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Like rest of team, 'Horns linebackers are very young, but also very talented

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Led by the combination of Anthony Wheeler and Malik Jefferson, the Longhorns' linebacking corps will be in the hands of its young contributors.

Super sophomore Malik Jefferson leads the Texas linebackers.
Super sophomore Malik Jefferson leads the Texas linebackers.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Examining the depth chart across the field for the Texas Longhorns, two things become apparent immediately. One, although this team is one year older than last year, there is still a lot of youth on the this team with underclassmen dominating the two deep lineup. Second, the better news, this Texas squad appears to be have more talent across the field than it did in 2015. This trend continues with the 2016 edition of the Texas linebacking corps.

In the Longhorns defensive sets, Texas usually only plays two linebackers at one single time with five defensive backs. From the looks of it now, these two spots will be in the hands of its two sophomore linebackers, Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler.As freshmen in 2015, both saw their fair share of ups and downs, but with a year under their belt, the two dynamic athletes look to have cemented their spots on the starting lineup.

Though the tandem will see a lot of action on the field this coming season, the story of Texas' linebacking groups goes beyond the talented sophomores. Sometimes the Longhorns will play three linebacker sets, so fans should expect to see a mixture of senior Timothy Cole and sophomore Edwin Freeman. Both players sit behind the younger starters, but they impressed coaches in spring camp with their steady play. In addition to Cole and Freeman, the Longhorns mix in a collection of freshmen talent on the depth chart too, including incoming mega-recruit Jeffrey McCulloch.

The Longhorns look formidable at  linebacker with this group, and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary expects significant improvement after a difficult 2015 season that saw the Longhorns finish 111th in rush defense. This performance was in part due to mistakes from younger players, but most of it fell to key player errors: misalignment, poor tackling technique, and false reads. With a year together and more talent at the position, Jean-Mary should/can expect bigger things from this group.

Depth Chart

Middle Linebacker:

Malik Jefferson, So., 1L

Timothy Cole, Sr., 3L

Demarco Boyd, Fr., HS

Weakside Linebacker:

Anthony Wheeler, So., 1L

Edwin Freeman, So., 1L

Jeffrey McCulloch, Fr., HS

Cameron Townsend, Fr., RS

Departures:

Peter Jinkens-Graduation

Dalton Santos-Transfer (Louisiana Tech)

Individual Breakdowns:

You can't begin the Texas Longhorns' linebacker discussion without starting with sophomore Malik Jefferson. What else is there to say about the sophomore from Mesquite that already hasn't been said. Freak athlete, field general, team leader, recruiting wizard. Scroll through about any Longhorns' news site or message board and you'll find all these descriptions about Jefferson. Unlike his freshman year, however, this defense is going to look to Jefferson to be the unit's heart and soul.

The biggest signing for the football program in the last five years, Jefferson impressed nearly everyone his freshmen season. He compiled 61 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and even scored a defensive touchdown in an outstanding season that earned him Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. More impressive is that Jefferson did all of this at his unnatural position, middle linebacker. Jefferson's elite quickness and agility combined coupled with his strength make him a potential star on the national landscape.

One way Jefferson could transform into this potential star will be if Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford can find innovative ways to move Jefferson across the field. Yes, Jefferson looked formidable at the middle linebacker position, but his true home is on the outside, rushing the passer in a Von Miller-esque role. Even Jefferson admitted earlier this year that that's what he loves to do.

"It is what I want to be doing," Jefferson said of Miller's role. "That's what I live to do. That's what I did all throughout high school and it wouldn't be bad pass rushing the quarterback every time."

Jefferson's traits make him so dangerous in this role, as we saw against Oklahoma when he registered two sacks and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. It's pivotal the Longhorns find a combination at linebacker that allows Jefferson to float to the outside and pass rush because it will make this defense incredibly harder to play against. In addition, the Longhorns were flat out terrible in pass rush situations in 2015. The question is if Charlie Strong feels comfortable letting him play outside with question marks at middle linebacker.

Malik's sophomore year is going to be essential to the success of this season. In addition to his steady production, Charlie Strong calls Malik one of his team leaders and he'll need to lead his unit each week. If any sophomore in the country is going to be successful in such a critical role, it'll be Malik Jefferson.

Jefferson's partner in the starting lineup is another sophomore, Anthony Wheeler. Wheeler came to Texas in 2015 regarded as one of the top linebacker prospects in the state with offers from the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. As a freshmen, Wheeler played in twelve games and eased his way into the linebacker rotation, starting games against Kansas State and Baylor. His best game came in that final contest against the Bears when Wheeler registered six tackles and a fumble recovery in an upset win.

A strong, hard hitting player with a nose for the football, Wheeler compliments the speed and range Jefferson provides very nicely. His biggest strength as a player as a defender is in the run game, which allows him to showcase his excellent tackling ability. He is not the fastest player, but his downhill speed against the run makes him a terrifying force within the tackling box. One look at his high school film and you'll see why.

During the spring, Wheeler flashed serious play making and cemented his spot across from Malik Jefferson. He'll battle with senior Tim Cole for the majority of playing time, but Wheeler is the starter as of now. It'll be a big step up for a player who only recorded 36 tackles and started two games in 2015, but Wheeler looks poised to handle it. The main concerns regarding Wheeler's play are if he'll be able to cure the misalignment issues and other mistakes he made as a freshman.

