On Saturday, former TCU Horned Frogs edge Ochaun Mathis committed to the Nebraska Cornhuskers over the Texas Longhorns, stymying the efforts of head coach Steve Sarkisian and his special assistant Gary Patterson from filling a huge remaining need on the defense.
The Longhorns spent months pursuing Mathis, including hosting him on three different visits to the Forty Acres, and now enter the summer having missed on all three of their targets at the edge position after offering Albany transfer Jared Verse and Alabama transfer Drew Sanders.
With Sunday looming as the deadline for players to enter the NCAA transfer portal and maintain eligibility for the 2022 season — and the top 19 edge players in the portal all committed — the chances of Texas finding an edge player through the portal have decreased to almost nothing. It’s possible that a graduate transfer could come onto the market and join Texas for summer conditioning, but that seems unlikely at this juncture.
Coming off a season that saw the Horns finish tied for 101st nationally with 20 sacks, improving the pass rush was a huge offseason priority for Sarkisian and his staff and now that help isn’t coming from Mathis.
Why exactly Mathis chose Nebraska despite his longstanding ties to Patterson and the proximity of his hometown of Manor to the Texas campus is currently under some dispute in the immediate aftermath of his decision. One line of thinking holds that better NIL opportunities offered by Nebraska helped the Cornhuskers, in line with former Texas quarterback Casey Thompson’s recent statements about his ability to make six figures in Lincoln. The other holds that head coach Scott Frost successfully sold Mathis on playing in a pure four-man front as a defensive end instead of as a hybrid player under Longhorns defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
Regardless of the truth and whether it lies on one side or in between, Kwiatkowski, Patterson, and position coach Bo Davis must face the reality that Mathis and his 15.5 career sacks isn’t transferring to a program that returns 31 career sacks as an entire team.
So where do the Longhorns go from here?
The solutions that Kwiatkowski and company come up with will be a combination of personnel and scheme.
On the personnel side, senior transfer Ovie Oghoufo has the most immediate potential to help Texas off the edge. After arriving from Notre Dame last season, Oghoufo had two sacks, coming in the opener against Louisiana and then in the third game against Rice before being shut out for the rest of the season. Oghoufo struggled at times at the run game and later in the season mostly played in personnel groups that included a strong-side linebacker as Ray Thornton held down the Buck end position with little production to show for it.
Now with his first winter conditioning and spring practice behind him at Texas, Oghoufo feels more comfortable and is emerging as a team leader, a role that typically only goes hand-in-hand with making plays.
“I think I’m seeing the defense as a whole again — I’m understanding the scheme way better,” Oghoufo said.
While expecting Oghoufo to more than double his sack production may be a stretch, he does need to improve on his two quarterback hurries and will likely be the most versatility Texas edge player for Kwiatkowski.
Sophomore Barry Sorrell came on as a more traditional Jack end this spring, but notably didn’t receive much comment from Sarkisian in press conferences, so it’s possible that he currently projects as a largely situational player instead of someone who plays heavy snaps. In any case, he’s still largely an unknown after making eight tackles in six games as a true freshman in 2021.
The true freshman most likely to contribute is early enrollee edge Justice Finkley, who could see time at Buck or Jack end. An Alabama native listed at 6’2, 256 pounds, Finkley has a compact, powerful build and, unsurprisingly for an early enrollee, Finkley’s learning curve steepened towards the end of the spring practice.
“Justice really took a leap, in my opinion, about the last 10 days here of spring ball, and he was a physical player, he had a presence,” Sarkisian said after the Orange-White game.
One of the schematic options for Pete Kwiatkowski is to play more traditional odd fronts to help the run defense keep from getting creased up the middle and potentially put offenses in long down-and-distance situations to allow for more line games or blitz packages to create pressure on those passing downs.
“There are traditional odd [fronts] where the three down linemen can really anchor the front and they can really two gap you,” Sarkisian said. “They can muddy up things on the interior and then that ball then naturally kind of gets spilled to your edge players, your backers, your safeties, and our guys have the capability of doing it. We’ve got some big humans obviously inside with [Keondre] Coburn and [T’Vondre] Sweat and Alfred [Collins] and Vernon [Broughton] and Moro [Ojomo].”
One of the reasons Sarkisian hired Kwiatkowski was the longtime Boise State and Washington defensive coordinator’s ability to run multiple fronts, in contrast to Todd Orlando’s preferred tite front and Chris Ash’s four-down linemen. So Sarkisian wants to be able to run enough fronts for the Longhorns to adjust week to week to an opponent’s strength, but he did admit that the traditional odd front played a big role in spring practice.
“Ultimately you’ve got to lean on what you’re really good at, what you’re best at,” Sarkisian said. “Right now that front is very good to us. That doesn’t mean we’re not affective in the four down front either, but that front has been good to us so far.”
The front allows Texas to play three defensive tackles together, including pairing the massive bodies of Coburn and Sweat together, or getting more playing time for Byron Murphy, the most disruptive player along the defensive line.
To start the Orange-White game, Texas was using 287-pound Vernon Broughton at the Jack end position, where Ojomo could also see playing time, as he has in the past.
If Texas can get into pass-rushing situations, a more widespread understanding of and comfort with some of the ways that Kwiatkowksi can create pressure should help the Longhorns.
“I think also schematically some of the games and different things that we’re doing, the guys, their understanding of those things, the pressures, the games, and the timing of them all have caused some issues and that’s been that’s been a real positive for us as well,” Sarkisian said.
Overall scheme continuity should also benefit the Longhorns this year — it’s the first time since 2019 that the Longhorns have the same defensive coordinator and position coaches. All the redshirt juniors and seniors have played for three defensive coordinators and three position coaches.
“I’ll even say our confidence from the beginning of spring and within those sorts of team practices we had, I feel like our progression is up in terms of understanding defense, understanding the scheme as a whole, and then just like the chemistry and just coming together,” Oghoufo said after the Orange-White game.
No matter which personnel and which schemes come together in the fall, Sarkisian did provide a positive update after the last practice before the spring-ending scrimmage.
“I thought kind of the last, I guess it would be three to four practices, I thought our pass rush really improved.”