Remember the Alamo.
For Texas Longhorns junior Jack linebacker Joseph Ossai, his second straight impressive bowl performance didn’t just cap an injury-limited sophomore season, it became the standard for an expected breakout season in a new defensive scheme.
“Obviously, I would like to always replicate the Alamo Bowl, even top it sometimes,” Ossai said during a recent media availability. “I think the new coaches, they’ve brought new ideas and a brand new way of looking at things with the defense and we’re all getting excited about it.”
Against Utah in San Antonio, Ossai earned Defensive MVP honors with an incredibly disruptive performance that featured nine tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks, not to mention multiple other pressures and a forced intentional grounding. On one notable fourth-down play early in the second half, Ossai was able to keep Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley from picking up the needed yard by meeting him on the edge.
Texas led 10-0 at the time, but scored on the next possession and never looked back.
Overall, the big-time effort showcased what gives Ossai an NFL upside as high as any player on the team — his motor to run plays down from the back side, drop into coverage and deliver big hits over the middle, keep hustling for a clean-up sack, scream off the edge to force the quarterback out of the pocket, or hit counter move and slant inside on the way into the pocket.
It was also noticeable how well Ossai was able to use his hands to win at the point of attack, something that he couldn’t physically do for most of his sophomore season because of his injured shoulder. On a tackle for loss in the middle of the fourth quarter, Ossai fought through two would-be blockers to bring down Utah running back Zach Moss.
To put it simply, the violence that Ossai played with in beating blocks or finishing tackles was different from anything else he’s put on film during his time at Texas.
Even so, former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando identified the physical traits that make Ossai so special as far back as 2018.
“Obviously he’s a really long guy, but he’s really quick twitch, very powerful,” Orlando said. “When he plays long — that’s the one thing that I probably didn’t give Joe enough credit for when we were recruiting him — when he throws out of his hips, he’s a really powerful guy.”
The Alamo Bowl performance helped Ossai lead the team with five sacks in 2019, but two of them came in the first four games. In fact, after Ossai suffered a shoulder injury against Rice in the season’s third game, he went eight games without a sack as he played with one arm and spent more time away from the line of scrimmage due to injuries and inexperience at the linebacker position.
With Ossai finally given time to heal, interim defensive coordinator Craig Naivar played him in the role that new defensive coordinator will use for Ossai — the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end Jack position. Head coach Tom Herman expects that Texas will “major” in a four-down front under Ash, but Ossai is versatile enough that he’ll still drop into coverage at times, too.
“I don’t like to limit myself to one position,” Ossai said. “Me just being competitive, I can play any position on the field. My body type, obviously, is more of an outside linebacker, more of a D-line guy. I just want to use my strengths. I want to use my length. I want to use my abilities to be able to help the team as much as I can. If that’s staying on the line, and if that’s working a lot more rush, a lot more edge setting, that’s what I’m prepared to do, and that’s what I want to do.”
Ossai’s biggest area for improvement, according to Ash? Working on pass-rushing fundamentals, an area in which defensive line coach Oscar Giles has a history of success at Texas.
Since Ossai and his teammates weren’t able to work on those fundamentals with spring practice canceled, they’ve been watching tape from NFL pass rushers and sharing their resulting critiques in their group chat. Ossai has focused his attention on the Bosa brothers, JJ Watt, and Aaron Donald. And, of course, former teammate Charles Omenihu.
With Ossai’s potential to break out as one of the Big 12’s best defenders, he’ll be one of the key building blocks for Ash as the defensive coordinator seeks to build around the defensive line first. The goal is to control the running game and more frequently pressure the quarterback without blitzing. Ossai is optimistic about the improvements the group can make.
“The D-line, we can disrupt and create chaos and confusion at the line of scrimmage,” Ossai said in a Longhorn Network appearance. “And it’ll just trickle down — it’s all about the foundation. You build a great house by having great foundation.
“So we want to be the rock, we want to be the foundation, we want to be the center of the defense. We want to help the linebackers have better fits and less stress, we want to have good DBs do their thing be more comfortably and know that the quarterback is either getting sacked or hit when the ball’s coming out for them. So that’s the goal.”
Texas head coach Tom Herman believes that sacks are an overrated statistic — the Longhorns finished sixth in the Big 12 in sacks last season — because quarterbacks get the ball out so quickly now that the goal is to hit them, force them to move their feet, and impact their passing lanes.
“I think fans can expect us to be more explosive on the defensive line,” Ossai said. “That’s one thing we we struggled last year and we want to be better this year at that.”
Even after the Alamo Bowl, defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham expressed his excitement about playing in that scheme, sentiments that Ossai echoed — sometimes new ideas and a different approach to the game become catalysts for improvement.
The defensive linemen have a group chat without the coaches and Ossai said that his teammates can’t stop talking about the changes that will allow players like Ossai and the opposite defensive end to play on the edges of the offensive tackles.
Separated by shelter-in-place orders, the players are trying to hold each other accountable and find ways to keep themselves in shape. Still in Austin with roommate Keaontay Ingram, the junior running back, Ossai works out with quarterback Sam Ehlinger and several other players at Ehlinger’s home gym.
It’s all part of an effort to put in the work to achieve the team’s goals.
“It can’t be lip service, though — you can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is the National Championship year,’” Ossai said. “You saying ‘the national championship year’ is not gonna spin the football gods into giving you a national championship. You have to go work for it.”