Who would have thought the defensive line could be the weak link to this Texas football team?
It’s almost humorous now. As the Texas football team geared up for the 2015 season, head coach Charlie Strong was quick to point out the Longhorn’s most veteran group, his defensive line, as the team’s greatest strength. All the pundits were quick to agree. The ceiling for the young 2015 Longhorn defense would hinge on the fortunes of the Texas D line.
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Strong bragged about them. He glowed about the possibility of going “10-12” deep along the line. Some wondered if there would be enough snaps to go around.
Three games into the season and what was once thought to be a team strength has turned into it’s greatest flaw, one that could ultimately prove to be fatal to Strong’s rebuild in Austin.
Running down the accomplishments of the 2015 Texas defensive line is depressing. With a quarter of the season already over, let’s look back on their contributions so far.
Hassan Ridgeway, nicknamed “The Green Mile” by the staff, has played more like the Chartreuse Inch so far this year. Ridgeway was expected to fill in Malcolm Brown’s sizable shoes and maybe he started dreaming about those first round paychecks but at the rate he’s playing he’ll be lucky to get the other Malcolm’s practice squad checks.
Ridgeway was hampered by a preseason back injury that sapped his conditioning but even at his best, Ridgeway has been a streaky player. So far this season he’s been good for approximately two plays per game and is a non-factor the rest of the way.
That’s still better than the other returning starter, Tank Jackson. The hope was that Jackson would recover from the season-ending foot injury he suffered in the third game last year and be a beast. Not in the least. Jackson has been playing on rollerskates all season and at this point shouldn’t be logging any more snaps than is absolutely necessary.
Bryce Cottrell has been good for at least one dumb penalty per game, which is actually more the Paul Boyette, who has allegedly played this year though you’d have to look real hard to notice. Poona Ford was supposed to be a steal in Strong’s first recruiting class, but so far this year it looks like his lack of size is going to handcuff him at this level as opposing lineman have been swallowing him up. The other DT Strong took at the end of the 2014 recruiting cycle, Chris Nelson, has posted all of one tackle. Given how poorly the rest of the DTs have played, it is scary to think that Nelson and habitual bench warmer Alex Norman aren’t even good enough to warrant more playing time.
Few Quaterbacks Have Been Terrorized By Shiro Davis In His Time In Austin. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
Things aren’t much better on the outside. Shiro Davis was a National Signing Day steal for Mack Brown, but Texas is the one who got taken. Shiro’s sack-and-strip last Saturday was one of the few plays he has made in his Texas career and there’s no reason to believe that he will suddenly turn into a playmaker now.
On the other side, Fox End Naashon Hughes is athletic but undersized and struggles to make an impact when matched up against hulking offensive lineman. Once promising prospect Derick Roberson barely sees the field and the staff seems reluctant to turn to newcomers Quincy Vasser and Charles Omenihu, despite the lack of production ahead of them.
It was clear coming into the season that the Texas defense would struggle and that there would be some serious growing pains as young players matured, but the defensive line can’t use youth as an excuse. This is a veteran unit that needed to step up and it has failed miserably, thus failing to protect all of the youth behind it.
Unlike the linebacker and secondary positions, the defensive line isn’t loaded with talented youngsters just waiting for their chance. Years of poor recruiting and attrition have thinned the ranks and Strong so far has failed to secure much in the way of new recruits. Granted there is a lot of time left until NSD and Strong and Company will work until the bitter end to get their guys, but the fact that a defensive minded coach in a region full of talented defensive line prospects is struggling to gain commitments is a bad sign.
A team is only as good as it’s lines. Right now, Joe Wickline appears to be slowly turning his charges around. Already his two freshman starters are the best two lineman on the team. On the other side, the defensive line looks like a steaming pile of Bevo droppings right now and if there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it might just be an oncoming train.
Strong and defensive line coach Brick Haley have their work cut out for them. They’ve got to find a way to cull something at least resembling a legitimate front four and start loading up on some high school studs or this line will continue to fester. Whether or not Strong is up to the challenge may determine how long his tenure in Austin will ultimately last.