concern is that Nelson, who is 6’1 and 297 pounds, won’t hold up as well against double teams as Ford, though he does have some experience playing nose tackle from his sophomore season. And Nelson also doesn’t have the rare combination of quickness, leverage, and length that made Ford so special despite his lack of ideal height for the position.
Then there’s junior Gerald Wilbon, who is down to 310 pounds from over 330 at one time. Of all the players on the roster, Wilbon probably has the best base to anchor at nose tackle, but he’s still largely unproven after playing in 10 games last season and making seven tackles.
From an athleticism standpoint, sophomore Ta’Quon Graham is the most promising figure — after playing defensive end last season, he spent some time at nose tackle on Tuesday and could have an impact at the position. Now up to 290 pounds, Graham is the tallest player in this grouping at 6’4, so there are leverage questions with him and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando likely wouldn’t ask him to eat up double teams like Ford did last season. If Graham ends up playing there this season, Texas probably needs a B-backer on the field or even to opt for a true four-man line.
At linebacker, Gary Johnson is stepping into the leadership role vacated by Jefferson and has the speed to match Jefferson’s sideline-to-sideline speed, as he did in the Texas Bowl. Make no mistake — the junior college transfer will be one of the top linebackers in the Big 12 next season and could even challenge for All-American honors if he maximizes his potential.
“He’s gained weight, he’s gained strength,” Herman said. “The one thing that’s really hard to teach, if at all, is physicality. You’ve got to really like hitting to be a linebacker, to be good. He does. There’s never been a great inside linebacker that you’ve said, ‘Wow, his finesse-game is awesome.’ It doesn’t happen. The greatest linebackers in the history of our sport have been fierce hitters and Gary (Johnson) is one of those guys. He loves doing it and he’s got a natural knack for the ball. Excited to watch his growth this spring and in the summer.”
The bigger question mark is at the other linebacker position, where senior Anthony Wheeler will compete with players like early enrollee Ayodele Adeoye. Can defensive coordinator Todd Orlando tease out a good final season from the physically talented, but erratic Wheeler? Is Adeoye ready to play?
Wheeler has started 17 games in his career, including eight last season, but saw his production drop from 65 tackles to 47 tackles after he was replaced in the starting lineup by Johnson after the Oklahoma State game. However, Wheeler was good against Missouri when he regained his starting role, recording six tackles, a tackle for loss, and a 38-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
An Under Armour All-American, Adeoye wasn’t particularly noticeable in that game beyond his physique, which is remarkably well developed for such a young player. Unlike Johnson, he doesn’t have great testing speed, but he does pack a powerful punch that could help him defeat blockers at the second level.
As with the quarterback position, another area of concern for Herman, the Orange-White game will provide some insight into the where the nose tackle and linebacker positions are towards the end of April, but the real answers won’t come until the fall.