With, as Mack noting, "the day of the big defensive linemen that is a run stopper is gone," the newbie most likely to have an impact due to talent, his early arrival, and depth issues is five-star end Alex Okafor. He ranked second in the nation at that spot among high schoolers. Mack echoed Okafor's importance in his signing day press conference.
Eddie Jones—a former five-star stud himself—seems an automatic pencil in for one end spot, but his career has been marred by injury. That's supported further by ankle surgery that will require him to miss this spring. In his place, oft-used, fellow junior Sam Acho will log most of the power end snaps until Jones returns for the fall. Acho displayed star flash as a true freshman in 2007, then experienced a bit of the sophomore slump last year.
Much has been speculated about Sergio Kindle's role upon his appreciated return to Austin for his senior season. The linebacking terror played some "quick end" in '08, starting after Brian Orakpo was injured after being tackled by a Texas Tech offensive lineman. Sergio purportedly becomes Orakpo's permanent replacement for '09. Between his talents and the dearth of depth, expect to see #2 on the field a lot. Kindle's challenge now comes in directly and regularly facing a large offensive tackle who's programmed to protect his quarterback at all costs and allowed to hold almost without boundary.
Further hope for support at end is in the form of another linebacker convert, redshirt freshman Dravannti Johnson, who many describe as the dreaded "tweener." In today's game, maybe he'll be more valued on the line. A final note at end is to not forget a somewhat unsung recruit from the 2007 class, Russell Carter. He redshirted and then saw negligible action last year in light of the presence of Orakpo and others.
If seniority alone rules, then 6-0, 310-pound senior Ben Alexander will see a large block of playing time this fall in place of Roy Miller. Such a "plan," though, is negated by his limited skills combined with the continued growth (literally) of former defensive end, Lamarr Houston. Now at 290 pounds, the only other senior defensive tackle will likely be counted on to fill the nose spot that Miller played so dominantly.
Based on upside and flashes of talent already, sophomore Kheeston Randall looks to replace Aaron Lewis at the other tackle spot. Michael Wilcoxon, perhaps more of a situational pass rusher, will back up Randall this fall.
The coaches anticipate that one of the sterling freshmen line recruits of Calvin Howell and Derek Johnson can solve some of the depth concerns inside, though neither is reporting this spring. Meanwhile, redshirted Jarvis Humphrey (listed 6-2, 290) so far is a bit of an enigma. Highly touted out of high school, he purportedly spent some time in the coaches' doghouse and then contracted a staph infection for the Fiesta Bowl, missing crucial practice time. Even so, he's merely a freshman, so hope remains. Another enigma, if for a different reason, is non-‘ship guy Tyrell Higgins, who impressed some viewers in bowl preparation.
In his signing day press conference, Mack Brown noted that his defense lined up over 600 snaps in nickel or dime; less than 100 with the traditional three linebackers. This alone seems to make the move of Sergio Kindle from linebacker to the line practical.
Further fueling this is the laying in waiting of highly talented sophomore Keenan Robinson, who has seen fairly limited action so far due to the presence of Kindle. Robinson, as the full time "buck" ‘backer, will log a lot more PT this fall.
With Rashad Bobino and his seemingly infinite number of starts departing, it seems logical the middle ‘backer spot belongs to part-time starter Jared Norton. He appears to have somewhat plateaued in recent times, but it's hoped a second year with the same defensive coordinator and expanded game time will bring out his best. Backup to Norton could be anyone, including true freshman Tariq Allen, who is conveniently enrolled for spring work.
If Will Muschamp stands pat there, the weakside spot at linebacker will remain with the tackling machine, Roddrick Muckelroy. To illustrate "Muck's" value, he had 106 tackles in the regular season, while the ‘Horns' second leading stopper, Earl Thomas, logged only 63, a canyon-sized difference of 43. It's inspiring alone to see Texas again feature a linebacker as its leading tackler. In recent seasons, defensive backs often filled the first several slots on the log sheet. (Weakside ‘backer support will come from Sam Acho's younger brother, sophomore Emmanuel.)
With a much more experienced secondary trotting out in 2009, maybe Texas can survive a degree of pass rush demise following such losses up front. Muschamp only loses one secondary starter, cornerback Ryan Palmer, a pretty good ball player who provided critical experience and leadership to the massive dose of youngsters leaned on in '08.
Said greenhorn personnel is now more seasoned, and a great battle at cornerback should be waged between juniors Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown, sophomore Aaron Williams, and senior Deon Beasley. The latter is far more experienced than the rest but has frankly been a disappointment in light of his athletic ability and extensive time to prove himself. He's no shoe-in to start this year, especially with the talent pushing him. With offenses dictating a frequent three-cornerback set (occasionally four), expect all four to see plenty of field time.
Beyond Roy Miller and Roddrick Muckelroy, no one was as consistent in drawing starting assignments as the two sophomores-to-be safeties, Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon. The latter was something of a surprise starter in light of arriving with limited hoopla and being a true freshman. No one expects Thomas to be unseated at this stage, but Gideon should have his hands full putting away sophomore Christian Scott, who looked great in limited duty last year. The most likely candidate to break through at safety could be incoming freshman, Marcus Davis. The highly touted downhill hitter has shined in limited views and his presence for the spring boosts his hopes further.
Last year, first-year coordinator Will Muschamp faced opposition similar —if not even more emphatic—to his own squad in its tilt toward the pass. A non-conference schedule that includes "heavyweights" Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming and UTEP should allow him to get away with a somewhat suspect interior against a power ground game.
Texas ranked at the peak nationally against the run although that was largely the result of its many sacks. Actual results against the stronger running teams were mixed, with the ‘Horns more than holding their own against Oklahoma, but looking soft in spots versus Oklahoma State and Ohio State. Texas gave up too many 15-25 yard bursts to Earnest Hunter and Chris Wells, though Muschamp's crew did stymie the latter after the first thirty minutes.
Regardless, today's game—especially that played in the Big 12—demands fleet personnel designed to combat the relentless aerial assaults brought forth almost weekly.
Talent and production are going to be sorely missed, obviously, whenever you lose players like Roy Miller and Brian Orakpo. But their leadership, a factor in football sometimes overlooked, was every bit as golden.
Still, when you consider the return of stalwart talents like Sergio Kindle, Roddrick Muckelroy, Lamarr Houston, and Chykie Brown, the material is there. The most important returnee of all, Will Muschamp, ensures that the intensity will be as well.