Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman has said repeatedly that the measure of success is competing for, and winning, Big 12 championships.
His defensive coordinator knows exactly where to start.
“If we want to win at a high level and be a team that can win championships here, it’s going to start building it from the front back,” defensive coordinator Chris Ash said at his introductory press conference in February. “We want to be able to build a playoff-caliber defensive line and get them to play that way.”
As Texas enters its third week of practice, the task of installing Ash’s new system continues, including the switch to playing more four-down fronts.
Under former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, defensive linemen were not really asked to generate much pressure of their own. It happened, thanks to the caliber of athletes Texas recruits, but defensive linemen were primarily asked to occupy blockers and gaps, in order to keep blitzers free to make plays. In his first year at Texas, that proved successful — the Longhorns finishing the season as the No. 2 defense in the conference behind the Horned Frogs.
However, the wheels fell off quickly and Texas turned in back-to-back historically-bad defensive performances, including only 27 sacks last year, a number that ranked sixth in the Big 12 and also represented the lowest total for the Longhorns in the last decade by a significant margin.
Making the change from Orlando’s system to Ash’s system means adding an additional defensive lineman and getting those linemen to attack gaps and maximize their physical abilities to put pressure on the quarterback. In a normal year, Texas would have been able to install the defense during spring practice, but missing the entire spring season forced them to bring in the new system while preparing for the season.
“All I can say is that we might feel a little bit behind when it comes to learning defense,” senior defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham said at the conclusion of the second week of camp. “But I feel like everyone’s picking it up pretty fast and we’re going to be pretty good.”
When asked at the end of last season about his new defensive coordinator and the new system, Graham was excited for the opportunities presented by the change.
“Honestly, playing in this new scheme was something we were all really excited for,” Graham said. “We get to play on more edges and more freely. We’re going to get the opportunity to rush the passer more, get more penetration through the line and make more plays.”
One advantage for Texas as they switch the front is to lean on one of the most experienced and talented position groups they have. Three of the four likely starters for this year have double-digit starts from a year ago, including Graham, sophomore nose tackle Keondre Coburn and 2019’s leading tackler Joseph Ossai, now playing Ash’s hybrid Jack linebacker position.
Ossai may benefit the most from the move — due to depth issues at inside linebacker last season and Orlando’s decision to often play with six defensive backs, Ossai spent a great deal of his time playing off the ball. Injuring his shoulder against Rice didn’t help, either.
When Ossai did have a chance to play off the edge in the Alamo Bowl, he turned in a dominant performance that he hopes will serve as a springboard for his 2020 season. In earning Defensive MVP honors, Ossai had nine tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks, not to mention multiple other pressures and a forced intentional grounding.
Behind the returning starters, redshirt sophomore Moro Ojomo is the leading competitor at the strong-side defensive position, but sophomore T’Vondre Sweat is a likely candidate to heavy playing time — Sweat put on nearly 30 pounds in the offseason to slide down from end to the shaded defensive tackle. Even before the new system was installed and Sweat changed his body, he caught the eye of senior leaders a year ago.
“T’Vondre, he’s a man-child. Probably the most physically gifted defensive lineman in our room, to be honest,” former Texas defensive end Malcolm Roach said before the Alamo Bowl. “Getting a season under his belt, seeing what it’s like to play college football was big for him.”
Sweat appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman, logging nine tackles, two pass break ups, one sack, one tackle for loss, and one fumble recovery.
The Longhorns also have the advantage of adding a ton of talented freshmen to the mix, including two of the biggest names of the 2020 class, Alfred Collins and Vernon Broughton. Herman has mentioned both of them by name during interviews in preseason camp because both already look the part, but the talented pair also have their teammates excited.
“I’m really excited about what they can learn coming into this system and what they can do coming into a four-man front,” Graham said. “They have no ceiling on how good they can be, they just have to develop and work.”
Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said last week that Collins has already become one of his favorite players to watch along the defensive line.
Now over 300 pounds, Collins is a unique player because he still has the body quickness to move his feet well despite his size.
In fact, Broughton and Collins now both possess the size to play inside at three technique and strong-side defensive end, giving position coaches Oscar Giles and Mark Hagen some extra flexibility.
With the season opener now less than three weeks away, the Longhorns need to find a way to change their excitement about the personnel and the system into results on the field. Thankfully for Texas, a matchup with UTEP should give them a live-action tuneup before taking a week off and starting the nine-game conference season.