Casey Hampton. Ed Oliver. Poona Ford.
At Big 12 Media Days last week, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman said that he’s been around three “truly great” nose tackles during his career, listing the two Texas standouts and the current Houston superstar.
Unfortunately, Herman’s defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando, is now tasked with replacing Ford, who graduated after his best season in burnt orange — 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one pass breakup, and a blocked field goal. As a result of that production, the Texas team captain earned recognition as the Big 12’s Defensive Lineman of the Year before landing with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent.
According to Herman, the plan to replace Ford involves a “committee” approach, since no single option will be able to replicate Ford’s disruptiveness.
“I wish we had him and could refer to him in the present tense, but if we can get close to that kind of production, if we can make up for it with the veterans that we have at end, with Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu as well as Chris Nelson is here today representing us,” Herman said.
Hager and Omenihu both seem poised for big-time senior seasons. Hager’s improved athleticism and scheme fit at defensive end will allow him to maximize his production over an entire season, while Omenihu has been hard at work to improve against the run as he attempts to set the single-season sack record.
After spending last season at defensive end, senior Chris Nelson will return to a previous position.
“I think he’s going to slide down and play the nose guard position, and he’s a guy that’s got a lot of snaps under his belt and has really helped our program,” Herman said.
A National Signing Day addition by Charlie Strong in 2014, Nelson does have plenty of experience — he’s appeared in 31 games over the last three seasons, including 15 starts.
Before Texas moved to the Lightning Package as the base defense last season, Nelson started opposite of Omenihu for seven games, posting 18 tackles, three tackles for loss, and one sack. During preparation for the Texas Bowl, he suffered an elbow injury that eventually required surgery in April.
Now at full strength once again, Nelson is back at nose tackle, the position he played for Strong as a sophomore. In eight starts that season, the 6’1, 297-pounder was highly productive, recording 45 tackles (29 solo), six tackles for loss, and one forced fumble.
What the staff expects from Nelson depends in part on how Orlando decides to construct the defense. If he opts for the Lightning package as the base defense, then Nelson will need to be disruptive — not just occupying blockers, but beating them to make plays in the backfield or close to the line of scrimmage. If Orlando employs a more traditional B-backer instead of a defensive back as the hybrid edge defender, then Nelson’s role will focus more on keeping the linebackers clean and free to flow to the football.
As Herman alluded to, the difficulty in asking Nelson to play the same role that Ford did late last season is that Ford’s talent was truly unique. At under 6’0, Ford possesses a rare combination of leverage and arm length that allowed him to get under the pads of opposing offensive linemen. Arguably his most unique trait, however, was his explosiveness, which made him an entertaining running back to watch in high school as a 285-pounder with 4.85 speed in the 40-yard dash. In college, it made him extremely difficult to stop as a senior.
While Nelson proved his productiveness as a sophomore, he doesn’t have any of the same unique physical traits that made Ford one of the best nose tackles that Herman has ever been around.
So it’s fair to buy in to Herman’s belief that replacing Ford’s production will have to come from multiple places.
One player who probably won’t play a large role in helping to replace the Big 12’s Defensive Lineman of the Year is sophomore Ta’Quon Graham, who is now up to 285 pounds. Graham played some nose tackle during the spring since Nelson’s participation was limited, but will most likely spent most of his time at defensive end this fall.
“Ta’Quon spent the majority of the spring playing nose guard because we wanted our best three defensive linemen on the field, which for us was Breckyn Hager, Charles Omenihu, and Graham,” Herman said. “That’s not where he’ll play most of the time this fall, but we thought it was good for a young guy to kind of get beat up a little bit inside, get muscled around a little bit from centers and guards, then he can transition back out to the defensive end spot from spending a little spring inside. He did a really good job.”
Even if Graham’s versatility doesn’t benefit the Longhorns much at nose tackle in 2018, his career trajectory is on the right track as a potential replacement for Omenihu next season.
The likely back up for Nelson this season is junior Gerald Wilbon, a 6’3, 310-pounder who may have the best anchor on the roster. However, he’s only seen limited playing time through two seasons, including seven tackles in 2017, so it’s not clear just how much production Wilbon can provide, even in limited snaps.
Of all the departures from Orlando’s first defense in Austin, Ford is arguably the most difficult to replace. Still, despite the concerns, Herman trusts his defensive coordinator.
“You know, I’ve been around Todd Orlando for a long time and knock on wood, stopping the run has never been an issue, regardless of personnel.”