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FROM THE STANDS: Spring Breakdown – The DL

It’s crunch time as we approach the end of the semester for the Texas baseball team. With only nine teams that play baseball in the Big 12, the last place team in the conference does not make the Big 12 Tournament. Right now the Horns are in 5th place, which sounds like a nice, comfortable place to be. Except it isn’t. At 9-12 in conference play, Texas is only a game ahead in the loss column of last place KU. With the loss of games due to weather for both Kansas and West Virginia, their win/loss record doesn’t line up exactly right, so it could come down to winning percentage. If Texas goes into Waco this weekend and handles their business, they will make the postseason tournament. That’s not a hunch, it’s fact. Baylor is 8-13 in conference play, so if Texas were to win the series (two out of three), it would push the Longhorns to 11-12 and Baylor to 8-15. I am no mathlete, but Texas would have the edge. If Texas were to drop two of three and finish in a tie with Baylor at 10-14, they likely both get in as 8-13 Kansas State and 7-13 Kansas play each other. The loser of that series will have at least 15 losses, worse than both Texas and Baylor. But if that series ends in a sweep and Texas were to be swept at Baylor, things get dicey. The Longhorns are hoping to get into the Big 12 Tourney and catch fire, because if they plan to be playing in the NCAA Tournament they will need to catch fire. I think they need to get to the Conference Championship to get in. It’s a tall task, but one that is not completely out of the question. Here’s why:

– First of all, Baylor isn’t very good. As previously mentioned, they are 8-13 in Big 12 play and 19-28 overall and with .404 winning percentage, they are statistically in last place. But Texas isn’t very good, either.

– This has been a very frustrating season for the baseball team, but the good news is they were right there in a lot of those losses. If the bats can just get hot EVEN A LITTLE BIT Texas could make a run.

– Most importantly and probably the main reason this could happen- I bought a new hat. The last one has a College World Series berth, but it also has two entire coaching staff dismissals as well. Time for a change.

There is no Friday game this week as Texas plays on Saturday (3 pm on FSSW) and a doubleheader on Sunday (first game at 1pm on FS +, the second about 45 minutes after the first one ends). That second game on Sunday will be the last one of the regular season in the entire conference (everyone else will already be done) and could well be for a berth in the Big 12 Tournament.

The old adage is baseball isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. At the end of a marathon if you are tied with someone else and you want to beat them, it turns into a sprint. It’s time to sprint, Horns. Let’s see where it ends up.

Let’s continue our spring breakdown of the Texas Longhorns… Unless you want to talk about the Patriots? Good, let’s stick to the non-cheating Texas Longhorns.


Spring Breakdown- The Defensive Line

For all the ups and downs of the 2014 football season, one constant was the Texas defensive line. You might look at numbers and the win/loss record and think that’s not the case, but of all the things that went wrong last year at times, the defensive line was not one of them. There were superstars born, playmakers found, depth created and big-time players identified going forward. Texas loses two starters to the NFL in Ced Reed and the super Malcom Brown, but I’m think they drop off will be minimal. I am not going to say that losing two starters, one a first round draft pick, will make the unit better, but I am going to say that the depth, overall play and speed will be better than last year. Let’s take a look at what’s good:

The Incumbents: Hassan Ridgeway (Jr), Desmond Jackson (Sr), Paul Boyette, Jr (Jr), Poona Ford (So), Shiro Davis (Sr), Naashon Hughes (So), Caleb Bluiett (Jr)

The Contenders: Alex Norman (Jr), Chris Nelson (RFr), Jake McMillon (RFr), Bryce Cottrell (Jr), Derek Roberson (RFr)

Incoming: Du’Vonta Lampkin (Fr), Quincy Vasser (Jr), Charles Omenihu (Fr)

