If the 2018 college football season were to begin today, the Texas Longhorns would hardly have enough healthy scholarship linebackers to construct a complete two-deep.
Last week, Texas announced that junior Jeffery McCulloch would miss several weeks with a strained pectoral muscle, which prompted true freshman safety DeMarvion Overshown’s move to linebacker. Just days later, though, Overshown, who was lining up as the second-team Rover behind Gary Johnson, went down with a knee injury during the Longhorns first scrimmage of fall practice, as did fellow freshman and second-team Mac linebacker Ayodele Adeoye.
Both players will miss an extended period of time, including the season opener against the Terrapins, so the Longhorns will proceed with just six healthy scholarship linebackers — Johnson, Anthony Wheeler, Malcolm Roach, Cameron Townsend, Joseph Ossai, and Byron Vaughns.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Demarco Boyd remains indefinitely suspended after his arrest for misdemeanor assault.
To add insult to injury, Johnson has been bitten by the injury bug multiple times, from an ankle injury last year to a groin injury during the spring to the mild shoulder sprain he’s playing through this fall. Wheeler will be suspended for the first half of Texas’ season-opening meeting with Maryland on Sept. 1 due to a targeting ejection during the second half of the Texas Bowl victory over Missouri. Townsend has hardly seen the field at Texas since signing in 2015, and Ossai and Vaughns, of course, are true freshmen.
If this crop of talent can’t add a healthy body or two in the coming weeks, the Longhorns first-team defense when Texas takes the field at FedEx Field will feature Johnson at Rover, Roach at B-Backer, with Townsend likely making his first career start in-between the two at Mac until Wheeler returns for the second half. Or Roach could move to Mac, with Ossai taking over his role at B-backer.
On the surface, two veteran starters still in place and the other returning after halftime isn’t the worst situation in the world, but the undeniable lack of depth certainly sparks some cause for concern.
As long as Johnson remains healthy, he’ll start at the Rover. Johnson’s speed, athleticism, and aggressive nature on the field make him the most ideal fit for the Rover role in Todd Orlando’s defense, but injuries have depleted the depth behind him.
After spending his first two seasons at B-Backer, McCulloch would seemingly be the first Rover off the bench after cross-training at Rover and Mac this offseason, but of course, he’s currently unavailable with a strained pectoral muscle. Even if only for practice purposes, Texas turned to Overshown, but he’s now sidelined for the foreseeable future as well. If McCulloch is unavailable for the season-opener, the most likely scenario in the case of any injuries — or the simple need for rest — would be to slide Roach over from B-Backer, as he saw time at Rover throughout the spring while Johnson recovered from a groin injury.
With Ossai impressing in practice as the second-team B-Backer, the staff may have enough confidence in sliding Roach to the Rover and moving Ossai up the depth chart.
Wheeler will watch the first half of the Maryland game from the sidelines before returning to his role as the starting Mac linebacker, but similar to the situation surrounding Johnson at the Rover, there’s now relatively little depth behind him.
McCulloch may have been the top option to fill in for Wheeler courtesy of his experience and versatility to line up at any linebacker position, but Adeoye was also being groomed for a place within the two deep after absorbing most of the second-team reps at Mac this fall. However, the second- and third-best Mac linebacker options are now benched with injuries and rather than those reps going to Demarco Boyd, who is suspended from all team activities, it’s Townsend who is likely in line to trot onto the field against Maryland as the first-team Mac after finding himself fairly deep down the depth chart just weeks ago.
Save for McCulloch fighting through a strained pectoral muscle, the B-Backer position has remained injury-free, although experience is lacking.
Roach is the sitting starter after transitioning to the position this offseason, but with McCulloch currently out, Texas’ only depth at B-Backer is a pair of true freshmen in Ossai and Vaughns. Each of the two have garnered praise throughout the early portion of fall camp, especially Ossai, but ideally, Texas would like another experienced option available, and healthy. That luxury won’t be available for another few weeks.
The good news for Texas, however, is the Longhorns can, at times, offset the lack of experienced depth at B-Backer by implementing the Lightning Dime package.
Orlando worked hard to add another linebacker to the 2018 recruiting class down the stretch before National Signing Day, but ended up falling short with Louisiana’s Andrew Parker, who signed with Arkansas.
And when Edwin Freeman elected to become a graduate transfer at the end of July, it didn’t seem like a huge deal — he wasn’t expected to play a major role this season.
However, the injuries to McCulloch, Adeoye, and Overshown, as well as Boyd’s suspension, has quickly robbed the Horns of critical depth.
So while it isn’t quite time to panic, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Texas may have to scramble to get average overall play from the three linebacker positions in 2018 while hoping that the injury situation doesn’t get worse.
Might be a good idea to put Johnson in bubble wrap and only remove it on Saturdays, for instance.