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Texas LBs have plenty to prove in 2019

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Todd Orlando and the Longhorns defense will look to overcome inexperience at linebacker this season.

Texas v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Next up on our 2019 Texas Longhorns football position preview series is the linebacker position. In previous posts, we’ve covered the offensive line, defensive line, and running backs.

In the base formation, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and the Longhorns utilize three linebackers: A “Mac” middle linebacker, a “Rover” weakside linebacker, and a hybrid DE/OLB “B-Backer” typically lined up on the same side as the rover.

Senior: Jeffrey McCulloch

Junior: Caleb Johnson (JUCO transfer)

Sophomore: Juwan Mitchell (JUCO Transfer), Joseph Ossai

Freshman: Ayodele Adeoye (redshirt), DeGabriel Floyd (injured), David Gbenda, Marcus Tillman, Jr., Byron Vaughns (redshirt)

For the 2019 Longhorns, linebacker may be the position group that comes with the most question marks, especially after the Longhorns lost projected Mac-starter DeGabriel Floyd to a season-ending injury earlier this spring.

Following two seasons of stability at the position group with the likes of Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler, and Gary Johnson, Texas now finds itself looking to a collection of players who have barely played in their projected roles, including some who could get their first snaps as Longhorns this fall.

The leaders of the group of linebackers will be senior Jeffrey McCulloch and sophomore Joseph Ossai. Combined, the duo totals eight starts at Texas, which is eight more starts than any other linebacker on roster.

McCulloch leads the way with six starts, though most came at the B-backer position. For his senior campaign, McCulloch is currently projected to start at Rover, a position he has looked natural at this spring.

Moving inside to one of the two linebacker spots in the middle of the defense, McCulloch now has a chance to truly display his skills and athleticism this season. Whether its at rover or the Mac position, the goal for the 6’3, 245-pound linebacker will be to remind us all why his nickname is the “Shark”.

For Ossai, it’s the flashes he showcased late last year that Texas hopes it can bottle up and use all season long. Standing at 6’4 and 245-pounds, Ossai looks the part for the B-backer position in Todd Orlando’s defense.

In his only season as a Longhorn, Ossai totaled 20 tackles (13 solo), a sack, and a forced fumble. Much of the production, though, came in two games in which he recorded three tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble against Iowa State and also led the defense in tackles with eight against Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

For the Mac position, the top two options heading into fall camp appear to be redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye and junior JUCO transfer Caleb Johnson.

It was once thought that Johnson would compete at the rover spot. As the season progresses, we could see a scenario unfold where McCulloch moves to Mac and Johnson slides over to Rover. For now, both Caleb Johnson and Ayodele Adeoye will compete for the middle linebacker spot, leaving McCulloch to handle the combination of blitz and coverage duties at Rover when Orlando chooses to deploy three linebackers.

Determining who starts at Mac will largely depend on which linebacker can showcase the instincts and skills to make the right reads, get to the right spots in coverage and in run support, and ultimately make the play on the ball-carrier or in pass defense.

After taking a redshirt season in part to a knee injury sustained in last year’s fall camp, Adeoye, the 6’1, 250-pound second-year linebacker, now looks to prove he can be a reliable playmaker for the Texas defense.

With a similar build and skill set to Anthony Wheeler, the question for Adeoye will be whether or not he can consistently make the right read and initial step to overcome any questions or concerns about his speed or instincts.

If he can, it will shore up a big question for the Texas defense. If he can’t, it could be Johnson who provides the answer.

Unlike Adeoye, Johnson measures in around 6’0 and 235 pounds and utilizes more speed in his abilities. Along with reading and reacting once the ball is snapped, the looming question will be whether Johnson can continue to shed lead blockers and big offensive linemen at the D1 level, a skill he showcased in the JUCO ranks.

It should be noted that Johnson missed time this spring due to a shoulder injury that ended his 2018 season prematurely.

Other options for Mac and Rover could include freshmen David Gbenda and Marcus Tillman, Jr. or JUCO transfer Juwan Mitchell. Given all will be playing their first snaps as Longhorns this fall, it remains to be seen what type of playing time each can contribute in 2019, though Tillman did flash during the Orange-White game as an early enrollee.

As for depth at B-backer, the first option likely will be Byron Vaughns, a 6’4, 245-pound redshirt freshman who has added about 30 to 35 pounds to his frame since arriving to Texas last year.

Overall depth among the group of linebackers was again addressed this offseason and is in relatively good shape. Texas has potential at each position, and continues to look to add more to the position on the recruiting trail.

The main question for 2019 will revolve around what type of production the starting linebackers can provide, and whether or not Texas will be able to rely on three starting-level linebackers in the base defense or be forced into playing more defensive backs on the field in place of a linebacker to get the best 11 defenders on the field.