A team is only as good as its front line, a wave of experienced starters ready to supply leadership in the offseason and in the locker room, while providing the difference between winning and losing close games. But a program is only as strong as the next men up, the players who will be called upon after those front-line the year that those experienced players leave.
LonghornDigest.com is looking at each position on the Texas team, looking only at the sophomores, freshmen and committed recruits for the future. At defensive tackle, that look should be enough to make coach Bo Davis smile.
A college coach once told me that defensive tackle was the hardest position to fill adequately in a recruiting class because "if they're big, and they can move, everybody knows about 'em, and everybody wants 'em." And so, while other positions may be more difficult to evaluate, few recruiting battles are more hard-fought than those for elite big guys in the middle.
But that hasn't stopped Texas from luring an outstanding crop to Austin, starting with Brenham product Malcom Brown. Brown didn't just make it into the Longhorn rotation as a true freshman, he flashed so loudly that some wondered whether he wasn't the best long-term defensive tackle in the program. That thought-line wasn't exactly quieted during the spring, when Brown emerged as a starter next to Chris Whaley after making 25 tackles, including two for loss, a year ago.
Brown is exactly what coaches look for at tackle. He's big (6-4 315) and powerful, while also possessing the quickness to make life hell for offensive linemen. He lettered in basketball in high school, while making a whopping 66 tackles for loss in his three years as a starter in high school.
But while Brown is the best of a young crop of defensive tackles in the Texas program, his classmates from the class of 2012 help make this a really strong group. The player with the most potential (other than Brown) might be Hassan Ridgeway, a player the Longhorn staff elected to pursue after it saw him throwing down dunks in basketball while standing at 6-4 240. Ridgeway was able to keep his athleticism, though his body continued to grow. He was probably in the 260s as a senior in high school, and though he arrived in Austin as a defensive end, his weight was already at 280. Now at 300 pounds, Ridgeway is a full time tackle, but he still has intriguing athleticism moving forward.
Fellow redshirt freshman Alex Norman had elite quickness coming out of high school, the kind of gap-shooting ability that makes coaches drool. He piled up 29 tackles for loss as a senior while playing both ways — he was also second-team All-State as an offensive lineman. He and Ridgeway are currently just outside of the tackle rotation, and with Brandon Moore gone from a year ago, one of them could (should?) slide into the No. 5 spot.
Paul Boyette is a versatile talent who is currently below Norman and Ridgeway in the pecking order. But the former Humble standout has ability as well. While Norman and Ridgeway are better athletes, Boyette might project better at a position like nose tackle.
Texas wanted to add to that stellar 2012 group in 2013, especially with a stacked class that included A'Shawn Robinson, Justin Manning, Isaiah Golden and Andrew Billings, all of whom were considered among the state's top 25 prospects. But Golden picked A&M early, and Texas wasn't ever able to get truly in with Manning. Robinson committed to Texas, then switched to Alabama just before signing day. And while the Longhorns were in it for Billings, the tackle eventually chose Baylor.
The Longhorns also missed on their top defensive tackle target for 2014 in DeShawn Washington (Texas A&M), and may trail the Aggies for their first choice in 2015 (Daylon Mack). Still, there's reason for optimism. Texas went into Louisiana and snagged Courtney Garnett, an athletic player who excels as a run stopper. And the Longhorns also landed second-choice in-state tackle Trey Lealaimatafao, a stocky plugging type. Additionally, Texas has already landed a top 2015 target in DeSoto's Bryce English, a powerful tackle who could blow up with a big junior year.
Grade — A-
The scary thing is that, had Texas been able to hold onto Robinson, this could have been an A-plus. But the Longhorns have an already proven player in Brown who appears on the verge of stardom. And Texas has plenty of athletic talent to develop in Ridgeway, Norman and Boyette. Add in a good 2014 group, and one of the Longhorns' highest targets in 2015, and Texas should be set up well at tackle for the foreseeable future.