A group that appeared almost too stacked entering this season thinned out considerably when two members of Texas's five-man defensive tackle rotation left before opening day. First, massive nose tackle Brandon Moore, who alternated between major factor and non-factor a year ago elected to enter the NFL Draft a year early, and he wasn't selected. Then, one of Texas's biggest talents at the position, Ashton Dorsey, had a mutual parting of the ways with the Longhorns in fall camp. Just like that, five became three, and Texas found itself hoping for some sort of impact from the redshirt freshmen trio Hassan Ridgeway, Alex Norman and Paul Boyette.
A team realistically needs four defensive tackles to play defense at a high level in the high-tempo Big 12, meaning that the Longhorns needed one of those three to provide a significant presence alongside returnees Chris Whaley, Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson.
But just as important was finding a way to have those returnees make the most of their considerable talents. Brown, at least so far in 2013, has certainly done that. He showed flashes of ability a year ago, but figured to play a much bigger role this season. In fact, Brown's emergence alongside that of senior leader Whaley meant that Dorsey, though he led the Longhorn defensive tackles in tackles for loss last year, was relegated to the second team before leaving. And while Brown played well early, he seemed to truly unlock his skill-set under new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. With Robinson simplifying things, Brown exploded. Just how good has he been this year? The only Big 12 defensive tackles with more tackles for loss that Brown's six have played in more games than he has. Brown has 31 tackles, two sacks, two passes broken up, two quarterback hurries and a blocked kick for good measure. He possesses a strength and quickness at the point of attack that is uncommon, and he should expect to see more and more double-teams as the year goes on.
Whaley has also stepped his game up a notch. The former running back had 22 total tackles and four tackles for loss last year, and he's already at 21 stops and three tackles for loss in six games this season. That includes a sack and a very impressive pick-six last game against Oklahoma. Whaley's effort and athleticism in pursuit is impressive to watch, but perhaps more impressive has been his leadership. Whaley is one of the team's primary leaders, no doubt a boon to a defensive tackle group that, beyond Whaley and Jackson, is pretty young.
Jackson has ever been steady as a backup, making 11 tackles, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery. He's not as explosive as Brown or Whaley, but he's one of the team's strongest players, and his low center of gravity allows him to play the part of obstacle whenever teams try to run his way.
But the best surprise so far has probably come from Hassan Ridgeway. Ridgeway's athletic gifts have never been in question. The Texas staff fell in love with him while watching him, at 240 pounds, jump around and dunk playing basketball. Ridgeway bloomed to 260-plus pounds as a senior in high school, and entered Texas at around 280 pounds. Now, he tips the scales at 305 pounds spread over a mobile 6-4 frame, and while he's still figuring things out, he's been better than serviceable as a rotational piece. Ridgeway has 11 tackles, with a tackle for loss in the season opener, though perhaps his most impressive stat is his four quarterback hurries, the top mark among Texas's defensive tackles. He could help fill the pass-rushing gap when Whaley graduates.
Alex Norman has also played in three games as a reserve, making one tackle. He'll likely be counted on as part of the rotation next year. Former offensive lineman Marcus Hutchins played against New Mexico State as a backup, but likely doesn't figure into Texas's long-term plans at the position.