It’s safe to say Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman recognizes a quality nose tackle when he sees one.
Herman helped recruit Ed Oliver to Houston as the first five-star to ever put pen to paper with the Cougars program, and Oliver lived up to that billing immediately, amassing 65 total tackles, 22 tackles for loss, and five sacks during his first season and Herman’s final season in Houston. Upon his arrival in Austin, Herman inherited a Texas team that featured a senior Poona Ford in the trenches, who was honored as a team captain for the 2017 campaign before capping his college career as the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year. The ensuing season, senior Chris Nelson stepped into those shoes, also earning honors as a team captain.
Now, just as was the case during Herman’s final season in Houston, it’s a freshman — albeit a redshirt freshman — anchoring the interior in Keondre Coburn, and despite the youth, his name already merits mentioning in the same breathe as Oliver, Ford, and Nelson as a potential team captain.
“You go from Ed Oliver to Poona Ford to Chris Nelson; those are three really good players, and now Keondre (Coburn),” Herman said on Monday. “I don’t know what it does for opposing play-callers, but I just — I love the way the kid comes to work every day. He’s got two speeds, full and off.”
“When he’s on the practice field or game field it’s “full,” and I think his demeanor and his likeability — I told him the other day that if he takes care of his business off the field, because of his work ethic, his level of play and his demeanor, I could certainly see a scenario where that guy would be a captain before he left here, and that’s always good,” Herman added. “The previous two years our nose guard has been a captain. It’s nice to have some leadership up there.”
Herman’s high praise for Coburn comes despite the 6’2, 340-pounder having only four starts and seven total appearances to his name — essentially just half of a full season. Nevertheless, his presence and impact is already apparent, just as it has been during the offseason when defensive coordinator Todd Orlando called Coburn “the guy” at nose tackle over a collection of more experienced options. Game-by-game, we’re continuing to see why Herman envisions Coburn as a budding leader.
In fact, Coburn sees himself in a similar light, already housing an idea of the type of team leader he’d like to become.
“I think that’s a big compliment. I feel like that’s big if I could be a captain,” Coburn said of Herman’s remarks. “I don’t want to be a leader to where I tell everybody what to do. I just want to let everybody flow and vibe and for people to know that they can talk to me at any time. A leader to me is — we had to do this thing in the D-line room, what do you think a leader is to you? To me a leader is being there and doing everything right and I know I can rely on [them] if I need anything. So that’s why I feel like I just want to be that type of leader.”
To that end, Coburn already lines up alongside a similar type of leader in senior defensive end and team captain Malcolm Roach. The Baton Rouge native has previously noted his leadership style as one by example rather than by talking much, but his did voice his option on Coburn entering the season, comparing him to the aforementioned Ford, to which a thankful Coburn humbly responded, “I want to be myself.”
Now truly beginning to make a name for himself after grading out as a champion each of the previous two weeks, as he recorded his first career sack in a 48-13 win over Rice and was imposing in Texas’ 36-30 win over Oklahoma State, which included Coburn pressuring Spencer Sanders to force an interception, Coburn echoed his preseason sentiments on Tuesday.
“Not really, I just try to be myself,” Coburn said when asked if he models his game after any other players. “Favorite players that I will probably never be like because they’re unstoppable — Ed Oliver, Aaron Donald, players like that in the league that are hard to try to be, but I try to work better to be just as good as them.”
Whether or not Coburn can ever become “unstoppable” in the trenches like Oliver, or consistently impactful enough on the field and in the locker room to follow in the footsteps of Ford and Nelson as a Texas nose tackle to earn the nod as a team captain remains to be seen.
But for now, as was the case entering the season, Coburn just wants to be himself, and that’s been enough to earn some praise and potential foresight from his head coach.