This time last year, sophomore B-backer Joseph Ossai was heading into his first fall camp with the Texas Longhorns. Six months later, he led the team with eight tackles in a win over the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl.
Now, as he works through the second fall camp of his college career, Ossai will be one of the many young but talented players to helm the defense.
“A lot of people left, we know that, everybody knows that and people keep talking about it, but every day younger guys are working,” Ossai said to the media following Wednesday’s practice.
“Everyone’s working really hard to get ahead and to fill in those spaces and I think we’re doing really good and coming along well.”
Ossai is expected to be a key piece in the Longhorns linebacker corps, likely getting the nod at B-backer. However, one of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s priorities for fall camp is to cross train players at all levels of the defense, meaning Ossai is prepping to play three different positions for the defense, including Rover and Mac.
If players like redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye and sophomore junior college transfer Caleb Johnson struggle at the Mac position, then Orlando might ask Ossai to move over to Rover in the Dime package. So there are high expectations that Ossai will be one of the two best linebackers on the team this season, which could require him to play two different positions.
The key to his success is shaping his mind to mirror his coach.
“[Orlando] is a smart dude and he expects you to kind of think like him” Ossai said. “When we get in the meeting rooms you have to focus, so it’s a lot of heat and a lot coming at you during practice. When you get into games, it’s pretty easy.”
Due to both Orlando’s cross-training philosophy and the complexity of his scheme, a player’s mindset can and will change from play to play. From run support to pass coverage to blitzing from the outside, the tasks demanded of linebackers in this scheme will be wide and varied.
For Ossai, the biggest change in his game is not truly physical, but mental.
“I’ve improved with seeing the whole offense and learning not to be so tunnel vision and focused,” Ossai said. “Knowing when to stay tunnel vision and focused on things and when to open up and see the whole offense and work off of that.”
However, in spite of complexity of roles and schemes, the goal remains simple.
“Coach Orlando always says ‘Stop the run and get them to second and long and third and long,’” Ossai said. “That’s what we do. That’s what we base everything off of.”
Ossai, with just two starts under his belt, is now a centerpiece of a talented group of linebackers that should anchor the defense. Head coach Tom Herman spoke positively of the starting linebackers following Sunday’s scrimmage, but noted that the group had a bit of trouble when the offense increased tempo.
With limited time left before the first game of the season, that crew must get up to speed quickly, as the Texas offense won’t be the last tempo attack they face.
Despite the limited experience of Ossai, he will be a key piece as Orlando attempts to build a defense and a linebackers corps to complement an offense with the talent to carry the Longhorns to a College Football Playoffs berth for the first time in school history.