Tom Herman once said, “the essence of this game is to move another human against his will where he doesn’t want to go.”
On Saturday, for the first time since the Sugar Bowl, Herman’s Texas Longhorns will enjoy an opportunity to do exactly that against humans who aren’t donning burnt orange and white with their season set to get underway against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. In particular, it’s Texas’ big bodies up front that are likely chomping at the bit to push other bodies around, which, in turn, should allow the Longhorns’ ground game to find its footing against a Bulldogs’ rush defense that isn’t expected to be much to write home about.
“They have huge, athletic offensive linemen that can create holes and openings and they’ve got running backs that can split it,” Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz said of the Longhorns.
In Austin, Louisiana Tech will debut an entirely new unit along the defensive line and a first-year starter at Mike linebacker in redshirt freshman Trey Baldwin, but given how the front seven fared last season, the Bulldogs needed a bit of a fresh start up front.
In 2018, Louisiana Tech’s six-man front — then featuring three down linemen, two true linebackers, and a hybrid edge rusher in Jaylon Ferguson, who finished his career as the NCAA’s all-time sacks leader (45) — seldom found much success in slowing opposing rushing attacks. Aside from its Week 2 win over FCS foe Southern University, Louisiana Tech held its opponents below the 100-yard rushing mark just four times, doing so against UTSA, UTEP, Southern Miss, and Hawai’i, which respectively ranked 123rd, 106th, 120th, and 91st nationally in rushing S&P+.
But far more notably, of Louisiana Tech’s other eight opponents, the Bulldogs sacrificed at least 200 rushing yards five times, and nearly did so on another occasion, allowing 196 yards to Western Kentucky.
LSU and Mississippi State, the only two Power 5 programs of that bunch, amassed 507 yards and seven touchdowns on six yards per carry.
Now, for better or worse — likely worse — the Bulldogs replace the bulk of a front seven that was largely responsible for Louisiana Tech finished 95th in defensive rushing S&P+ last season.
To that end, first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco transformed Louisiana Tech’s defensive scheme from the 4-2-5 the Bulldogs used last season to a 3-4, with the most notable difference being former safety James Baker’s role as an outside being that of a hybrid safety — similar to how Texas utilized B.J. Foster as a Joker last season — rather than Ferguson remaining on the field as a stand-up rusher around the line of scrimmage. With Ferguson, fellow defensive end Immanuel Turner, and defensive tackles Jordan Bradford and Keonayte Garner now graduated, redshirt senior nose tackle Courtney Wallace, senior defensive end Ka’Derrion Mason, and redshirt sophomore Milton Williams are stepping into heightened roles as first-year starters.
Wallace and Mason have combined for 74 career appearances, so save for former Missouri linebacker Trey Baldwin’s entry into the starting lineup, there is some notable experience throughout the front six, even if that does come in the form of first-year starters. Excluding James Baker given that he’ll spend much of his time in coverage, redshirt senior Collin Scott returns to his role as a starting linebacker, where he’ll be joined by former edge Willie Baker, a former four-star prospect per ESPN who’s made 17 career appearances.
While it will matter to some degree, Louisiana Tech replacing the experience it lost throughout the front six shouldn’t be the biggest issue in hopes of providing a push up front — it’s that, as Holtz noted, Texas offensive line is much bigger.
The Bulldogs’ front six, on average, weighs 264 pounds. Texas’ projected starting offensive line, on the other hand, are all listed at at least 300 pounds with an average weight of 303 pounds, which essentially provides the Horns with a 39-pound edge per player in the trenches.
That’s what shifty sophomore Keaontay Ingram and dynamic true freshman Jordan Whittington will get to set up shop behind on Saturday.
Bearing in mind that the Bulldogs’ strength defensively is its experienced secondary, the easy rebuttal would be to load the box to account for the size differential. But, as Holtz said, doing so would simply allow Sam Ehlinger to play pitch-and-catch with his numerous towing receivers.
“You can’t just corral a single player on that football team,” Holtz said when asked of how he aims to slow Ingram and Texas’ rushing attack. “As soon as you try to load the box, they have 6’6 wide receivers outside that can run and jump and are athletic that are gonna put you in one-on-one situations.”