Three Defensive Players to Watch

With Texas holding its first practices Monday, here's a look at the three most important defensive players heading into fall practice.

1) Kheeston Randall

Much has been made about the Longhorns' lack of depth at defensive tackle. And it's true that after Randall, there's a drop-off in terms of experienced talent. The spot opposite Randall will likely be filled by junior Tyrell Higgins or sophomore Calvin Howell, while freshmen Ashton Dorsey, Taylor Bible and De'Aires Cotton will be counted on for immediate depth. Sam Acho is also available to bump inside at times, though Texas Coach Mack Brown has expressed interest in limiting Acho's reps on the interior, especially in physical running situations.

All of that uncertainty places more pressure on the Longhorns' one supposed sure thing in the middle of the line, junior tackle Kheeston Randall. Randall showed well as a sophomore, playing in all 14 games and starting 10 of them a year ago. During that time, Randall established himself as a key part of the Longhorns' stellar rush defense and tallied 23 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, while also pressuring the quarterback nine times.

He showed glimpses of his massive potential against Texas A&M with a four-tackle, two-sack day, then carried that momentum into the spring, when it seemed like a light came on. A big season from Randall in 2010 would do more than simply allow the junior to follow in Lamarr Houston's footsteps. It would also give the Longhorns a playmaker in the middle that they desperately need to continue on as an elite defense.

2) Blake Gideon

A third-year starter at free safety, Blake Gideon is on this list for the same reason as Randall. One of the few spots where the Longhorns are breaking in less experienced players is strong safety, where Texas must replace at least some of the production left behind by departed safety Earl Thomas, a first-round pick in April's NFL Draft. The strong safety spot is certainly not without talent, nor is it without depth. Christian Scott (6-1 215), Kenny Vaccaro (6-1 201) and Nolan Brewster (6-2 210) have each shown flashes of their ability. Scott missed all but the Alabama game last season due to academic issues, while Brewster and Vaccaro combined for 43 tackles a year ago.

While that position battle will be one to watch through fall practice, it's even more important that Gideon continues to develop at his spot. Singled out by Sam Acho for his leadership in the summer, Gideon, a junior, returns as one of the most productive free safeties in the league. He had 62 tackles and six interceptions in 2009, when Gideon developed a reputation as a player who was often in the right spot at the right time. Now, it's time for Gideon to continue his progress as a playmaker in a loaded Longhorn secondary.

Texas's talent at cornerback allows its safeties to freelance a bit, to come up as players in the run game and to prowl for interceptions in the middle of the field. If Gideon can continue to be a success in both areas, Texas should once again boast one of the top secondaries in the country.

3) John Gold and Justin Tucker

Texas's punting duo should hold one of the keys to field position in 2010, a key factor in that most teams won't have the explosive offenses to take the ball 70-80 yards against the Longhorns' defense.

John Gold averaged 44.1 yards per punt last season, with five of his 15 punts traveling 50 or more yards. Four of his 15 punts were downed inside the 20. At the same time, Tucker, a rugby punting specialist, averaged 40.4 yards per punt. Fifteen of his 43 tries were downed inside the 20, with six of his kicks traveling 50 or more yards. Tucker also handled kickoffs, limiting teams to an average starting position of the 27-yard line.

Both are vital to Texas's success. If Tucker and Gold can limit opposing returners and ensure that teams must travel great distances to put points on the board, Texas's defense should again rank as one of the top scoring defenses in the country. Additionally with the aggressiveness typically shown by a Will Muschamp defense, an offense that is pinned down also risks committing turnovers in bad spots, leading to more points for an offense that should grow as the season progresses.

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