The Texas Longhorns linebacking corps is in an interesting state of flux heading into spring practice.
The Texas linebacker room graduates the team’s two leading tacklers in Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler, who combined for 177 total tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks in 2018. But it’s not just the statistical leadership that the Longhorns lost; it’s two dependable forces in the middle that knew their roles and could lead the defense on every play.
But like most of the spots where Texas needs to find replacements, the level of talent in the group could make the transition smoother than expected.
The biggest battle to watch is the Rover spot, a role in which can Texas can choose between some of its more experienced playmakers in the entire linebacking corps.
Jeffrey McCulloch has been a contributor for Texas over the last three seasons, but the senior has never really enjoyed the opportunity to live up to his highly-recruited status. He was one of the prized recruits of Charlie Strong’s final recruiting class, ranked as the No. 5 outside linebacker and the No. 62 recruit overall, per the 247Sports Composite. In his 36 appearances, including six starts, McCulloch managed 66 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and one timely interception against the Kansas Jayhawks.
McCulloch displays a high football IQ and in his limited playing time and has shown great instincts and the ability to put himself in the right place to make plays. This is evidenced by interception against Kansas, showing the skill to read the quarterback, recover into the passing lane and get a hand on the ball. Where most linebackers would have settled for a knocked down pass, he managed to track the ball in the air and bring it in for the interception, ending a red zone threat.
The thing that could hinder McCulloch is a skillset that doesn’t project directly to either the inside or outside spot. He does not boast the top-end speed that has been the calling card of the rover spot under Malik Jefferson or Gary Johnson, which could force him inside to compete for the middle linebacker spot, but the role may be his to lose as of now.
Competing to fill the spot vacated by Gary Johnson is another JUCO prospect, Caleb Johnson.
A three-star linebacker from Fullerton College, Johnson has the talent and skills to push the more experienced McCulloch for the starting role.
Caleb Johnson doesn’t have quite the elite speed of Gary Johnson, but there are some definite similarities in terms of size and skill set. Caleb Johnson plays with an apparent tenacity, and is extremely fast and extremely physical, even showing the ability to take on and defeat blockers, which Gary Johnson didn’t show on his junior college film and didn’t show on the field for the Longhorns. Johnson’s speed allows him to impact the game from sideline to sideline, and when he makes stops, he often does so in an imposing and forceful fashion. Furthermore, he displays impressive instincts around the line of scrimmage and great burst through gaps to make plays in the backfield.
“[I’d] fit very well,” Johnson previously told Burnt Orange Nation when asked how he would fit defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense. “I think Rover is the perfect position for me... I’m planning on starting wherever I go.”
In his freshman year at Fullerton College, Johnson notched 41 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks, but he missed the 2018 season due to a labrum injury and took a medical redshirt. So not only does he bring a 3.1 GPA with him, but he also brings three years of eligibility with him, as well.
Looking inside, two young players will battle to hold down the middle linebacker spot for the Longhorns in 2019, as redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye and early enrollee De’Gabriel Floyd are each eyeing the starting role.
Adeoye was expected to be a contributor in 2018, but a knee injury sidelined him early and earned him a redshirt year. Once healthy, the IMG Academy prospect appeared in four games for Texas, gaining a bit of experience, but not much. A year ago, Adeoye was a major win for head coach Tom Herman, not only as the nation’s No. 6-ranked inside linebacker, but as a big recruiting win over the Oklahoma Sooners, as he was widely expected to flip down the stretch.
Adeoye was slated to become the heir apparent in the middle linebacker spot, all based around his performance as a recruit. He seemingly lines up with Anthony Wheeler, the man he could potentially replace, from a measurables standpoint, but does not boast the sideline-to-sideline speed that Wheeler brought. This means he will need to show an ability to read and react quickly, putting him in the right position to make all the correct plays. What he does do is bring big contact on ball carriers, laying punishing hits at the point of contact.
In the same vein, Floyd was another huge win for Texas in the 2019 class, as Todd Orlando went into California and came away with the state’s top inside linebacker. As one of 2019’s earliest commitments, Floyd also became a key recruiter for the Longhorns as they closed the recruiting class.
An early enrollee, Floyd has both the opportunity, talent and versatility to step into an open seat in the linebacker corps.
As a senior at Westlake (Calif.) Village, Floyd filled in as both an inside and outside linebacker, and even saw a few snaps at safety, as well. He displays elite closing speed, as well as great eye discipline while watching the ball and finds a way to make his first move count. Perhaps what fans will enjoy the most is his love of laying big hits on ball carriers, often resulting in separating them from the ball.
Slotting in at Texas’s B-Backer spot seems to be sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai, who already had an opportunity to contribute as a freshman.
In 2018, Ossai appeared in all 14 games, starting in two of them, splitting his time between special teams and filling in as the defensive staff tried to find depth.
Ossai was recruited as a weak-side defensive end out of Conroe Oak Ridge, the No. 20 player in the state, finding his way to Texas after the Texas A&M Aggies and Kevin Sumlin parted ways. He was billed as a top-end pass rusher and showed flashes of that in his first start of 2018 against the Iowa State Cyclones, where he put a pin in the comeback attempt with a strip sack of Kyle Kempt.
Redshirt freshman Byron Vaughns is expected to push for playing time at B-Backer behind Ossai.
Like so many other spots on the defense, the Texas Longhorns have an opportunity to rotate a cast of incredible talented players as they try to replace senior leaders. So with a Big 12 conference that is relatively wide open, the dividends from the 2018 and 2019 recruiting cycles could be a huge differentiator for a Texas team looking to take the next step.