Less than a full year removed from stepping foot on the Forty Acres as a member of head coach Tom Herman’s 2018 class, it appears the time has already arrived for Keondre Coburn to reveal why he was such a prized prospect coming out of Houston Westfield.
For the second time in as many offseasons, the Texas Longhorns are tasked with replacing their biggest man in the middle, as Chris Nelson’s departure flew under the radar as part of a defensive exodus in which eight starters graduated. Entering the spring, senior Gerald Wilbon was an obvious top option to replace Nelson at nose tackle, owning the most experience — 33 games and one start — of any candidate aiming to carve out a role in the trenches. Yet, Wilbon, and to an extent, seniors D’Andre Christmas and Jamari Chisholm, failed to make the most of the opportunity to anchor what will be a new-look Longhorns defensive line featuring three new starters.
Coburn, on the other hand, did capitalize, and despite once again working through kidney issues that limited him throughout the first several practices, the redshirt freshman capped his first spring session in Austin as the first-team nose tackle.
Despite his general inexperience, as Coburn saw action in just three games as a true freshman in order to preserve his redshirt, even his limited reps reveal his raw power and ability to impose his will in the trenches.
Take the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, for example — on Coburn’s first snap of the contest, a simple bullrush saw him force the 6’7, 340-pound Isaiah Wilson backward with relative ease, though Elijah Holyfield snuck past the line of scrimmage just before Coburn discarded Wilson. On the very next play, Coburn completely overwhelmed 6’6, 318-pound Cade Mays, driving him backward a full five yards just before Jake Fromm found Charlie Woerner on a quick out route.
Texas has to replace three starters on the d-line, but should be just fine with Keondre Coburn at NT. His first two snaps against UGA are just an example of the power he possesses and ability to collapse the pocket. pic.twitter.com/cHq92YEYZV— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) May 19, 2019
Sure, neither effort saw Coburn make a play on the ball, but throughout the course of an entire game, the odds of that kind of presence and imposing will altering the outcome of a play favor Texas.
That was evident later in the second quarter in the Sugar Bowl, as Coburn to shed a would-be block from first-team All-SEC offensive tackle Andrew Thomas to stop Holyfield for a short gain on the ground.
Keondre Coburn played well in rotational play. He sprinted off the field following his only tackle of the game. #HookEm pic.twitter.com/JvyPoRAicH— Joe Cook (@josephcook89) January 7, 2019
Of course, save for the kidney ailments that limited him, the massive 6’2, 340-pound Coburn carried that momentum on into the spring, garnering praise from Herman for his efforts in practice, and for good reason.
The future. @KeondreCoburn99. #ThisIsTexas #HookEm pic.twitter.com/6QOQTpZH6a— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) March 30, 2019
The noise Coburn made in practice saw him go on to unseat Wilbon as the team’s first-team nose tackle entering the spring, and during his first live-game experience in such a significant capacity, the former top-ranked defensive tackle in Texas flashed why it’s unlikely he’ll relinquish that role in 2019.
On the second snap of the spring game, Coburn quickly gained leverage on Derek Kerstetter before forcing him back several steps, eventually causing him to make contact with Sam Ehlinger as he released what ended as an incomplete pass. The same brute force pushed Junior Angilau deep into the pocket on the very next play. Later in the first quarter, a straight bullrush from Coburn made Angilau stumble backward, nearly causing him to lose his balance, and ultimately, Coburn’s pressure forced Ehlinger into a sack from Joseph Ossai.
Examples of this kind of effort were evident throughout the spring game, which saw Coburn require numerous double-teams to contain.
BON’s Wescott Eberts said it best: “Basically, Coburn has the perfect skill set to play nose tackle for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando — a low center of gravity, strong base to anchor against the run, and enough athleticism to still make plays in the backfield against the run and pass.”
Should Coburn ultimately cement his place as the first-team nose tackle, as expected, his presence will likely be felt beyond a simple stat sheet — Nelson and Poona Ford finished 10th on the team in total tackles in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
In Todd Orlando’s defensive scheme, the nose tackle isn’t exactly placed in a position to thrive statistically, but rather clog space and attract attention to open lanes for the edge rushers and protect the linebackers.
Of course, it certainly helps that the early signs suggest Coburn could become a mainstay in opposing backfields, but beyond any tackles and sacks he collects, congesting the trenches and imposing his will in the fashion his early showings suggests he’s capable of doing should prove invaluable for a rebuilding Longhorns defensive line and the entire front six.