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Chris Ash: Texas Jack Reese Leitao a surprise defensive player

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The two-way high school standout from Jenks made the move from tight end to the defensive line during the offseason.

Texas Spring Game Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas — When new Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Chris Ash arrived in Austin, he had two players projected at his Jack position, the hybrid defensive end/linebacker role that is similar to Todd Orlando’s B-backer position, but less likely to drop into coverage.

Coming out of the Alamo Bowl, it was clear that Ash had something with starter Joseph Ossai, the junior who earned MVP honors in San Antonio thanks to a breakout performance that included nine tackles, six tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Behind Ossai, however, Byron Vaughns was the only player providing depth, now a redshirt sophomore who appeared in 10 games last season, but didn’t make the UTEP depth chart.

That’s because two players emerged at the position during preseason camp — converted tight end Reese Leitao, now a redshirt junior, and former walk-on Jett Bush, who received a scholarship on Tuesday.

According to Ash, Leitao is one of the surprise defensive players of preseason camp after his offseason move from tight end.

“I don’t think anybody would have expected to be asking a defensive question about Reese in the past,” Ash said. “When we had the conversation about just trying to identify who could play for us, Reese’s name came up. He played defense in the past in high school, I guess was a pretty good defensive end in high school.”

In fact, Leitao was an excellent defensive end in high school, earning first-team All-World area honors there after recording 55 tackles, nine sacks, five pressures, two pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries as a senior. The Oklahoman also named him an All-State honoree at defensive end as the Sooners pursued Leitao as a defensive end.

At Jenks, Leitao flashed some quickness off the ball to beat offensive tackles with speed or use an inside move as a counter if they set too deep. In one clip, Leitao lines up outside the tackle and gets off the ball so quickly that the opposing offensive lineman can’t even really get his hands on him. With a 6’6 wingspan, Leitao has the length to make it difficult for offensive tackles to get into his shoulder pads and should be able to demonstrate an improved punch after his time developing as a blocker and getting stronger.

The hope was that his athleticism could translate better on defense than it did on offense — Leitao posted a 4.47 shuttle and a 33.5-inch vertical leap in high school that were both impressive for a player of his size.

“He was a guy that had some position flexibility and we needed some people,” Ash said. “We needed some help. So, he gladly did it. We put him in the Jack position there with Joseph and he’s done a great job.”

Leitao was able to make an impact on the depth chart quickly.

“He’s Mr. Consistency every day,” Ash said. “He works every day. He understands football — doesn’t make mistakes. He understands fundamentals and tries to play the game the right way. We actually dual-trained him at a couple positions in case things happen as we go throughout the season.”

Listed at 6’4 and 248 pounds, that other position is presumably the strong-side defensive end position, where senior Marqez Bimage was set to play before he decided to opt out of the season. Redshirt sophomore Moro Ojomo is the starter there, backed up by senior Jacoby Jones and rising freshman Vernon Broughton.

Given the depth there, it seems most likely that Leitao will see action at the position where he’s listed on the depth chart — as Ossai’s backup. In either case, Ash is happy with the move and how much he’s helped the Jack position.

“He’s done a great job with that, so, I’m really glad that we made the switch with him. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine the position without him making that move —we’d be pretty thin. I’m really pleased with him.”