Let’s start with what we know. Returning inside to anchor the middle is Hassan Ridgeway. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound junior is sick with talent. He reminds me of Shaun Rogers with size, quickness and ability to shed blocks. Last year he had 11 tfls and six sacks and benefitted as  the other guy as teams focused on blocking Malcom Brown. He’s moving over into that same role Brown played last year (outside more, lined head up on the guards or in the gaps between the guards and tackles) and should wreck shop as the same sort of player doing the same sorts of things. And like helped Brown last year, Ridgeway is going to benefit greatly from the return of Desmond Jackson. The 6-foot, 305-pound senior is the prototypical nose guard (lines up over the center or in the gaps between the center and guards) that is incredibly strong, short and very hard to move. Tank was on his way to a solid senior season with nine tackles in three games before foot surgery ended his 2014  for him. Good news for Jackson- he got a medical and gets his senior season back. That’s also good for Ridgeway as he now has grizzled vet with 41 games under his belt inside eating up space, attention and blockers. He isn’t the best pass rusher inside, but he has a nonstop motor, is very physical and will cover the linebackers, allowing them to make plays. Coming in right behind those two will be Poona Ford and Paul Boyette.  I was all over Poona Ford when Texas signed him and thought he’d be an immediate contributor. He isn’t the biggest guy on the roster and his lack of size (5-foot-11, 286 pounds) was the reason he was a bit overlooked in high school, but he has unbelievable quickness and power. He didn’t get on the field in the first half of the season, but when Tank Jackson went down he worked into the rotation and looked great. He needs to add some more weight, which will come this summer, but he’s big enough to fill in for Jackson at the nose. He’s the same type of player, but he has defensive end quickness and can get in the backfield, which makes him a more dangerous playmaker than Jackson. He’s not going to occupy space and control the line of scrimmage like Jackson, but he will slice through and make tackles behind the line. Watch out for Paul Boyette, Jr. The 6-foot-2, 296-pound junior really came on last year and showed he could more than hold his own at the tackle spot. He’s big and strong and very quick. He’s the hybrid between Ridgeway and Jackson, not quite as big as Ridgeway but bigger and more nimble than Jackson. He’ll sub in for Ridgeway and use his motor to outwork and out-hustle the offense. I don’t know if anyone on the d-line works as hard as he does. I think he’s going to be the biggest surprise on the dl this year and, if it goes right, he’s the star going into 2016 as Hassan Ridgeway is the next Texas defensive tackle taken in the Draft. I really like this rotation at tackle Texas has, and when you consider the size/speed combo of incoming DuVonta Lampkin (6-foot-4, 306 pounds) and a healthy Chris Nelson (6-foot-1, 298-pound redshirt freshman recovering from shoulder surgery) you have six-deep in a position where three and four deep is considered nice.

Outside Texas appears to be set with their two starters in Naashon Hughes and Shiro Davis. Or maybe not. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore Hughes took over the starting end spot in the oklahoma game, spinning down from linebacker. It’s funny how things work out. Hughes was a grayshirt afterthought (“grayshirt” is the term for a player that delays the start of his college career until the spring of his first year out of school, like qb Matthew Merrick is doing right now) as the previous staff worked him to get to his brother Camrhon, the starting offensive tackle last year. Big brother might be losing his job, but little brother Naashon has locked up his spot in my opinion. With linebacker quickness, Hughes learned on the fly last fall (he literally was a linebacker until the week of the ou game) and finished with 28 tackles, including five for loss, as the new starter at end. Now he’s had a year to grow, learn and develop and he will be very good when the lights come on with his ability to rush the passer and even drop into coverage in zone blitz looks. His versatility will allow for many different looks, which is terrific. Right now it’s the senior Shiro Davis opposite him. It seems like only yesterday Shiro was the surprise commit on signing day from Louisiana, and now he’s a senior. I am old. He’s solid and flashes some terrific skills, but I’m not sure if he’s solid enough to hold off junior college transfer Quincy Vasser. A one-time Georgia commit, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound end is a little bigger than Davis and is a strong, physical player that can anchor that end spot and set the edge. He was hurt for a lot of spring training, but he’ll be back for the summer and I think he’s very likely to take over that starting role. It isn’t something Davis will give up without a fight and the competition will make them both better. I expect one will start and the other will come in off the bench, but both will play.  The guy to watch is Derek Roberson. The 6-foot-3, 228-pounder redshirted last year due to an injured shoulder and he missed spring recovering from surgery, but he’ll be ready to go this summer. No one at the end position is as quick as he is coming off the corner and he’s going to be a pass-rushing demon assuming his rehab is going well, and from all indications it is. Also returning/arriving this summer, Caleb Bluiett (recovering from a knee injury) and incoming freshman Charles Omenihu. Bluiett is a known commodity outside and should provide depth for Hughes, and Omenihu looks an awful lot like Brian Orakpo coming out of high school at 6-foot-4, 227 pounds. He’ll join Roberson as a situational pass rusher that should be able to use his speed and length to make plays. Don’t sleep on Plano native Bryce Cottrell, either. With Bluiett injured this spring he made the most of his opportunity and looked very good opposite Hughes. Just like inside at tackle, Texas is very deep at the end position. I think you’ll see Vasser and Hughes as the starters and I think Hughes is going to be a playmaker everyone in the Big 12 knows by the end of the year.

So…

Looking at all the talent and sheer number of guys on the defensive line, you see why I think this line will be deeper and better top to bottom than the one last year. Losing playmakers like Malcom Brown and Cedric Reed isn’t going to be easy, but I see a lot of talent ready to step into their spots. Hassan Ridgeway looks like Shaun Rogers 2.0 to me, and Naashon Hughes has the ability to become a star with all the other pieces on the defense the opponents will have to deal with. This defensive line is going to keep Texas in games with personnel combinations that can control the line of scrimmage, get into the backfield and provide cover for a talented group of linebackers.

Speaking of linebackers…. Next week.

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