The Texas Longhorns are evaluating a swarm of players looking to replace linebacker DeMarvion Overshown as the face of the defense. There’s no shortage of players looking to step up.
The Texas defense is a mix of youngsters and grizzled veterans trying to impress the coaches. Even the players can’t decide who the best player is.
The defensive line is loaded on the interior with Byron Murphy, Vernon Broughton, Alfred Collins, and senior T’Vondre Sweat.
“Them boys go to work,” safety Jahdae Barron said. “They make our job on the back end so much easier.”
Murphy has impressed his teammates with his athleticism. “For his size, to be that fast and strong, I definitely thought that stood out for me (during spring), and I can’t wait to see how that translates,” linebacker Jaylan Ford said.
It’s a different story at edge rusher, where there’s a lineup card of prospects. Barryn Sorrell returns along with Justice Finkley, Ethan Burke, J’Mond Tapp, and Kristopher Ross. They have been joined by highly touted freshman and early enrollee Colton Vasek during spring practice.
The challenge at edge rusher comes from inexperience and youth. Sorrell is the old man of the group as a junior. As a unit, the young pass rushers struggled to generate much pressure on the quarterback this Spring. A big part of the struggle was facing down the Longhorns’ premiere tackles — Christian Jones and Kelvin Banks.
With a Big 12 Championship in mind, the Longhorns still have a few months to figure it out.
“Our job is to beat the best teams that we play on our schedule, and ultimately put ourselves in a position to compete for a championship,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “If you’re in that role, they’ve probably got good tackles, too.”
Sarkisian said the edge rushers must improve for the team to reach its goals in 2023. The Texas coaching staff has been working in the off-season to boost the pass rush.
“Our defensive staff has done a nice job of putting some new wrinkles in to create opportunities,” Sarkisian said. “Create some one-on-one rushes and guys can kind of show what they can do.”
The linebacker position is more stable. All the Longhorns have to do is replace NFL-bound Overshown. Not only was Overshown the most talented player on the field, but he was also a team leader as well. He was a player who led by example, even playing special teams despite being a top pro prospect.
“He didn’t really care about the shine,” Ford said of Overshown. “Between these walls, we knew that was our leader, so I think his voice carried and it’s something we’ve got to rebuild.”
Ford said that the linebacker room has several leaders in waiting, and it helps.
“There’re some guys that gotta step up. We got Jett Bush, David Gbenda, those guys. They’re right there with me. They’ve been here since I’ve been here. They’ve been trying to take that leadership role, too. It’s not just one person trying to carry the load,” he said.
One of the linebackers who made the most of the off-season is Gbenda. Players and coaches agree.
“He is playing good football for us, probably the best version of David Gbenda that we’ve seen,” Sarkisian said.
“David really stands out,” Ford said. “He’s been grinding since winter started.”
Morice Blackwell is another potential leader because of his play on special teams. “The majority of the work he had done was on special teams throughout his career,” Sarkisian said. “But I think we saw a glimpse of him last year on defense where he made some really big plays for us.”
“I think his understanding of the defense is at a better place today than it’s ever been,” the coach added. “But we’re not losing sight of the value he brings to our team on special teams, either.”
An infusion at linebacker came from top recruits Anthony Hill and Liona Lefau. Both early enrollees have been drawing rave reviews from their teammates and coaches. They fly to the ball and are quick learners.
Texas receiver Ja’Tavion Sanders played at the same high school as Hill. “I know what type of player he is, and he’s doing the same thing he was doing in high school,” Sanders said.
Safety Jalen Catalon from Arkansas and cornerback Gavin Holmes from Wake Forest have arrived via the transfer portal. They add to a crowded secondary.
At safety, Texas is led by Jerrin Thompson and Barron. Kitan Crawford has added his name to the group. Crawford has been a demon on special teams and is pushing for playing time in the secondary. The Longhorns also expect contributions from redshirt freshmen Larry Turner-Gooden and B.J. Allen.
Holmes is vying for playing time among a group of corners that includes Ryan Watts, Terrance Brooks, Jaylon Guilbeau, X’Avion Brice, and Malik Muhammad. Austin Jordan has been getting reps at both nickel back and corner.
“I think we’ve got great competition at corner. I think at both spots,” Sarkisian said.
Brooks is a sophomore who consistently impressed during spring practice. “He’s freaky athletic and strong for a young cat like him,” Barron said.
“We have grown tremendously with depth,” Thompson said of the defensive backfield. “The whole defense in general, we’re all just locked in, we understand our assignments, and we’re just getting after it, having fun out there.”
That could be trouble for the opponents this season.
Leadership on defense
Where will the leadership come from? The Longhorns believe they have it figured out.
“As a defensive collective, we all come together,” Barron said. “We’re a very veteran group. It’s not just one standout leader. We’re all leading each other.”
That confidence echoes through the team. Ford said he’s ready to step up, even if it means being the bad guy.
“You can’t really be friends and be a leader at the same time. You’ve got to tell them the things they don’t want to hear,” Ford said. “The only way you demand it is you do it yourself first.”
The next transfer portal is in May. Sarkisian meets with each player one-on-one at the end of Spring practice to discuss their future. The portal remains the wildcard that can significantly change a roster.
“You just don’t know who you’re going to lose. And if you lose too many at one spot, you better have somebody that can fill that void so you don’t go into the season depleted,” Sarkisian said.
“The reality of it is we’ll probably have some movement at the end of Spring, going and coming. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like yet,” he added. “I do think that we have to be realistic to the landscape of college football right now, and we’ve got another portal window about to open.”
Photo courtesy: Ricardo B. Brazziell / American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK