For a number of reasons, Keondre Coburn was among the most defining additions to Tom Herman’s 2018 class, though that was hardly evident during his debut season with the Texas Longhorns. The Houston Westfield product arrived in Austin last summer as an Under Armour All-American and a top-125 prospect nationally, but a bit of experience at the position and senior Chris Nelson inheriting Poona Ford’s role as the team’s starting nose tackle relegated Coburn to the sidelines for all but three games.
That may not have been what Coburn initially expected from his freshman experience, but in hindsight, Texas’ plan for him played out perfectly.
“To be honest, the way it was planned out, I love the way it was,” Coburn said of playing in only three games last season. “I probably wanted to play more than I thought I wanted to, but to be honest, the way they planned it and set it up was the correct way for me.”
“It took me all last year to learn the plays, how to be a college football player, how to be useful to this program,” Coburn added, noting that redshirting put him in a more ideal position entering 2019. “Now I feel like I’m up to date.”
For Coburn, who’s seemingly already set to shoulder the significant hype he arrived with just last year, getting up to date didn’t come without obstacles.
Even with Nelson gone, three seniors entered the offseason eyeing the new vacancy at nose tackle in Gerald Wilbon, D’Andre Christmas, and Jamari Chisholm, yet it was Coburn whose name continued to surface throughout winter conditioning. Then, when the spring season arrived, it brought with it the return of a kidney issue, which limited him throughout the first several practices while his body “was taking soreness a different way.”
“I was like damn, I’m going to be missing some spring practice,” Coburn said of the kidney issue, which required routine monitoring and blood work. “I just [had to] get better and get healthy and get back on the field as fast as I can.”
Nevertheless, with the kidney concerns cleared up, Coburn returned to the practice field in short order, and shortly after doing so, his 6’2, 340-pound presence in the trenches started becoming apparent.
The noise Coburn made throughout spring practice ultimately led to him unseating Wilbon as the team’s first-team nose tackle, and we previously detailed, Coburn thrived during his first live-game experience in such a significant capacity — the Orange-White spring game.
“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.”
Since that showing, the praise pointed in Coburn’s direction from those working most closely with him speaks volumes to not only how quickly he’s taken to his suddenly considerable role as Texas’ first-team nose tackle, but his truly elite upside in that role.
For example, in July at the Texas High School Coaches Association Convention, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who isn’t often overly public with his praise, called Coburn “the guy” at nose tackle, per 247Sports.
“I think he gives us the ability to get, really, some great penetration, especially when playing as a zero or a one,” Orlando said. “(Coburn) can move his feet, he’s very, very quick and very, very fast.”
Just weeks later, at the front end of fall camp, Longhorns senior defensive end Malcolm Roach took it one step further, comparing Coburn to the aforementioned Ford, who captured the 2017 Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year award before quickly making a name for himself in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks.
“To be honest, I want to be myself, but to be compared to Poona, he’s doing good in the NFL, I feel that was amazing to me,” Coburn said. “I felt pride, felt praised… That was amazing for me.”
Coburn is far from the finished product that Ford became before his time in burnt orange was behind him, but that’s fine. Although honored at the notion that a senior team leader — one alongside him in the trenches, no less — sees some Poona Ford in him, Coburn simply wants to be himself.
At least to this point, that’s worked out quite well for him.
Being himself has seen Coburn surpass three seniors on the depth chart, all while making so much noise along the way that the expectations that now surround him make it easy to overlook the fact that he has just three collegiate appearances to his name. And being himself is why, on Aug. 31 when Texas opens its season against Louisiana Tech, Coburn’s fourth appearance will almost certainly be his first start.