One of the benefits of bringing in Charlie Strong as head coach of the Texas Longhorns was that the program has struggled to replenish talent on the defensive side of the ball. It wasn’t that long ago that Texas used to put a defensive star in the NFL every year. The highest drafted Longhorn off the 2005 National Championship team was QB Vince Young, who went third overall. But safety Michael Huff was taken seventh, corner Cedric Griffin was taken 48th, and defensive tackle Rod Wright also went in the seventh round to play for Nick Saban in Miami. The year prior to that, linebacker Derrick Johnson went to the Chiefs 15th overall. And a year later, safety Michael Griffin and corner Aaron Ross went 19th and 20th to the Titans and Giants respectively.
Brian Orakpo went to Washington with the 13th selection in 2009. The Bucs picked defensive tackle Roy Miller that same year. The Bears got Henry Melton in the 4th round, who made a position switch from running back to defensive end in the middle of his Texas career. And then in 2010, safety Earl Thomas declared for the draft early and was selected by the Seattle Seahawks with the 14th pick. The Raiders added Lamarr Houston in the second round, and Baltimore took star OLB Sergio Kindle, who tragically played just three games in the pros due to a fracture in his skull. Linebacker Roderick Muckelroy also went in that draft.
Since then, the talent on defensive side of the UT roster has been in decline, at least when using the NFL as the primary indicator. The Longhorns put four defenders in the 2011 draft, but none in the first round (corner Aaron Williams went in the second to Buffalo). In 2012, just three defenders went, none higher than Keenan Robinson to Washington in the fourth round. And in 2013, just two Longhorns were taken in the draft from the defensive side (and just three overall), with Kenny Vaccaro going 15th overall to the New Orleans Saints. Over the last four years, the Longhorns have gone from a program that put defensive stars in the NFL every year to one that doesn’t produce a ton of NFL talent, with Vaccaro types few and far between.
It is no coincidence that the recruiting focus has something of a defensive flavor then, with six commitments to the defensive front seven already, and another three players who have experience in the secondary. Texas has to fill holes throughout it’s defense, with an immediate need focus in the front seven, where versatile DL Jackson Jeffcoat’s graduation leaves a large hole. His backup, Shiro Davis, did have 3.5 TFL in limited snaps. But there is very little behind Davis on the defensive line, where Texas lacks depth. The roster is a little better off at LB, where all three starters return. An instant impact LB would be a nice fit, because while the unit is expected to improve, it wasn’t particularly productive last year.
Texas will also turn over 2 of 4 defensive backs, with corner Carrington Byndom and safety Adrian Phillips exhausting their eligibility. Duke Thomas saw a lot of playing time last year, and led the team in interceptions with three. Texas also should be okay at safety where Josh Turner and Leroy Scott have both seen the field a good amount as reserves. The real issue here is that Texas is set to graduate three of four starters a year from now, and the fourth (Thomas) is at least somewhat a risk to declare early for the draft. But for 2014, this unit should be the strength of Charlie Strong’s first Longhorns team.
Texas has gotten away with being under talented on the offensive side for multiple years. The main culprits (outside of recruiting misses at the QB position, which have been well documented) have been up front, where great receivers have been few and far between, and the offensive lines have been leaky at times. Texas turns over 3/5ths of the offensive line this year. The passing game should be in pretty excellent shape for 2014, however. Returning are starting receivers Jaxon Shipley and Kendall Sanders to help QB David Ash. WR Marcus Johnson had numbers that would be considered good for a third receiver, and he split time in that third receiver role last year. Growing pains are expected on the OL, but Texas signed four OL last yaer, so the roster need here isn’t great.
Running back is the position that has remained excellent at Texas throughout Mack Brown’s time. It will be the strongest position on the offensive side of the football in Charlie Strong’s first year. Mack Brown’s main failures on the offensive side of the ball were at QB and more generally being unable to pull in the blue chip offensive talent. To get Texas back to the top, Charlie Strong is going to have to convince four and five star offensive talents — particularly in-state talents — to come to Texas.
Specialist Anthony Fera did it all for the Longhorns last year, and he heads to the NFL. That leaves a pretty large hole at kicker and punter. Texas has options here, but if they can sign a kicker in February, they might be using him on opening day.
Defense and special teams can cover a lot of holes in college football — you can mask an injury to your quarterback if you are fast and can limit opponents — and the depth of the Longhorns in these departments is going to be challenged on National Signing Day, and then into the spring and fall. Texas can field 11 starters on both sides of the ball without having to turn to freshmen, but being four deep on the defensive line is going to be challenging. This is where Charlie Strong earned his keep as an assistant, and his goal will be to sign multiple defensive front seven players in addition to keeping the ones that Texas already has, because those units will need the depth in 2014. Furthermore, he’s going to have to find a way to bring in a kicker, and may even look towards summer transfers in order to find someone that the Longhorns are comfortable with.
And offensively…the Longhorns have the benefit of time. They need to recruit top talents who they can scheme the offense around, but have plenty of returning upperclassman to lead them into 2014. This means the immediate focus will be on the defensive side of the ball. Long term, college football rewards programs that find big armed quarterbacks and physical wide receivers. If Strong puts his top Louisville recruit (QB Teddy Bridgewater) in the NFL draft as the top pick, he’ll have done something that Mack Brown did not do in 16 years as Texas head coach: recruit and develop a top overall pick. That’s what the Texas program needs long-term.