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Bohls: Texas' defensive front could hold the key to Longhorns' 2021 success

Texas defensive lineman Moro Ojomo, shown pressuring West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege during last season's game, will be counted upon to replace the pass-rushing shoes left by Joseph Ossai. There were nine credited sacks during Saturday's Orange-White game.
  • Texas' offensive weapons are significant, but the defensive line will reveal the team's success.
  • Among the replacements for edge rusher Joseph Ossai are Moro Ojomo, Alfred Collins and more.
  • "I think the (defensive line) is one of the strengths of the team," head coach Steve Sarkisian said.

Texas will win this fall with one of the top five running backs in all of college, a slew of solid receivers if not exactly a Biletnikoff Award winner, a crew of terrific tight ends, an accurate kicker and a really good quarterback who emerges from a still very undecided two-man battle.

But Texas will win big in Steve Sarkisian’s first season as Longhorns head coach if he can mold an angry defense that has teeth.

Real teeth.

A defense that can play like those fire-breathers in the SEC at places like Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, and Athens, Ga.

More:Bohls: Sarkisian likes receivers, but linebacker, cornerback depth is thin

If Saturday’s Orange-White spring game were any indication as verification — and usually it is not — the Longhorns will be stepping up in class.

In one afternoon of football with a running clock, new coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense produced a pick-six by the electric D’Shawn Jamison and nine sacks, three of them from lineman Moro Ojomo, and 11 tackles for losses. Junior linebacker Jett Bush also had three putdowns and redshirt freshman linebacker Prince Dorbah one as did the emerging Vernon Broughton. 

Texas defensive backs Kitan Crawford, right, and Jerrin Thompson jump for the ball that was thrown to wide receiver Jaden Alexis in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Orange-White game. Earlier, cornerback D'Shawn Jamison scored on a pick-six. “The defensive line, they’re some dogs now. I appreciate them the most," Jamison said. "They’re some hard-working guys.”

Not bad for a day’s work, especially when one considers the Longhorns’ last interception returned for a touchdown came against Kansas. But way, way back in 2017, a span of 40 games without one. Of course, Texas had five pick sixes that year, two each by future NFL players DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill.

Asked to quantify how much a strong defensive front will help the secondary, Jamison said, “The defensive line, they’re some dogs now. I appreciate them the most. They’re some hard-working guys.”

And Jamison doesn’t need much help because he’s going to be a hugely impactful player in the defensive backfield as well as on kick runbacks as the Big 12’s premier return man.

More:Golden: Casey Thompson, Hudson Card provided more questions than answers in Texas QB battle

New Texas coach Steve Sarkisian speaks with former Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger during the Orange-White game. Ehlinger has been preparing for this week's NFL draft, which starts on Thursday.

As for pressure on the quarterback, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and Iowa State’s Brock Purdy felt more heat trying to win the Heisman than they did the Texas edge rushers last season. They each got taken to the ground once by the Longhorns.

Overall, Texas totaled a paltry three sacks in its final three games of 2020 and had a single sack or none at all in seven of its 10 games.

So yeah, there’s a whole lot of curiosity about a new defense’s ability to create turnovers and sacks. Two very important categories this new staff will emphasize.

Surprisingly enough, the Longhorns were fairly accomplished in the first area under Tom Herman. A year ago, they ranked tied for 14th in turnover margin at a plus-9. In fact, in his four seasons, Texas was an impressive plus-31, reasons enough why Herman at least had four winning seasons but also baffling because it should have translated into more overall success.

In many ways, that statistic represents a paradox because in his five games against Oklahoma, including the 2018 Big 12 championship game, Herman’s Horns were a plus-7 against the Sooners and still had a 1-4 record against the blood rival.

That said, it doesn’t do a lot for a team’s chances to win that grudge match when Texas waits until it trails by 20-0 in the second quarter one year or by two touchdowns to mount a furious comeback last fall or Sam Ehlinger gets sacked nine times in one October letdown or he gets buried on a huge sack at the most critical point of the game.

It’s all about making plays in the biggest moments. Ojomo, Jacoby Jones, Keondre Coburn, Collins and Broughton all could make cases for All-Big 12 consideration.

More:With a ‘watered down version’ of the offense, Texas QBs have mixed results in spring game

The top four teams in college football all were superior in the sack departments. Alabama ranked seventh nationally with 35 sacks, more than enough to complement the country’s most prolific offense. Ohio State came in just 49th with 21 sacks and mostly relied on its offense because the Bosas keep leaving early, but the two other 2020 Final Four teams, Clemson and Notre Dame, ranked first in the nation (46 sacks) and 15th (31).

Texas A&M didn’t have a Myles Garrett, but Bobby Brown and friends were consistent and strong enough to sack the quarterbacks 28 times to rank 20th in the nation and worthy of a CFP spot.

Texas is far from consideration for those types of games at the moment, but the spring game at least teases that help is on the way.

Asked to point out the defensive players who have the most collisions this spring, Texas running back Bijan Robinson said, "I feel the whole defense is hard hitters.” Not that Robinson would know firsthand because he showed his usual brilliance, sidestepping tacklers and rushing for 54 yards on 10 nifty carries.

Texas rarely generated much pressure on quarterbacks last season, finishing a lowly 70th with only 17 sacks. Five came in the road win over Oklahoma State when Ossai registered three of his five sacks on the season.

Ojomo was active, to say the least on Saturday.

Joseph Ossai, meet your successor in the disrupter department. And he’ll have company with Jones, Dorbah and Broughton and LSU linebacker transfer Ray Thornton and an ascending star in Alfred Collins, whom the coaches may have been trying to keep under wraps Saturday. Lineman T’Vondre Sweat and the explosive linebacker/edge rusher DeMarvion Overshown missed the game with injuries, but will contribute big-time starting in September.

More:UT Orange-White game notebook: Bijan Robinson, Cameron Dicker stand out for Texas

Make no mistake. Sarkisian knows the value of a dominant defensive line since the SEC basically reinvented the wheel in that category.

Why, in last year’s NFL draft alone, 14 defensive linemen were selected in the first three rounds. Of those, 10 played for SEC schools. Last year may have had a dropoff there, but that league keeps producing the Derrick Browns and Quinnen Williamses and Javon Kinlaws with regularity.

That’s the caliber of play Texas needs if it’s to win a second national championship since 1970.

It’s no secret that SEC programs follow the blueprint of exceptional linemen on both sides of the ball. While Texas needs major upgrades of its offensive front — three freshmen started on the line in the Alamo Bowl, partly due to injury and an opt out, the defensive side should be imposing, even without Ossai.

“I think that's kind of one of the strengths of our team,” Sarkisian said of his defensive front. "I think we're relatively deep there. I think we've got a pretty good rotation there. And again, we'll get a couple of guys back off injury. We’ll get some young players coming in, and we will add to that.

“And I think good teams are good up front. And we've got a pretty good defensive front going right now. Their activity in our attacking style is going to be critical to our success.”

Coburn, a poor man’s Poona Ford whose stock is rising rapidly after two seasons, couldn’t be more pumped. He pegged Broughton as perhaps the best pass rusher on the line and loves the new scheme. He raves about a defensive set that is as thick as the offensive playbook whether it’s a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5.

“We don’t have a set front,” the junior tackle said. “I mean we’re odd, we’re even, we’re a bunch of fronts. You’re gonna get opportunities to make plays.”

And making plays will always be the key.