Coaches often talk about spring practices being a zero sum game: when one side is successful, it's difficult to tell whether it's because you're good in that area, or whether it's because you're bad in the opposite.
And certainly, as both the first and second teams piled up sacks like a grocery store during Saturday's Spring Game, it'd be pretty easy to point the finger at an underperforming offensive line, or at quarterbacks who struggled to get rid of the ball in a timely fashion. But the alternate reality is just as likely to be the case: that Texas is just dominant, and deep, up front on defense.
Even before the two sides combined for eight sacks in the first half, there were indicators that Texas could be one of the country's top defenses up front. Cedric Reed (6-6 271) returns after finishing second among Big 12 defensive linemen in tackles (68), third in sacks (10.0) and fourth in tackles for loss (16.5). And even though he could be the Big 12's best defensive end — Kansas State's Ryan Mueller is one of the few players with an argument — he might not even be the best defensive lineman on his own team. That honor could belong to defensive tackle Malcom Brown (6-4 320), who many project as a first-round NFL Draft pick after this season. Shiro Davis (6-3 258) is an athletic freak* getting his first full run at defensive end this season and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson (6-1 301), the aptly nicknamed "Tank," has 38 games of experience, including 13 starts, and is among Texas's strongest players in the weight room.
* At The Opening before Davis's senior season, he ran an electronic 4.56 40-yard dash. That was three hundredths of a second slower than Texas running back Johnathan Gray, who ran 4.53 on the same day at the same event.
But Texas also has the depth to make major waves as well. Caleb Bluiett (6-3 264) became a bigger part of the defense a year ago as the season went on, seeing more and more time as part of Texas's "Spinner" package that involved moving Jackson Jeffcoat around. He's another outstanding athlete who played outfield for his high school baseball team at more than 240 pounds. And at defensive tackle, few players in the Big 12 pass the looks and athleticism test better than Hassan Ridgeway (6-4 309), who earned the Texas's staff's attention with his play in high school basketball games.
The point? We had a pretty good idea that Texas was going to bring the heat up front this year even before the Spring Game kicked off. Of course, once the game started, the defensive line was even more impressive than advertised. Granted, the first-team offensive line was working without likely starter Kent Perkins at guard. But also remember that the defense kept things pretty vanilla. It wasn't like they were sending blitzes from all over the place … in fact, only two of the eight sacks came from linebackers, one from Peter Jinkens, who in Texas's 4-3 under main look basically lines up on the line anyway, and one from Dalton Santos.
And while a one or two-hand touch created a sack, so the quarterbacks weren't able to display their escapability, it was probably a wash, as the defense let up on a couple plays that would have been likely sacks, including Tyrone Swoopes's half-ending Hail Mary TD to Daje Johnson.
Brown flashed his massive potential, making five tackles, including one tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. Reed made two sacks himself and had two quarterback hurries, while Davis had two quarterback hurries, including one that pressured Miles Onyegbule into a pick-six throw to safety Mykkele Thompson. Jackson added a sack for the first team as well.
The second-team defensive line also had success, holding the first team offense to just four yards on its first 18 plays as Bluiett put up two tackles for loss and two sacks and Ridgeway chipped in with a sack.
Another encouraging note? While many panned that Texas's 2014 class wasn't as strong as it could have been, two of the elite talents came on the defensive line with defensive end Derick Roberson and defensive tackle Poona Ford. Whether those two immediately enter the rotation will depend on holdovers like Bryce Cottrell, Alex Norman and Paul Boyette.
The best defenses are created with talent and depth up front, which can mask all other kinds of ills. Texas's ability to control the line of scrimmage against the run should free up a deep linebacking corps to clean things up, while the fact that the Longhorns can reach the quarterback by rushing four only creates more pressure when they do decide to bring the heat.
So while that defensive line performance could indicate issues yet to come on the offensive line, the other possibility is also likely: that Texas is just going to be really good with its front four.
Three Other Thoughts on the Defense
* Demarco Cobbs (6-2 225) didn't just look to be fully healthy on Saturday as he continues to return from the knee injury that kept him out all last season, he looked like one of Texas's best linebackers.
Cobbs showed off his superb range in racking up a game-high eight tackles (tying Bluiett for the honor) and a pass broken up. This is a guy whose teammates called him the fastest linebacker in the country before his injury. But remember that, despite starting a six games as a junior in 2012, he didn't really have a ton of chances to develop — he didn't play linebacker in high school and spent his first season on campus at running back and safety.
Reports from inside the program indicated that Cobbs took well to Greg Robinson a year ago, even while he couldn't play, learning more of the intricacies needed to play the linebacker position. And Cobbs looked as good as we've seen him on Saturday, not just using his speed, but diagnosing things with more efficiency of movement and arriving in a more physical manner than he did before the injury.
Texas is in a really good spot at linebacker in that there isn't much of a drop off, if any, from the first-team group Saturday of Steve Edmond, Timothy Cole and Peter Jinkens to the second-team group of Cobbs, Dalton Santos and Naashon Hughes, and that's before you add in the best of the bunch, Jordan Hicks, who sat out the spring as he recovers from last year's Achilles injury. It will be interesting, not just to see who starts, but to see how the others are used to take advantage of that depth.
* The coaches talked about how Mykkele Thompson (6-2 183) took a step forward this spring, playing both cornerback and safety. I don't know that he'll end up at cornerback, particularly once Texas gets Sheroid Evans back from injury. But that's OK if he plays safety like he did on Saturday.
Thompson did it all, making five tackles and recording a pick six. He's never going to be a hugely physical presence on the back line*, but he has made the strides you'd expect from someone entering their second full year as a starter. He's a hugely important member of a secondary looking to replace not just the talents of Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips, but also the leadership lost with their graduations.
* Josh Turner also isn't a big physical force, though it was really nice to see him play more physically on Saturday than he has in the past. That's always been the primary knock on Turner's game, as he has the speed and range to be really effective.
* The secondary is the weak point on a defense that looks to have top-10 defensive talent elsewhere. Onyegbule wasn't ever going to come out and have a huge throwing day. But the second team had its chances to strike big through the air, including a deep throw on a sluggo route that Onyegbule put on the money, only to have Meander not find the ball in time.
That's a scary thought in a Big 12 that returns some awfully good receivers, and several teams that could make a killing through the air this year. Granted, with his size and speed, Meander is as physically gifted as any receiver the Longhorns will face. But what happens when it's a first-team quarterback like Bryce Petty throwing to a first-team receiver like Antwan Goodley? What about Jake Waters to Tyler Lockett?
It's not time to panic at this point. There's still plenty of development to be done. And Texas didn't really play much nickel on Saturday, so we haven't even seen the Longhorns truly use the defenses they'll be in most of the time in conference play. But if Quandre Diggs winds up being the nickel back again, does Duke Thomas have what it takes to be a No. 1 corner and take on the opposing team's top wideout? Can Texas find a No. 2 cornerback (or a No. 1 if Thomas isn't up for it)? And can Thompson and Turner come together enough to snuff out more of those big plays before they happen?
It's not that the secondary is bad. There's some legitimate talent there. It's more that Texas has the front seven to be one of the country's best defenses. Whether the Longhorns can do that depends largely on whether the secondary can carry its weight.