Graduation hit the Texas Longhorns hard. The Longhorns lost eight starters on defense, including all three of its starters along the defensive line. As they go, they take with them 81 career starts, 361 career tackles, 76 career tackles for loss, and 33 career sacks with them.
As Texas looks to reload defensively and build off of the momentum from a Sugar Bowl win over the Georgia Bulldogs, they have to start in the trenches to get the job done.
One of the most underrated contributors in the Texas scheme is the nose tackle, which has been held down admirably by seniors for the last two seasons. In 2017, Poona Ford was a stalwart of the Texas defensive front and went on to become one of the most productive defensive rookies as an undrafted free agent. Chris Nelson was not only a fan favorite in 2018, but managed to be a key contributor along the front with 39 tackles — five more than Ford turned in a year earlier.
As Texas looks to find the man in the middle, it looks to a combination of rising senior Gerald Wilbon, who finished 2018 as the No. 2 man on the depth chart, and redshirt freshman Keondre Coburn.
Wilbon came to Texas as one of five defensive tackles in Charlie Strong’s final recruiting class that finished No. 7 nationally in 2016. As the Louisiana native heads into his final season he is one of just two that remain, along with D’Andre Christmas-Giles. In 2018, Wilbon established himself as a defensive contributor, appearing in all 14 games for the Longhorns and registering eight tackles and a pivotal fumble recovery in the Sugar Bowl win.
Coburn lacks what Wilbon brings to the table in experience, but has the talent to rapidly emerge as a key contributor in 2019 and beyond. The 6’3, 330-pounder was a highly-coveted recruit out of Westfield High School in Houston, boasting offers from 30 schools, including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M.
In spite of committing to Texas early in August of 2017, he chose to delay his signing until February, taking visits to TCU and Miami. He ultimately chose to sign with Texas and joined the team for the start of the 2018 season, appearing in three games — West Virginia, Kansas and Georgia — notching two tackles those games.
While Wilbon provides a baseline level of competency due to his experience, Coburn is the intriguing prospect because of his rare quickness for the position — the hope from the coaching staff is surely that he emerges as a redshirt freshman due to his significant upside. Christmas-Giles will likely serve as the third-string nose tackle.
Along the edges, Texas isn’t just presented with the burden of replacing a player a likely Day Two draft pick in Charles Omenihu, but also a vocal leader and team captain in Breckyn Hager.
Backing them up in 2018 were Ta’Quon Graham and Malcolm Roach, respectively. Both players should slot into the starting roles as Texas opens spring camp.
Roach, who appeared in nine games in 2019, comes in about 15 pounds heavier than Hager, but does not sacrifice quickness with the added size. Listed as a linebacker on the roster, but as a defensive end on the depth chart, he came on late in 2018 with 11 of his 24 tackles coming in the final three games of the season. After Roach battled through injuries in each of the last two seasons, Texas needs him to stay healthy in 2019.
Graham appeared in all 14 games last season, but the sophomore did not make as big of an impact on the stat sheet, largely due to the fact he backed up an NFL prospect. However, he did flash potential beyond his modest 12 tackles, recording two sacks and a forced fumble again Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Two other names to keep in mind as the dust settles along the edges of the line are redshirt freshman Moro Ojomo and junior Marqez Bimage. Both found their way onto the field in 2018 and both bring a degree of length and athleticism that would help as situational pass rushers.
Junior college transfer Jacoby Jones, who is already enrolled at Texas, redshirt freshman Daniel Carson, and redshirt senior Jamari Chisholm will provide depth and compete for playing time.
The Longhorns have their work ahead of them rebuilding the defense and the effort begins in the trenches. With new names across the front, Texas fans should come away from the spring practices with an idea of who will hold down the defense in 2019. The talent is there and defensive line coach Oscar Giles has a sterling reputation for coaching up his charges.
With both inside linebackers departing, the extent to which the defensive line can control the interior gaps in coordinator Todd Orlando’s tite front will go a long way towards determining whether the replacements at the second level are free to flow to the football.
And that’s a huge key for the Texas defense overall.