Much of the discussion regarding the Texas Longhorns defense when projecting the 2019 season has justifiably focused on the five starters departing from the defensive front, including leading tackler Gary Johnson at the Rover position.
Junior college transfer Caleb Johnson has plenty of upside at the position and he’s already on campus as an early enrollee, but he’s still rehabilitating from a shoulder injury that ended his 2018 season. As a result, head coach Tom Herman believes Johnson could miss half of spring practice.
Enter senior to be Jeffrey McCulloch, a former top-100 prospect whose National Signing Day decision in 2016 was a highlight of the remarkably busy finish to that recruiting cycle.
Since then, McCulloch just hasn’t been able to translate that potential into production as expected. The relatively disappointing career for McCulloch — at least when put into perspective against the expectations that accompanied him to campus — has partly been a result of some injuries and partly a result of initially getting beat out at Charlie Strong’s Fox position by Malcolm Roach and Breckyn Hager in 2016. When head coach Tom Herman arrived, McCulloch played behind Naashon Hughes in 2017 before defensive coordinator Todd Orlando largely moved to the Lightning package and didn’t play the B-backer often through the season’s second half.
Due to a lack of depth this season, McCulloch cross-trained at Rover and replaced an ejected Gary Johnson in the season opener against Maryland after Johnson was removed from the game due to a targeting penalty.
At times, McCulloch looked lost on the field just weeks after suffering a pectoral injury early in preseason camp, but he did record eight tackles a year after notching only 10 all season.
Until Johnson was suspended for the Kansas game for a violation of team rules, McCulloch stepped into his place and demonstrated why he could be the answer next season at Rover. Not only did McCulloch cut down on the false steps, he also made some game-changing plays.
With Kansas in Texas territory in the third quarter following an interception thrown by Sam Ehlinger as the Longhorns lead 21-7, McCulloch made the biggest play of his career — dropping into coverage, the junior got into the passing lane, deflected the throw from Peyton Bender, secured the football, then raced 65 yards for a field-flipping return.
Freshman kicker Cameron Dicker connected from 34 yards out for the final Longhorns score of the game after the offense only managed to gain eight yards on five plays following the interception return.
On a 3rd and 7 in the fourth quarter, McCulloch showed his utility in his more traditional role as an edge blitzer, using a swim move to defeat a block by the running back. Bender was able to get the ball out on time, but if the secondary had held for a split second longer, McCulloch would have gotten a hit on the quarterback or a sack.
Later in the drive, McCulloch did make another play, looping around the offensive line on another blitz and attacking the football when Bender was forced to hold the ball too long, forcing a fumble. Kansas ultimately recovered it, but for the first time in his career, McCulloch had a big impact on a game.
At times, he was still a little bit slow to get his eyes right and get into his coverage — even on the interception — but that’s common even for more experienced linebackers playing in a league where teams like Oklahoma run from high-hat reads and nearly every team consistently employs run-pass options in addition to more traditional play-action passes.
What McCulloch showed in Lawrence, however, is that he can handle enough of the fundamental tasks like scraping and filling his gaps to take advantage of his quality as a blitzer. The sack and forced fumble, for instance, came on a first down. Considering that the typical starters at linebacker in 2018, Johnson and fellow senior Anthony Wheeler, combined for 10.5 sacks, that blitzing ability is something that Orlando will need at the position next season.
And with 15 spring practices and preseason camp to refine his skills at Rover, it’s entirely possible that McCulloch could show significant improvement. His intelligence will definitely help, as he was one of the top students in his class at Aldine Davis, a member of the Academic All-Big 12 Rookie team in 2016-17, and a two-time member of the Big 12’s Commissioners Honor Roll.
So don’t be surprised if McCulloch steps up into that role and makes Johnson wait a season before having a big impact by finally fulfilling the potential that made McCulloch the nation’s No. 62 player and No. 5 outside linebacker in the 2016 class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.