Texas football wrapped up its 2023 nonconference schedule with a 31-10 win over Wyoming last Saturday night. While not entirely comfortable, the win vaulted the Horns to 3-0 for the first time since 2012.
Sandwiched between a 27-point win over Rice and the aforementioned Week 3 win over Wyoming was an unforgettable trip to Tuscaloosa. The 34-24 win over Alabama was historic for several reasons, but its main consequence could not be quantified.
Texas moved up to No. 4 in the AP Poll (now No. 3) and is seen as a true national championship contender due to their accomplishments on the field. The win gave credence to what head coach Steve Sarkisian has built over the last three years in Austin. It showed Texas is ready to compete with the giants of the SEC.
The three weeks of nonconference play this season were a resounding success primarily due to the Alabama win. Texas football proved it has playmakers all over the field ready to compete on the biggest stages in college football.
The Longhorns now transition into their 28th and final season of Big 12 conference play as the prohibitive favorites for the first time since 2009.
Before we look ahead to the Big 12 schedule, let’s look back at a tremendous nonconference stretch for the Texas football program. I broke down the Longhorns’ best five defenders, who helped hold opponents to 14.7 points per game during the non-con.
Top 5 Texas football defenders during nonconference play
5. David Gbenda, LB
Fifth-year linebacker David Gbenda has waited for his turn in Austin; Gbenda notched two starts and 73 total tackles in his first four seasons in the program. He started as a special teams contributor, worked his way to a rotational linebacker role, and has now transitioned into one of the most valuable pieces on the Texas defense.
Gbenda won the starting WILL linebacker job this offseason and has grabbed the bull by the horns with his opportunity this fall. He is second on the team with 17 tackles and eight defensive stops. Gbenda is an instinctual player who has shown an ability to find the ball this fall.
Yes, he has had a couple of snafus in coverage. Mainly, letting Rice’s Braylen Walker leak free for a 36-yard gain. That said, he has made up for those few mistakes with extra effort and aggression, seen on full display by his sack of Alabama’s Jalen Milroe.
No, Gbenda is not the most valuable linebacker on this team. That nod goes to All-American Jaylan Ford. However, Gbenda’s play through the nonconference slate rightfully earns him a spot on this list.
4. Ryan Watts, CB
Ryan Watts does what any great cornerback does: completely lock down one side of the field. The senior returned to Texas for a second season to settle unfinished business. Standing at 6-foot-3, he has the requisite length to be an elite boundary corner and has once again proven that through the nonconference slate in 2023.
Watts leads the secondary with 123 total snaps. In 74 snaps of pass coverage, he has been targeted five times. He has allowed just three receptions for 32 yards. He has one registered PBU and a few more elite breaks on the football.
The senior has also been solid in the run game, tallying nine solo tackles, tied for third-most on the team. Four of those tackles were considered defensive stops, displaying a high level of play recognition. His efforts have garnered the attention of former NFL receivers as well.
3. Byron Murphy, DT
Junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy is one of the most consistent performers on the Texas defense. In every statistic you look at, he ranks in the top five for the Horns: first in quarterback pressures, first in quarterback hurries, second in quarterback hits, second in PFF pass-rush grade, fourth in PFF defensive grade, T-5 in total tackles, and the list goes on.
Murphy is the ideal disruptor you want anchoring your defense. He has an incredibly high motor and plays with relentless effort that often leads himself into the offensive backfield.
Week in and week out, you know what you are getting from big No. 90 in the middle. This is invaluable for defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and the defense as a whole.
2. T’Vondre Sweat, DT
Fifth-year defensive lineman T’Vondre Sweat has become the unequivocal heart and soul of the Texas defense this season. After starting nine games a season ago, Sweat has been allowed to blossom with the departures of Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo.
He is far and away Texas’ highest-graded PFF defensive player through the nonconference slate. His 85.8 grade is second-best among interior defensive linemen in the Big 12. The great thing about Sweat’s game is that it has virtually no holes. He is the highest-graded Longhorn in both run defense and pass rush.
He has yet to miss a tackle in 112 snaps and ranks fifth on the team with six defensive stops.
In an interview with On3’s Andy Staples, Sweat said he returned to Texas “to win and go to the natty.” His performance through three weeks undoubtedly put those words into action.
1. Jahdae Barron, NB
I think there is a strong argument to be made that Jahdae Barron is the best and most impactful player on this Texas football team. The senior returned for his second season as Pete Kwiatkowski’s “Star”, ultimately playing the role of a hybrid nickelback. Barron was an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection last year. This year, he is jumping straight into the national accolade conversation.
Through three games, he is the second-highest-graded player on the Texas defense (min. 30 snaps). He has an uncanny knack for finding the football, all of which has helped him tally a team-high 18 tackles and nine defensive stops. The nine defensive stops are tied for third nationally among Power Five safeties (3 GP).
In his Monday presser, Coach Steve Sarkisian credited Barron with being the “glue” of the defense and the connector between the defensive front and secondary. He also said Barron has “one of the higher football IQs on the team.” Barron is the ultimate disruptor on the defensive side of the ball and will be squarely in Jim Thorpe Award conversations if he keeps this level up.