For the Texas Longhorns defense during the offseason, the primary task for head coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiakowski was to improve the team’s pass rush by playing tighter coverage on the back end and putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks more quickly on the front end.
After Alabama transfer Ben Davis led the team with 2.5 sacks last season — and Texas produced only 20 overall — the personnel deficiencies were apparent. And without landing one of the handful of elite edge prospects in the 2022 recruiting class, internal development and the NCAA transfer portal became the avenues for making upgrades.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, multiple offers produced some interest and multiple visits, but Kwiatkowski was never able to land the impact player he wanted, leaving him to develop the players already on campus along the 2022 arrivals.
With 17 sacks through eight games, Texas is on pace for more sacks this season and has already passed last year’s tally for quarterback hurries 25 to 24 — modest improvement, but not what the Longhorns could have achieved with several of the portal targets.
Let’s evaluate how those players have performed this season from the biggest miss to the least significant miss.
Drew Sanders, Arkansas
A Denton Ryan product who was ranked as a consensus five-star prospect and the No. 1 athlete in the 2020 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Sanders mostly contributed for Alabama as a freshman on special before becoming a starting outside linebacker following an injury to Christopher Allen in 2021. Sanders ended up starting three games while dealing with an injury of his own amidst modest production — 24 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and one sack. And the injury ensured that Will Anderson and Dallas Turner established themselves as stars.
When Sanders subsequently entered the portal after the season, Oklahoma and Texas were contenders for his services with both schools getting him on campus for visits in January. But the Horns had a problem. The need for Texas was on the edge, but Sanders told the Arkansas coaches that he wanted to move to inside linebacker. So days after visiting Austin and Norman, Sanders pledged to the Razorbacks.
The move to middle linebacker paid off for Sanders — he’s second on the team in tackles with 65 stops and leads Arkansas with 7.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and three passes broken up.
So as good as junior linebacker Jaylan Ford has been, Sanders would still represent an upgrade at linebacker had he chosen Texas but declined to play on the edge full time, making an impact with the sideline-to-sideline range afforded by his elite speed, showing strong instincts and understanding in coverage, and continuing to flash the natural pass-rush ability that made him so intriguing to so many programs out of high school and in the portal.
Jacoby Windmon, Michigan State
An overlooked prospect in the 2019 recruiting class from Louisiana, Windmon signed with New Mexico State after receiving a paucity of FBS interest. But he developed into a highly productive player in Las Cruces, leading the Aggies with 119 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks after moving from the edge to inside linebacker.
Texas offered quickly after Windmon entered the portal in late November, but the 6’2, 250-pounder just as quickly committed to Michigan State after a visit to East Lansing. Back playing on the edge, Windmon has been sensational for the Spartans with 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, five fumbles forced, two passes broken up, and an interception.
So it’s a clean projection to say that Windmon would be starting over senior Ovie Oghoufo at the Buck end position if he were in Austin — the entire Longhorns team has only produced one more forced fumble this season than Windmon has by himself.
Jared Verse, Florida State
Perhaps the most difficult projection on this list, Verse signed with Albany in the 2019 class, did not appear in any games as a true freshman, then Great Danes opted out of the 2020 spring season after it was initially delayed by the pandemic. As a third-year redshirt freshman, Verse had a breakout season with 10 tackles for loss and four sacks, ultimately deciding the enter the portal in late November in hopes of moving up to the FBS level.
The Longhorns, however, waited almost a month to offer Verse, so it was hardly a surprise when he pledged to the Seminoles days later — Texas was simply too late entering his recruitment.
In Tallahassee, Verse has been an impact player with 28 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and a blocked kick, getting off to a strong start with 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and the blocked field goal against LSU early in the season.
At Texas, the 6’4, 248-pounder would be a starter, likely at the Jack end position occupied by sophomore Barryn Sorrell, who leads the Horns with three sacks, but hasn’t been as disruptive as Verse.
Ochaun Mathis, Nebraska
Everything seemed to line up for the Manor product to play his final college football season close to home — his former head coach at TCU, Gary Patterson, signed on to become the special assistant to Sarkisian at Texas and Mathis made numerous trips to the Forty Acres throughout the spring. As soon as early January, the Horns seemed like the favorites until the Cornhuskers surged late and landed a commitment from Mathis on April 30, a decision that felt monumental at the time, in no small part because it means Texas had missed on all of its edge targets in the portal.
But things haven’t gone to plan in Lincoln for Mathis. Head coach Scott Frost only made it three games into the season before he was fired and, for whatever reason, Mathis has been unable to replicate the success he found in 2020 when he had 14 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and a forced fumble.
In fact, while Mathis has been productive as a tackler with 37 stops, he only has 2.5 tackles for loss, seventh on the team, and two sacks. So while Mathis might be starting over Oghoufo at Texas right now, his production at Nebraska wouldn’t be what the Longhorns were seeking during the lengthy offseason pursuit.
The production of Sanders and Windmon, particularly in producing potentially game-changing plays with five forced fumbles apiece, in addition to potentially drive-killing sacks and tackles for loss, could have been transformative had they occurred in burnt orange and white this season.
Instead, the pass rush has often allowed too much time for opposing quarterbacks, other players on the defense have failed to step up making big plays in the backfield — like junior cornerback Ryan Watts’ miss on Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on the game-winning drive for the Crimson Tide — and the Longhorns have lost games by one point, three points, and seven points.
The end result? The failure to find an impact edge rusher felt like a huge offseason storyline. One that the Texas coaches simply didn’t have the talent or experience to fill with players on the roster. And that’s played out this season, to the extent the still-anemic pass rush is an area where better production could have made the difference in one or two of those losses, ensuring those offseason misses continue to loom large over the 2022 season.