After finishing eighth in the conference in opposing yards per carry in 2021, the Texas Longhorns defense stiffened in 2022, ranking second in the Big 12 in yards per carry, average yards per game, and rushing touchdowns allowed, anchored by a strong interior line that largely allowed the linebackers to flow cleanly to the football.
Bur the group lost two big pieces with the departures of 6’2, 334-pound Keondre Coburn and 6’3, 284-pound Moro Ojomo, who combined to start 75 games for the Longhorns over the last four seasons.
The position group did receive some positive news with the return of 6’4, 355-pound T’Vondre Sweat, who has played in 48 games for Texas, and the addition of another massive body with the signing of 6’6, 359-pound Sydir Mitchell.
There’s some inexperienced depth with redshirt freshman Aaron Bryant, but the real storyline for the defensive tackles is whether former highly-touted recruits like senior Alfred Collins and redshirt junior Vernon Broughton can belatedly reach their potential and whether junior Byron Murphy can become a starting-caliber contributor after flashing as a freshman and then seeing his production drop in 2022.
An unexpected contributor as a true freshman in 2019, Sweat has been a mainstay on the interior of the Texas defensive line ever since, including playing at times next to Coburn. Sweat will now step into the starting nose tackle role in addition to serving as the leader of the group in place of the ebullient Coburn.
Sweat showed a knack for getting his hands up in passing lanes last year with four passes broken up, but the most intriguing aspect of his game is the seven quarterback hurries he had while collapsing pockets. With only three career sacks, bringing down quarterbacks has never been a strength, and it’s difficult from the defensive tackle position, but just maintaining that level of production pushing offensive linemen into the face of quarterbacks would be extremely valuable for the 2023 team.
A three-sport star in high school at Bastrop Cedar Creek, Collins is a Texas legacy who was ranked as a consensus five-star prospect through much of the 2020 recruiting cycle before finishing as the No. 63 prospect nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Collins started for the first time in his career as a true freshman against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl and flashed, recording five tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, one pass breakup, and his first career interception, a sensational one-handed play.
We're in the Matrix pic.twitter.com/gqXvHoDJ2c— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) December 30, 2020
But that game is still tantalizing fans and observers of the game years later because Collins hasn’t replicated that type of performance since then. In 2021, he had five tackles for loss, two sacks, one forced fumble and four quarterback hurries and last year he notched three tackles for loss and a sack, it’s just that so much more was expected from him.
Now listed at 313 pounds, Collins is at the heaviest weight of his career with a shot at earning the full-time starting role since he’s no longer blocked by Sweat and Ojomo. `Can he finally become the player he was projected to be out of high school?
Like Collins, finding playing time hasn’t always been easy for the Cy Ridge product, who arrived as the No. 122 prospect in the 2020 recruiting class. After redshirting in 2020, Broughton still has two years of eligibility remaining with the potential to return for his COVID year, which reduces the pressure on him somewhat.
But like Collins, it’s worth wondering whether it will all come together at Texas for Broughton, who made his first career start last season and had four quarterback hurries, but only seven tackles.
Unlike Collins and Broughton, Murphy wasn’t a high-level recruit out of DeSoto, ranking as a low four-star prospect thanks to his listed height of 6’1, but the movement ability and strength of the 300-pounder have always hinted at a higher upside than his ranking would suggest, drawing comparisons to former Texas standout Roy Miller.
Murphy appeared well on the way to fulfilling that lofty comparison as a true freshman, starting once and registering 15 tackles (10 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. In 2022, however, Murphy’s production dropped to three tackles for loss, one sack and two quarterback hurries, a margin decline, but one that felt notable given the promise of 2021 on a per-snap basis.
With more playing time available and a more positive overall career trajectory, it might be fair to have more optimism about Murphy’s ability to turn in a breakout campaign than the older Collins and Broughton.
Out of Mississippi, Bryant was a low four-star prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, a rare pull for the Longhorns out of SEC territory. Bryant had 12 tackles for loss, six sacks, and four forced fumbles as a junior. More of a three technique than a nose tackle at 302 pounds, Bryant played in the blowout wins over Louisiana-Monroe and UTSA last year and projects as depth this year.
Given the lack of other interior linemen in the 2023 recruiting class, Mitchell was a key addition, especially given the added context of beating out contenders like Georgia, Miami, and Texas A&M for his services. Mitchell’s size is obviously college ready, but whether he not he can play with good leverage at 6’6 and his conditioning level will determine his ability to contribute as a true freshman.
The hope for the Texas defense is that the interior line ensures the run defense continues at a high level while developing a better pass rush. And while Sweat is a known commodity, it’s Collins, Broughton, and Murphy who will determine the ceiling for this group. The talent is there. Now the production needs to match the talent. It’s time.