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Spring game a chance for defense to show it is Texas Strong

Vance Bedford's group should have a chance to dominate the spring game at times.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The first-team defense will have a chance to work against the first-team Texas Longhorns offense on Saturday in the first Orange-White game under new head coach Charlie Strong.

The excitement for fans is usually reserved for the skill position players, but since Strong's expertise is on defense, his calling card, so to speak, fans might be wise to re-calibrate those expectations this weekend and hope that the Texas defense can provide a dominant performance.

Strong is looking for depth along the defensive line, saying that "the little guys don't bother me as much as the big guys" and noting that he wants to find linemen who can get off of blocks.

One of the players to watch for Texas fans is sophomore defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, one of the most talented players on the team, but one who has battled consistency issues that have kept him from unlocking his massive potential.

It's an ongoing process for Ridgeway, especially in one critical element of his game, but Strong has seen progress.

"Ridgeway is really doing well," Strong said Tuesday. "The thing about Ridgeway, you look at him out in the defensive front because you still got Malcom (Brown), you got 'Tank' (Desmond Jackson) sitting in there and so he is a swing guy that you want play the three-technique because he is just a strong, physical guy. It is hard to move him because he is so strong and he is still developing but once he learns to use his hands, then he is one of those guys who is strong enough to move people out of the way."

With an opportunity to go against a second-team offensive line that doesn't feature any proven players, Ridgeway should have a chance to make some plays. Can his other counterparts at the back-up defensive tackle position, Alex Norman and Paul Boyette, both of whom entered the spring with seemingly a long way to go to become contributors?

Once again, Jordan Hicks isn't healthy and working with the linebackers, but Strong said that he has been impressed with senior Steve Edmond, who is returning from the lacerated liver that he suffered against Texas Tech on a crack-back block from wide receiver Eric Ward.

"The thing about him is he just works and he always works hard and can provide the leadership," Strong said. "He doesn't say a lot but he lets his work speak for itself. I can remember when we were going through winter conditioning and I use to say, 'god almighty is he going to make it?' but then somebody kept saying you just wait until he plays and watch him, coach. And he does. When we scrimmage he tries to make every tackle and has done a really good job."

The Horns are also using sophomore Tim Cole in a prominent role, from the sounds of it, though the coaches have had to make a concession to his lack of ideal size.

"The thing about Cole is we cover up that position because he is not a very big player so you like to cover him up and let him run and use his athletic ability."

Early enrollee Andrew Beck has received some favorable buzz in practice reports, but Strong said that he's still learning and that things are still moving pretty fast for him at times. When asked about Beck, the Texas head coach took the opportunity to mention the strong play of junior Dalton Santos.

However, it's not clear what position Santos is working at and whether he's among the current starters, which would seem to include Edmond, Cole, and junior Peter Jinkens. The Longhorns had to play Santos and Edmond together last year, a pairing that wasn't always ideal in a spread league like the Big 12. If Santos is backing up Edmond at the moment, it may make it hard for him to get on the field this season.

Based on Cole's poor performance in his start against Iowa State, it would be something of a surprise if Cole has surpassed Santos on the depth chart -- as much as that would require major improvement from Cole, it would probably also include some regression on the part of Santos, which could be a result of needing to adjust to the new defense.

Of course, all of that is merely speculation, and the spring game will provide a clear view of the current depth chart.

From the press conference transcript, it did not appear that anyone asked about senior linebacker Kendall Thompson, around whom rumors have persisted for some time because of his history with concussions. He remains a potential attrition candidate.

At the back end of the defense, where the little guys reside that don't concern Strong nearly as much, it appears that a starting group is emerging, though it's not clear who will play nickel back at this time. Again, the spring game should provide an answer there.

Strong mentioned the top group by name.

"(Quandre) Diggs has had a really good camp and you look at (Mykkele) Thompson having a good camp. With the DBs it is just a really solid group of core guys sitting there like with Josh Turner. They played a lot together so you can see that that group can come together and jell really well."

The news on Diggs is unsurprising -- he should be the team's best defensive back this season, perhaps by a significant margin as he tries to recover from a subpar junior season, but to hear that Thompson has been playing well is more heartening, as the San Antonio product has come under a lot of rightful criticism for his high-profile mistakes, especially in the open field, and there is a still a strong contingent of Texas fans who believe that his talent has been wasted on the defensive side of the ball, seeing the former high school quarterback as a player who would have been an excellent fit offensively.

Since Strong likes to play his safeties close to the box, the question with the above group becomes which players will emerge as the physical enforcer capable of playing that role. Listed at 180 pounds, Turner still doesn't have the mass to do that and sophomore Adrian Colbert wasn't mentioned by Strong with the top group, but did receive some praise as a emerging back up as the Horns search for depth in the defensive backfield.

"When you look at the young guys with (Chevoski) Collins and (Adrian) Colbert coming on and you have some guys like (Bryson) Echols that can help us and that is what you want to establish, make sure we establish enough depth at every position."

A redshirt freshman, Collins has been a player receiving some buzz in recent practice reports, as the 190-pounder has apparently taken to the safety position after spending some time at wide receiver upon his arrival at Texas last year.

Possessing some of that trademark East Texas toughness, Collins was a playmaking force in high school all across the field, much like former Texas safety Adrian Phillips, but with better size. He looks like he may be on track to contribute as a redshirt freshman.

Strong indicated that Erik Huhn was a guy who provided some of that in-box toughness before his injury, which the head coach compared to the injury suffered by offensive tackle Kent Perkins.

"The thing I really liked about him is that was a big safety for us and we drop down our safeties in the box and they are like big and physical," Strong said. "It is just so tough because you never want to see anyone get an injury and he was really developing and coming along good for us."

Going against an offense that Strong refused to call depleted but is unquestionably missing some major contributors, the defense should have a chance to dominate portions of the spring game on Saturday.

For fans of high-powered offensive football, that may not be ideal, but if there are issues at the quarterback position when the season begins in the fall, the Horns would have to rely on a stingy defense to win games. As a result, Saturday will provide the first public perspective on how likely of a possibility that is.

So, is the defense Texas Strong yet?