The Horn completes its analysis of the incoming class as it takes an inside look at the freshmen on defense.
In part one of dissecting the freshmen class to determine who can provide an early impact on the field, we looked at the offense and found that while there are plenty of returners who will secure the brunt of the playing time, there are needs at the skill positions.
Part two of this dissection looks at Manny Diaz’s second-year defense, a unit that should be vastly more comfortable in its second go around despite having lost key players in Emmanuel Acho, Keenan Robinson, Blake Gideon and Kheeston Randall.
Fortunately for the Longhorns, there are ample players to fill into the roles immediately. Unlike on offense where there are several places where help is needed, there is not much of that on the defensive side other than depth-building, which is exactly where a number of freshmen should find themselves come fall camp and the 2012 season.
Last season, we saw Quandre Diggs emerge as a fantastic compliment at cornerback opposite Carrington Byndom. This year the pair will look to set the standard as the Big 12’s best duo. Steve Edmond, who inherits some spacious shoes to fill in the collective absence of Acho and Robinson, did not see the field often, but when he did, he was a space-eater. Desmond “Tank” Jackson entered the fold at defensive tackle and should see his role increased in his second season.
So which freshmen this season can make their presence felt and earn some early playing time?
Early-impact candidates: DT Malcom Brown, DB Duke Thomas, LB Dalton Santos, LB Peter Jinkens, DE Torshiro Davis, DT/DE Hassan Ridgeway
For a defense that returns seven starters, followed up by a wealth of deep talent, it will be hard for any freshmen to crack the two deep and earn some playing time early on. The newcomers could be reserved for special team duties, if not a redshirt.
But for the sake of speculative argument and extra word count, we can entertain ourselves with a little bit of educated conjecture.
On the defensive line, the departure of Randall on the interior reveals a huge hole to fill for a guy who simply went to work every week. There currently are no senior defensive tackles on the roster, and only two of the four juniors listed have actually suited up and put in some time for the Longhorns—Ashton Dorsey, who should start coming out of camp, and Chris Whaley, who by most accounts looks to have one of the highest ceilings in the position.
The truth is that there is some depth, but not a ton of proven experience, leaving a chance for some of the younger guys on the roster to earn their fill. Freshman tackle Malcom Brown—not to be confused with the running back Malcolm—has all the make and mold of a showstopper. Though he may be undersized at 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, Brown plays with a quick first step, a great motor and athleticism that is tough to find at such a physically demanding position.
On the edges, Texas looks set with Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor poised for huge seasons. But with the possibility of both leaving for the NFL after the year, there is a concern for depth as only Cedric Reed and Reggie Wilson are behind them.
Torshiro Davis and Hassan Ridgeway both have the make-up of two freshmen linemen who could earn early snaps because of the aforementioned issues.
Davis, a late get for the Longhorns after pocketing his commitment from LSU, is freakishly athletic at 6-3, 240 pounds. Ridgeway, who is listed at a massive 6-4, 280-pound defensive end, could very well slide into the interior depending on how the season goes. Either way, because of the concerns for number, both could see some early looks.
The Longhorns seemingly have forever lived up to the acronym of “DBU,” and Duane Akina’s crew once again should field a set of defensive backs that will compete to be the best unit in the country. Having said that, and given the talent that Texas has back-loaded at the position, it will be a tough crack to get onto the field as a freshman.
Orlando “Duke” Thomas, who enrolled in the spring, got quite a head start on things compared to his classmates. The results are showing, and Thomas has been turning some heads of late, possibly even coach Akina’s. Texas will field one of its most potent defensive backfields in years, but Thomas looks to be closer than some of his sophomore counterparts to seeing the field this season.
Linebacker is an obvious position of concern for the Longhorns coming into the year. The departures of Acho and Robinson have left quite a void, although there is nothing but confidence in the trio of Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs to shape up the middle of the defense. Behind those three, however, are blank names to be written into the depth chart. Hicks and Cobbs are the only junior linebackers on the roster, with everyone else as underclassmen.
There are several sophomores who could beat out the freshmen for the coveted back-up spots, but reports have shown high praise for both Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens. Santos, a late commit to the 2012 class, could fill in nicely behind Edmond as a true middle linebacker. Jinkens oozes athleticism when he flies around the defense, but his understanding of Diaz’s defensive schemes should determine how much time he sees on the field.
Spoiled by the opera-loving, sure-footed Justin Tucker for the past few seasons had left the Texas kicking and punting game in a bit of a predicament. With no proven candidate ready to step into the position, the Longhorns did make some moves to enhance what was already on campus.
The Longhorns will pick up two transfers in punter Alex King and punter/kicker Anthony Fera to add to their depth at the position. King, a senior who made the switch from Duke, and Fera, a junior who returns to his home state after exiting the Penn State program, provide that much-needed experience that surely will buoy the kicking game.
Given the measures that the coaching staff has made to improve the situation, one has to believe that it seems unlikely that any freshmen kickers, walk-ons included, will get the opportunity. Perhaps if King or Fera sputter, there is reason to test a new leg.
The Bottom Line
While the offense still has some lingering questions, the defense will be more than formidable. Talent runs deep, and there is adequate experience up and down the depth chart.
However, with the type of quality that the Longhorns reeled in for their 2012 class, there are definite spots available for the taking. And if the early reports and musings are accurate, we could very well see a freshman here and there this season for a top Texas defense.