Since the departure of Charles Omenihu following the 2018 season, the Texas Longhorns haven’t had a single player record more than 5.5 sacks in a season. Not even 2021 third-round draft pick Joseph Ossai, who had five sacks in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, overall sack production dropped to 20 before rebounding to 27 last season.
So the search for an impact pass rusher has spanned four seasons, three defensive coordinators, four defensive line coaches, and three linebacker coaches.
First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian turned to the NCAA transfer portal for help two years ago, adding Alabama’s Ben Davis, LSU’s Ray Thornton, and Notre Dame’s Ovie Oghoufo. In 2021, the three players combined for 5.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries as Thornton received more playing time than his production justified and Davis mostly filled in a strong-side linebacker.
Oghoufo did have 7.5 tackles for loss and 53 tackles in 2022, but his sack production dipped to 1.5 and he entered the portal again before landing at LSU.
The breakout player at the position was Barryn Sorrell, now a junior — the former consensus three-star prospect from New Orleans notched 44 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, and one forced fumble.
Now the question is whether Sorrell can continue his positive trajectory while receiving help from a cadre of young, unproven players that Sarkisian has so far opted against supplementing from the portal while continuing to “find ways to affect the quarterback.”
In the third season under defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, Sarkisian said that might mean making the quarterback uncomfortable through a four-man rush, from simulated pressure, or from blitzes like the boundary cornerback blitz that found success at times last season.
“I think that everybody in the room here knows we love to run the football. I think we’ve gotten to a place now defensively where we’re very confident in stopping the run. But now our ability to throw it and then our ability to affect the other team’s quarterback are two major factors,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
Who is going to step up to fill that role? Sarkisian said he’ll know more in the next few weeks as spring practice progresses.
After making seven tackles in six games in 2021, Sorrell started gaining buzz at Big 12 Media Days last July when Oghoufo and running back Roschon Johnson both mentioned him as a potential breakout player. As a 10-game starter, Sorrell did exactly that, emerging as one of the best evaluations by the previous coaching staff — Sorrell picked up his Texas offer at the end of his senior season and committed to the Longhorns over a host of mid-tier Power Five offers.
At 6’4, 262 pounds, Sorrell has the strength and mass to hold up against the run at the Jack end position and was perhaps unlucky not to come up with more sacks last season given the number of quarterback hurries he accumulated. If Sorrell can turn half those hurries into sacks, he’ll be in line for a big-time junior season that could answer some of the key question marks on the edge.
Landing Finkley out of Alabama in the 2022 recruiting class was a significant coup for the Longhorns — the 6’2, 250-pounder was ranked as the No. 116 player nationally and the No. 12 edge, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Finkley served as Sorrell’s backup last year, making seven tackles in 12 games.
One of the key storylines on the edge this spring is whether Finkley remains behind Sorrell at Jack or if he transitions to the Buck end position. In high school, Finkley was known for his strength, physicality, and ability to play with leverage, so he’s not necessarily a player whose first step as a speed rusher is considered a strength. That doesn’t disqualify him from playing opposite Sorrell, but it does suggest that there are more natural pass rushers who could earn that role.
The Austin Westlake product is one of those contenders. A former lacrosse player and late-rising prospect in the 2022 class after recording 14 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 19 pressures, three forced fumbles, one interception, nine passes defended, and one blocked punt as a senior, Burke drips upside from his 6’6, 250-pound frame. Strength and ability to play with leverage were significant concerns as a true freshman, but Burke overachieved in making the two-deep depth chart; he just didn’t earn much playing time.
Now up to 250 pounds, Burke seemingly opted to add whatever mass he could last season and should benefit this spring from going through his first year of winter conditioning to gain real muscle mass. With a quick first step, big tackle radius, and ability to get into impact passing lanes off the edge, Burke is a candidate to have the same type of breakout season Sorrell had in 2022 if he’s ready physically.
The development of the Marlin product makes Bledsoe a player to track this spring — the nation’s former No. 174 prospect in the 2022 class cut his weight down enough at 266 pounds to remain on the outside instead of competing inside against older, stronger players. A strong athlete moving laterally or coming off the ball, Bledsoe also brings heavy hands that could help him emerge as Sorrell’s backup and allow Finkley to play Jack end.
After appearing in two games last season, Tapp gained 20 pounds since his arrival last summer to give himself the flexibility to play Buck end or Jack end. A three-sport athlete in high school from the Baton Rouge area who also spent time on offense, Tapp was a near top-100 prospect who may need to continue to work on his flexibility and technique before he’s ready to contribute more than a handful of snaps per game.
Another Jack end candidate, Swanson played in two games last season after signing out of Arizona as the No. 374 prospect. Swanson could eventually move inside if he gains enough weight, but at 259 pounds, he’s more of an edge player at the moment who can play with leverage and use his length to control the line of scrimmage.
The only early enrollee in the group, Vasek is another Austin Westlake product whose flip from Oklahoma was one of the key storylines of the 2023 cycle. Vasek makes the short transition to the Forty Acres as the No. 107 player nationally with a host of experience in big-time moments from his time at Westlake. Marginally more physically developed than Burke, Vasek is a high-effort player with an effective spin move and the ability to run the arc and has some understanding of using counter moves to the inside.
The edge position represents one of the possible remaining needs from the portal after the spring if the right player becomes available and unquestionably needs to take a step forward in production to ensure that Kwiatkowski doesn’t have to regularly use simulates pressures or blitzes to generate pressure on quarterbacks.
Winning some key recruitments in the last two cycles has ensured that there’s talent on campus, it just might take until the 2024 season until those players fully mature into impact players. If that’s the case, there will be extra pressure on Sorrell to emerge as a star.