No Gary Johnson. No Edwin Freeman.
The Texas Longhorns are without two of the team’s three senior linebackers for the rest of spring practice, so defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is putting several players at new positions.
Junior Malcolm Roach is now at linebacker after playing defensive end last season and spending his freshman year at Charlie Strong’s version of the B-backer position. Fellow junior Jeffrey McCulloch is joining him at linebacker after playing B-backer in 2017.
Getting a look at those two players at the Mike and Rover position gives Orlando a chance to evaluate how well they can work in space, a significant change for both.
At 270 pounds, Roach is much heavier than most linebackers asked to range sideline to sideline and take drops in pass coverage, but he’s also a unique athlete who played linebacker in high school. And stunting into the line of scrimmage to fill an interior gap, which Orlando often asks of his linebackers because of his preferred three-man front, is an area where Roach could be particularly effective.
“He’s instinctive,” Orlando said last week. “He’s just a playmaker. He’s got really good vision. Probably best not to screw him up to be honest with you. I’m very thoughtful of when moving around in different spots, how much and how hard I coach him. We can teach him. He’s been doing a really good job. He’s a ballplayer.”
A turf toe injury from preseason camp and split playing time at defensive end were mostly responsible for a decrease in his disruptiveness — Roach had eight tackles for loss and three sacks in 2016 compared to four tackles for loss and two sacks last season. But the move to defensive end probably didn’t help, either, as B-backer is likely Roach’s best position since it doesn’t force him to play heads up against an opposing offensive tackle.
And, in fact, B-backer was where Roach was playing this spring before the rash of injuries forced him to move to Malik Jefferson’s old position of Rover.
Meanwhile, McCulloch has spent the spring working to hone his skills at the middle linebacker position after missing the last three games of the regular season due to injury. He’s more likely to stick there than Roach is to remain at Rover.
At the least, Orlando will have the option of using either or both players at linebackers situationally next year, possibly in the Lightning package that removes the B-backer from the field in favor of an extra defensive back.
However, the defensive coordinator is also looking for other players to emerge, including redshirt sophomore Demarco Boyd and early enrollee freshman Ayodele Adeoye.
“We’ve been twisting up the lineup,” Orlando said. “Demarco Boyd has done a really nice job for us, too. We’ll wait on those guys to get healthy. I think (Ayodele Adeoye) is another guy that we’ve got to get ready for the Maryland game. A work in progress right now. Obviously, it’s an opportunity to develop some other guys for the future.”
Hearing Orlando mention Boyd’s name is promising because the 5’11, 240-pounder only appeared in four games last season, mostly playing on special teams, and hasn’t done anything to earn a projection as a contributor yet.
The expectations are higher for Adeoye, who arrived on campus looking like an upperclassman physically, but head coach Tom Herman noted at the end of March that he was still “swimming” and it sounds like that remains the case. Still, Adeoye’s already made progress in the weight room and now looks even more impressive:
So while it’s not ideal to spend so much of the spring without Johnson or Freeman, Orlando is getting a chance to cross train players like Roach and McCulloch while getting guys like Boyd and Adeoye more reps with the first and second teams.
In 11 days, fans will get a chance to see how much it’s all paying off.