Keondre Coburn’s slow adoption of defense will benefit Byron Murphy

Morice Blackwell, Byron Murphy II, Texas Football (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Morice Blackwell, Byron Murphy II, Texas Football (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

One of the position battles likely to play out early in fall camp for the Texas football program will come at nose tackle. Co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski and defensive line coach Bo Davis will be looking to find the answer that can anchor the interior defensive front this fall.

And there are certainly some quality options that the Longhorns’ defensive coaching staff will have to choose from when determining who the right starting nose tackle will be for the regular season opener on Sep. 3.

The trio of nose tackles that will likely be competing for starting reps in fall camp this year will be super seniors Keondre Coburn and T’Vondre Sweat and sophomore Byron Murphy II. Each of these three returning defensive linemen has proven experience at various points in the last few seasons.

The main question will be which of these three nose tackles will be the best scheme fit with the most potential to make an impact in the middle of this defensive front. That was an issue for Texas at the nose tackle position at times last season in terms of finding the right fit for Kwiatkowski’s scheme.

It looks like the option for Texas that would have the most long-term potential to make a real impact for this defensive front at the nose tackle position would be Murphy. Meanwhile, Coburn and Sweat would be the safe options that have multiple years of relevant game experience under their belts.

What makes Murphy an intriguing option as the most potent long-term starting nose tackle for the Longhorns is the way he flashed last season mostly as a rotational lineman. Murphy continued to impress the coaches last fall to the point where he had roughly doubled his snap counts by the second half of the regular season.

Yet, Coburn remained the starter (at least when healthy) throughout much of last season.

When Murphy was given the opportunity to take the bulk of the starting reps at nose tackle last fall, he was very impressive. In three games last season where Murphy took more than 40 defensive snaps in each, he registered seven combined tackles, two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, four stops, just one missed tackle, and a whopping nine quarterback pressures.

Texas football should start Byron Murphy II at NT over Keondre Coburn

While the combined tackle numbers don’t really show that Murphy made a big impact on this defense on most snaps, that doesn’t do a good job painting the complete picture of his role in the trenches. Where Murphy stood out the most was in terms of wreaking havoc and commonly blowing up plays in the backfield.

Murphy often made plays stuffing the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage and made things uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks when rushing the passer.

In fact, Murphy had an impressive pressure rate of 15.9 percent on pass-rushing snaps during the three games where he had at least 40 total defensive snaps. That was good for best on the team, by a good margin, for any three-game snap by any one Texas defensive player.

It’s also worth noting that when Murphy was on the field for more defensive snaps as a pass rusher last season, good things tended to happen often for this defensive front. He often wreaked havoc in the backfield when given the opportunity to regularly rush the passer.

There were eight games last season where Murphy had more than a half-dozen snaps as a pass rusher. And over the course of those eight games, Murphy registered two sacks and 14 total quarterback pressures.

Considering how there wasn’t any Texas defensive player last season to even come close to registering two-dozen total quarterback pressures throughout the entire campaign, that’s a number worth noting for Murphy.

And let’s not forget that Murphy was doing all of this as a true freshman in a new defensive scheme. The flashes he showed last season prove that Murphy should only get better from here.

On the other hand, Texas didn’t see much progress last season out of pair of their fourth-year nose tackles in Coburn and Sweat. While this duo of nose tackles was effective throughout most of their respective collegiate careers to date, both took a step back in terms of production last season.

Coburn posted the worst defensive grade in his collegiate career to date last season. To make matters worse, Coburn’s production actually trended down as last season progressed.

And while Sweat did post a better defensive grade, and it wasn’t the worst of his career to date, he still took a step back compared to how he graded out during the 2020 season. Sweat also more than tripled his missed tackle rate last season compared to the prior two years.

Both Coburn and Sweat’s production last season tends to give the indication that they struggled to get acclimated in this new defensive scheme under Kwiatkowski.

It’s never easy to pick up a completely new defensive scheme, especially given all the defensive coordinator turnover that these two faced in the last few years.

But the fact of the matter is that Murphy seemed to be a more natural scheme fit and actually progressed as he was given more key defensive snaps as last season progressed. He’s also got nothing but room to improve from here on out as he’s entering only his second year with the program.

All in all, I do believe that there is still a role for Sweat and Coburn in the defensive line rotation this fall. These two still are plenty reliable and proven for this defensive line, which provides confidence for this defensive staff that the depth is strong with this position group.

Yet, Murphy is likely a strong showing in fall camp away from taking the bulk of the starting reps at the nose tackle position. He’s probably going to be the more impactful, efficient, and impactful nose tackle compared to the likes of Coburn and Sweat.

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Texas finished up last season with a record of 5-7 (3-6 Big 12), missing out on bowl season for the first time since 2016. Murphy, Coburn, and the Longhorns are set to open up the 2022 regular season at home on Sep. 3 against Louisiana-Monroe.