Among the many question marks for the Texas Longhorns this spring on defense is the linebacker position. With much of the focus turning to freshmen to replace Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler, senior Jeffrey McCulloch has been flying somewhat under the radar.
However, the former B-backer is the current starter at Rover, based on the open portions of two practices last week, and head coach Tom Herman sounds confident in McCulloch’s ability to play the position.
“He looks pretty natural there,” Herman said on Friday. “I know it’s a little bit different than being the B-backer on the line of scrimmage quite a bit, but the good thing is that Coach [Todd] Orlando, for three years, has been cross-training all those guys. So they know all the positions.”
The most similar transition was the failed experiment moving Malcolm Roach from defensive end to Mac linebacker last season after Roach played Charlie Strong’s Fox end position as a freshman, Strong’s equivalent of the B-backer. Trying Roach at Mac was a decision made due to a lack of depth at the position and the suspension of starter Anthony Wheeler for the first half of the Maryland game. And it didn’t last long.
However, Herman also noted that Orlando’s efforts at cross-training helped Malik Jefferson move from Rover to Mac in 2017 when Gary Johnson got healthy and gained enough understanding of the defense to enter the starting lineup.
With 12 practices still remaining for the Horns this spring, sophomore Caleb Johnson is still in a non-contact jersey due to the shoulder surgery that ended his junior college career, but he should be fully cleared some time after spring break.
The medical staff, meanwhile, is devising a treatment plan for the stingers De’Gabriel Floyd suffered from in high school.
As a result, McCulloch is receiving an opportunity to consolidate his hold on the Rover position after playing there at times last season, including the Kansas game, during which he returned an interception 65 yards and forced a fumble.
Based on Herman’s comments, there’s also a chance that McCulloch could move inside to Mac if Floyd and redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye aren’t able to perform there adequately and Johnson comes on at Rover.
The biggest challenge for McCulloch is showing the sideline-to-sideline speed that Orlando typically prefers at Rover — Jefferson ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last year and Johnson ran a 4.43 this year. So the Horns have had elite athleticism at the position.
For his size, McCulloch tested well in high school, running a 4.76 40-yard dash and posting a 4.20 shuttle.
“He can run plenty good enough,” Herman said.
The additional skill that McCulloch definitely brings to the table at Rover is his blitzing ability, as I wrote in January:
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.
“The good thing is that we blitz our Rover quite a bit and he’s a pretty good pass rusher, too.”