With the first two Texas Longhorns opponents mostly content to drop eight into coverage and rush three players, the offensive tackles have had a relatively easy time of it to start the season. On Saturday, that all changes when the USC Trojans come to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with Porter Gustin and Christian Rector in tow.
Pro Football Focus lined up the tale of the tape on Thursday:
The edge-rush vs tackles in the Texas-USC game will be something special to watch pic.twitter.com/DLPjF5xjKF— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 13, 2018
So far, graduate transfer Calvin Anderson and redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi have been a big reason why the Longhorns pass protection has taken a giant step forward since last season, when both tackle positions struggled following the injury to Connor Williams in Los Angeles.
In fact, after Texas allowed 2.6 sacks per game last season, the line has only allowed two in two games to start 2018. Anderson and Cosmi are only allowing only one pressure for every 35 snaps in pass protection.
The work of Anderson isn’t much of a surprise — he was one of the top returning Group of Five tackles in the country last season — but the play of Cosmi has been a revelation.
A former Houston commit who was ranked as the No. 104 offensive tackle nationally in the 2017 class, he was considered a developmental take because he only weighed 260 pounds. Since then, he’s put on weight quickly, added strength, and maintained the feet and athleticism that made him an intriguing if undervalued prospect.
Against USC, Cosmi will face the first significant test of his career, while Anderson is set to face the type of competition that he came to Texas to play against.
The two Trojans capable of causing the most significant disruption are senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin and junior defensive end Christian Rector. Both players have been banged up already this season — Gustin needed surgery to fix a meniscus injury in preseason camp, while Rector is dealing with a back injury.
Still, the Gustin and Rector have combined to put pressure on the quarterback once every 6.8 times they rush the passer. They’ve hit opposing quarterback once every 17.6 pass-rushing snaps.
Gustin in particular is a concern for Texas head coach Tom Herman.
“He’s really good, to answer that part of the question,” Herman said on Monday. “The uniqueness of him and his skill set is... it’s kind of the total package, right? I mean, he’s big, he’s athletic, but he’s also really tough, really strong, and goes really, really hard. He’s got an unbelievable motor and he doesn’t even, when you do start to block him, he doesn’t stay blocked very long. And then that’s if you’re good enough to actually hat him up and you have a chance.”
Last season, Gustin produced a sack of Ehlinger when he used his quickness and hip flexibility to beat Denzel Okafor out of his stance. The play opens Gustin’s highlight reel and features Okafor completely off balance when he makes contact with the USC star, who merely had to rip through and turn the corner to finish the play.
On his second sack, Gustin used a bullrush until Okafor once again got out over his toes, then viciously disengaged to bring down Ehlinger.
Gustin posted those two sacks in the first half with pins surgically implanted in a broken toe. A biceps injury sustained during the game cost him the rest of his junior season.
Now healthier than he was last season against Texas, Gustin will test Cosmi’s kick set with his quickness and his ability to anchor on balance and in his cylinder with his strength and bullrush.
Herman knows that Gustin isn’t the only opponent to worry about, however.
“We’re going to have to know where he’s at on every snap, there’s no doubt, but their defense is difficult for a lot of reasons, which is you can’t just say, ‘Okay, let’s find a way to X him out and the other 10 guys aren’t good enough to beat you.’ They are. And so you’ve got to be sound enough at every position to make sure that you’re winning your one-on-one matchups.”
Like Gustin last season, Rector will have to battle through an injury. When he was healthy last season, he went on a ridiculous tear — over a span of six games between Texas and Notre Dame, Rector posted 30 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks.
The run got started with six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks against the Longhorns. On one play, he simply shot the A gap on left guard Patrick Vahe and was much too strong once he got his shoulders past Vahe.
And there was one other rather important play in the game — it was Rector who ripped the ball out of Ehlinger’s hands as the quarterback neared the goal line in overtime. USC still had to convert a field goal from more than 40 yards to win the game, but it was essentially over as soon as Rector forced the fumble and then pushed running back Kyle Porter to the ground to allow a teammate to recover.
When Rector works outside against Anderson or Cosmi, he’ll be a load just because of his physical strength and violent use of his hands. As with Gustin, Rector will challenge the Longhorns offensive tackles with his bullrush. The difference is that Rector is at least 15 pounds heavier than Gustin.
The Trojans led the nation in sacks last season for a reason, certainly aided by producing five against the Horns.
Now the question is whether the early-season success of Anderson and Cosmi can survive the test of Gustin and Rector. Given how much this offense continues to struggle when working behind the chains, the answer to that question could play a large role in the outcome on Saturday.