With two showings to consider — both of which provided notable progress — It appears as if Tom Herman’s plan to rebuild the Texas Longhorns into a championship-caliber program is well on its way. But as the 2019 campaign inches nearer, a more immediate question looms and will largely determine whether or not Texas can take the next step in its rebuild.
How well can the Horns, and more specifically, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, rebuild a Longhorns defense that lost all but three starters from a 10-win unit?
Included in that mass exodus is Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Charles Omenihu and fellow All-Big 12 selections in cornerback Kris Boyd and linebacker Gary Johnson. Replacing such a notable collection of talent and experience will prove to be a tall task, to be sure, but that much is to be expected when the defense Texas fielded in 2018 featured almost entirely seniors.
This time around, Texas will be a bit shorthanded on seniors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Longhorns will be forced to featured an inexperienced bunch.
“The main difference is just on paper how young we are. Experience-wise, I think it’s all there,” Jones said during Big 12 Media Days of the difference in mentality between the 2018 and 2019 defenses. “The whole leadership aspect; we had so many seniors and not just seniors, but leaders so being able to fill that gap has been a little challenging just for the fact that we only have four or five seniors on defense as a whole.”
Considering the likely newcomers to the starting unit, senior Rover Jeffrey McCulloch boasts 36 appearances and six starts, while junior defensive end Ta’Quon Graham enters 2019 with 26 career appearances. Throughout his 13 appearances and six starts as a true freshman, hybrid defensive back B.J. Foster looked the part of nothing short of a star in the making, and sophomore B-Backer Joseph Ossai flashed upside in his 14 appearances, which included a start in the Sugar Bowl.
As for what remains, recent recruiting efforts have set Texas up to slide former high school All-Americans into the starting unit, as is expected to be the case with sophomore cornerbacks Anthony Cook and Jalen Green, which combined for 25 appearances in 2018, as well as nose tackle Keondre Coburn and Mac linebacker Ayodele Adeoye.
“We have recruited very well on that side of the ball. We have developed in the weight room very well. We’re going to be young. There is no secret to that,” Herman said during Big 12 Media Days.
“But young and talented is better than young and not talented. I can tell you that,’ Herman added. “So we’ve got to find a way to get the best 11 guys on the field. I think that’s important as well, regardless of what position they play. We feel good. We feel like Todd Orlando is the cream of the crop when it comes to defensive coordinators in this league and I have no doubt that we will get better simply by an infusion of talent and another year of development in our system.”
Sure, the new-look Longhorns defense will endure a bit of a learning curve, especially early on, but this shouldn’t be a unit that comes out with the look of a deer lost in headlights.
Though the burnt orange won’t feature seniors in bulk, Malcolm Roach is a quality candidate to bring the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year award to Austin for the third time in as many years. McCulloch has received his fair share of praise throughout the offseason and will, at long lost, enjoy the opportunity to live up to his highly-touted status as a former prized prospect. And, of course, Jones shares a defensive backfield with sophomore Caden Sterns and the two comprise what will arguably be the top safety duo in the country in 2019.
Even with those few-and-far-between seniors, the Texas defense will be young. Nothing can change that but time. But as Tom Herman said, “young and talented is better than young and not talented.”