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.
One-by-one, we're taking looks at each position on the Texas team, looking only at the sophomores, freshmen and committed recruits for the future. The Longhorns appear to be pretty well set at linebacker.
Most of that is because of a pair of really nice back-to-back classes in 2012 and 2013 that gave Texas an outstanding group to build on, as well as the makings of a strong 2014 group that should fill in any holes.
Football defenses, like baseball ones, can often be judged by how strong they are up the middle. And in Dalton Santos, the Longhorns seem to have their middle linebacker of the future. Santos took his lumps as a 250-plus pound player trying to defend the spread as a true freshman, though he also had some bright spots, especially as a kamikaze special-teamer. But perhaps his biggest step came afterward when Santos sized up his biggest issue — his inability to play in space at 250 pounds — and took care of it, reporting at 235 pounds in the spring and emerging as a favorite to start at middle linebacker over incumbent freak Steve Edmond. Regardless of who wins the battle outright, both should see the field plenty, and Santos's instincts and hitting ability give the Longhorns somebody to look forward to.
But while Santos entered his freshman year as the stud of the Longhorn linebacker class, perhaps another player ended that season on a higher note. Everyone knew Peter Jinkens was an athletic freak … his 4.52 40-yard dash time at The Opening was actually faster than Johnathan Gray ran at the same event. But what people didn't know was that his toughness and aggressiveness would give Texas a leg up on a unit that, for much of the season, played passively. Jinkens actually finished the season with three more tackles than Santos had, and he added three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception. Like Santos, if he doesn't start in 2013, he'll certainly be a major cog in the rotation.
The third member of the 2012 class — not counting Alex De La Torre, who shifted to fullback in his first spring — faces a longer road to the field. Timothy Cole earned his Texas offer in the 2012 class by being a bright and instinctive player who overcame a lack of straight-line speed with quick feet, excellent burst and a knack for finding the ball. At 6-2 225, he's a bit of a 'tweener, with outside linebacker size but inside linebacker game and athleticism. Still, it's way too early in Cole's career to try and count him out. As we found out last year, the best players in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's linebacking corps aren't necessarily the best athletes, but those who can quickly read and react to posing offenses. There's a reason Cole was such a highly sought-after prospect.
Having said that, there's also a reason to be extremely excited for the future of Deoundrei Davis. The Cypress Woods product excels because he's both dynamically athletic and football savvy. He diagnoses well and arrives in a hurry, with plenty of pent-up aggression when he gets there. Davis enrolled early at Texas, but wasn't able to take part in spring practice as he recovered from injury. Still, the mental reps could still help as he develops in the program. Taking the top prospects from the last three classes, the Longhorns would probably field a group that included Davis and Jinkens on the outside, with Santos on the inside, and as the older players in the program move on, Texas could have the ability to do just that.
The wild card in all of this — or really, one of two — is incoming freshman Naashon Hughes of Harker Heights. Athletically, Hughes is an A+ prospect. At 6-4 215, he has plenty of room to add quality weight and the Texas staff timed him in the mid-4.4s at their camp this past summer. Hughes's game is still developing … up until this past year, he was employed mostly as a safety. But he can be devastating off the edge with his speed, and with time in the weight room, and development of his skill set, he's an interesting player. Texas originally offered Davis as a grayshirt, and he picked that grayshirt offer over full scholarship offers from Oklahoma and LSU. Then Hughes went out and earned a full offer from the Longhorns through his senior season.
The other wild card is fellow 2013 classmate Erik Huhn. Huhn is arriving in the Texas program as a safety, an offer that he earned after proving to defensive backs coach Duane Akina that he could play man at the Texas summer camp. But Huhn is huge, a big-framed 6-foot-3, and said in a recent interview with LonghornDigest.com that he's up to 210 pounds. And while the Longhorns have just talked to Huhn about a spot in the defensive backfield, even Huhn admitted that he thinks his body could blow up in Bennie Wylie's program, necessitating a move down. Huhn is athletic — the Cibolo Steele coaches had him at 4.48 in the 40 — and a nasty tackler who reads the game well.
If those players form the front line of what could be a pretty strong linebacking corps in a few years, then the 2014 class will prove to be a great one in terms of adding depth. It hasn't been perfect — there are two elite in-state linebackers in 2014 in Hoza Scott (Texas A&M) and Zach Whitley (Alabama), while a third Texas offer, Josh Walker, is joining Scott in College Station. But the Longhorn group is long on athleticism and also includes another strong middle linebacker to add to Santos and Cole.
Andrew Beck of Tampa (Fla.) Plant represents an outstanding fit to the Texas system somebody who scrapes and gets off blocks exceptionally well. And he'll be joined by a pair of rangy athlete types in Dallas Carter's Cameron Hampton and Cypress Falls standout Otaro Alaka. Hampton is better at dealing with plays at the point of attack, while Alaka has the more versatile skill set. All three are athletic enough to play well against the Big 12's spread offenses.
Grade — A-
The rankings for the 2014 class haven't been finalized yet. But as of right now, the Longhorns have landed five players — Santos, Davis, Hampton, Jinkens and Cole — who ranked among the top 15 players at their position in their respective classes. And guys like Beck, Alaka and Hughes are upside types who really fit what Texas wants. So there's definitely plus talent in the system, even if the Longhorns couldn't get their top two or so linebacker targets to Austin in 2014. But the 2014 class also isn't over from a recruiting standpoint, and Texas figures to take at least one more linebacker, possibly big-time talent Edwin Freeman of Arlington Bowie, while Texas is an interesting option for Miami (Fla.) Northwestern pass-rusher Michael Smith. And keep an eye out for 2015 — the Longhorns already have offers out to some pretty special linebackers, especially an elite talent in Malik Jefferson.