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Steve Sarkisian updates progress along the Texas DL

The position group was supposed to be a team strength last season, but fell markedly short against the run and the pass.

NCAA Football: Rice at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

With 18 scholarship players along the defensive line, it’s the largest position group on the roster for the Texas Longhorns and one that includes two fifth-year players, two fourth-year players, three third-year players, and eight true freshmen.

Considered a potential team strength heading into last season, the group underachieved, producing only 14 sacks, with 11.5 sacks returning, and 37 tackles for loss, with 25.5 tackles for loss returning. Against the pass, the defensive line failed to consistently create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Against the run, the group struggled to regularly make plays in the backfield and often allowed offensive linemen to get to the second level too easily.

Head coach Steve Sarkisian hopes that playing more man coverage in the secondary will help provide the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback and a better understanding of scheme will help them play faster and more effectively when opposing teams run the ball.

In the middle, nose tackle Keondre Coburn returns for a fifth season hoping to bounce back from a disappointing junior season that didn’t see much production from the 6’2, 343-pounder — only 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and one quarterback hurry. In 2022, Sarkisian wants to see Coburn improve his effectiveness against the pass.

“Coburn, I feel him rushing the passer, which was something we wanted him to do,” Sarkisian said. “I didn’t want him to be a one-dimensional player — he’s got to have the ability to rush the passer.”

If Coburn can’t help collapse the pocket and pressure quarterbacks, sophomore nose tackle Byron Murphy could be in line to take a significant number of snaps from Coburn. Sarkisian also singled out junior Vernon Broughton, a third-year player heading into the 2022 season down 14 pounds from last year.

“Two guys that have just jumped out at me so far in five days have been Byron Murphy and Vernon Broughton,” Sarkisian said. “They are exploding off the football, they’re playing hard, they’re playing with great effort, they’re getting around the ball.”

A 6’1, 309-pounder from DeSoto, Murphy has drawn comparisons to former Texas standout Roy Miller for his compact build, strength, and quickness. Murphy started one game as a freshman and showed flashes of his disruptive ability with 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, making him one of the most impactful players on the defense on a per-snap basis.

Heading into a critical third season, Broughton has struggled to find the right weight and right position — at 6’4, leverage can be an issue at times when playing inside, but playing at Jack end, where Broughton is competing with sophomore Barryn Sorrell for the starting job, could be the best fit for the Cy Ridge product. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has tinkered with a big defensive front including Broughton at Jack and that’s how the first-team Longhorns defense came out in the Orange-White game.

Sarkisian said that senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat and junior defensive tackle Alfred Collins have flashed at times, but still need to play with more consistency. Put fifth-year senior defensive tackle Moro Ojomo into that group, too — players who can string together several good plays in practice before disappearing for stretches. But while Sweat and Ojomo profile as solid contributors at best, Collins is the player with real NFL upside, he just hasn’t come close to putting it all together yet and this feels like a crucial season to do so for the Bastrop product.

Along with senior Buck end Ovie Oghoufo, one of the team representatives at Big 12 Media Days, those eight players represent the core of the Texas defensive line and the players most likely to make an impact this season.

Other players, like redshirt sophomore edge Prince Dorbah and redshirt freshman edge DJ Harris are in danger of getting passed by the freshmen, although Harris certainly dealt last year with the impact of a knee injury that previously cost him most of his senior season in high school.

On Monday, Sarkisian was forthcoming about the attributes of the freshman class. Early enrollee Jaray Bledsoe is a strong pass rusher, according to Sarkisian, but “has to become a complete player.” Sarkisian praised the toughness of summer enrollee Zac Swanson. “Kris Ross has really good quickness,” the Texas head coach said of the Galena Park North Shore product. While Mississippi’s Aaron Bryant can hold the point of attack, he still needs to grow as a complete player.

Even if those young players don’t contribute this season, Sarkisian noting that he feels them at practice is a positive sign in the short term for the extent to which they can make the offensive line better by providing a challenge for every group and pushing the older players in front of them.

Otherwise, Texas still needs more defensive linemen to create havoc this system or risk continuing to put extreme pressure on the linebackers to beat blocks and make the right run fits or the secondary to cover longer on the outside and clean up mistakes at the safety level.

All legitimate concerns the defense could mitigate in part with incremental improvement across the board, which amounts to the baseline expectation for Kwiatkowski’s defense in 2022.

Some continuity should help — Coburn and Ojomo are the only players along the defensive line who played two seasons with the same defensive coordinator and position coach as Texas cycled through three defensive coordinators in three seasons.