With a year under his belt, I think there's a strong case you'll see that. Since his arrival, he's shed bad weight that he carried in high school and carries a serious amount of muscle. Wheeler also appeared much faster in the spring than he did during last season which will make him a better defender against the pass and on outside run plays. I, for one, am a big fan of Wheeler's and I think you'll see significant improvement. He has the physical tools and raw talent to be one of the best linebackers in the conference if he develops properly.

Another big contributor for the Longhorns will be senior Timothy Cole. The redshirt senior from Brenham has been like a journeyman for the Longhorns in his career, playing special teams and coming off the bench at the linebacker position. Last season, Cole took big strides on the field after mostly playing special teams in his first three seasons. Cole played in eleven games last season and registered twenty seven tackles, including a career-best eight against Texas Tech when he replaced Malik Jefferson.

While Cole doesn't have the raw talent of the younger pairing of Wheeler and Jefferson, he's going to provide meaningful depth  off the bench for Longhorns. Having Cole on the field gives an opportunity for the other two linebackers to rest, which is a big deal against the quick offenses utilized in the Big 12. If Texas needs to play three linebackers on the field, Cole also gives the Longhorns a solid option with significant experience (he's played in 31 games).

However, Cole's play could be vitally important to Texas in 2016. If he can anchor a spot at middle linebacker, then Malik Jefferson may be allowed to float to outside linebacker and attack off the edge where he feels more comfortable. Cole's hypothetical success in his final season with the Longhorns would possibly be the group's most important development.

The Longhorns could also turn to redshirt sophomore Edwin Freeman. Freeman was Charlie Strong's first commitment when he arrived at Texas and was considered one of the top outside linebacker prospects. In high school, Freeman earned a multitude of accolades, including being selected to the Under Armour All-American Game, participating in Nike's 'The Opening,' and named to second team all-district.

In his short tenure at Texas, Freeman seems to have failed to live up to the hype so far. After redshirting, Freeman played in only six games on special teams and at linebacker and compiled only twelve tackles. The biggest question mark for Freeman has probably been his consistency. The most telling statistic about Freeman's inconsistency is probably best stated by the Statesman's Brian Davis.

"Coaches are always looking for consistency. Freeman (6-1, 232) had four tackles in the season opener against Notre Dame and four in the season finale against Baylor. But only four tackles in four games in between."

Couldn't have said it better myself Brian. There's little doubt that Freeman has the physical tools to excel at this level, but it's a matter of putting it all together on the field for Freeman. The Longhorns just added several incoming freshmen linebackers who will compete for spots on the depth chart, and Freeman will need to hold on to contribute. Freeman put together a nice showing in the Orange-White game, so there's hope he can find more consistency in 2016. But, will he have the playing opportunities to do it?

Speaking of those freshmen, incoming prospect Jeffrey McCulloch was one of the Longhorn's biggest pickups in their 2016 recruiting class when they secured his commitment on National Signing Day. Nicknamed "the Shark," McCulloch comes to Texas with high aspirations in his freshman season.

With no practices under his belt, it's difficult to predict how McCulloch fits into the defensive scheme his freshman season. That being said, I think he has the natural ability to become one of the Longhorn's best freshmen players and make an immediate impact. McCulloch is an incredible athlete with viscous physicality at the point of attack and elite speed for the linebacker position. He has the flexibility and quick feet to make pass drops easily and help in passing defense, but maintains strength that makes him an animal in the run game.

I am a huge fan of McCulloch's skill set and so was about every other college in America, receiving offers from the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas A&M, Alabama, Florida State, and many more. McCulloch also participated in the Opening before his senior season and was named an Under Armour All-American. An all-state honoree and one of the most touted linebackers in the country, expect McCulloch to do big things in his time on the Forty Acres.

Redshirt freshman Cameron Townsend also figures to be apart of the mix at the linebacker position. Out of high school, Townsend was considered a valuable prospect, earning all-state honors and being named to the Semper-Fi All-American Game. With so many options ahead of him, it looks like Townsend won't see considerable amount of time at the linebacker position. He's an interesting prospect though with nice speed off the edge and sure tackling. It's easy to see him making a contribution on special teams this fall. Townsend looks to be the odd man out this season, but he should develop nicely for the Longhorns in the coming years.

Last but not least is incoming freshman Demarco Boyd. The younger brother of standout defensive back Kris Boyd, Demarco put together an illustrious high school career that featured him winning the 2014 Class 4A Division II state title game defensive MVP. Not only was Boyd named to all-district teams four times, he also earned all-state honors twice. Boyd is an interesting prospect because he spent his high school career at several different positions: linebacker, defensive end, nose tackle, running back. His transition to linebacker may take some time because he needs to improve his strength and learn the position better, but the bottom line is that Boyd is a football player. He has succeeded wherever he has played on the field, and I see that continuing at the college level. He's not as highly regarded as his brother was coming out of high school, but that doesn't mean he should be overlooked. I don't think it's going to be this season for Boyd, but I expect big things from him in the orange and white. My projection is that he'll most likely redshirt.

Conclusion

Like most of this team, the Longhorns are going to count on the younger players to do some heavy lifting for this linebacking unit. But with Malik Jefferson and Wheeler steering the ship, I don't think there should be cause for concern in their youth. The two are remarkably talented and well developed for sophomores and can anchor this position. Sprinkle in some nice depth, and the Longhorns look solid at the linebacker position. As Charlie Strong has said, this defense needs to be good for the Longhorns to succeed, and that starts with the linebacking corps.