Going into the 2016 season, there is little doubt that Malik Jefferson is the face of the Texas Longhorns. He represents everything coach Charlie Strong wants his program to embody.
Jefferson has always had supreme confidence, too. “There should be no more excuses about how young we are,” he said after the spring game.
Jefferson is a top-flight choice at linebacker. But will coaches turn him loose and allow Jefferson to come rushing off the edge, which is his natural skill? Or, will Jefferson have to stay put in the middle due to a lack of other defensive playmakers?
Anthony Wheeler and Tim Cole both had extensive roles last season, although not starring ones. Edwin Freeman played in six games last season and finished with 12 tackles.
There are high hopes for Demarco Boyd, who enrolled in January. Another incoming freshman, Jeffrey McCulloch, was 16th on the American-Statesman’s Fab 55 recruiting list. It’s thought Erick Fowler could make a dynamic off-the-edge pass rusher.
So while Jefferson believes that youth shouldn’t be an excuse, it’s clear the Longhorns will give multiple freshmen long, hard looks this August.
Here’s a look at the linebackers currently on the roster:
1. Malik Jefferson: A potential college football superstar. Maybe that’s putting too much hype on a player with only one year of experience. But he was a freshman All-American. Jefferson (6-3, 238) had 61 tackles last season, 2.5 sacks and a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
2. Anthony Wheeler: The Skyline product arguably had his best performance in the season finale against Baylor. Wheeler (6-2, 232) had six tackles, one pass breakup and a key fumble recovery. He needs to elevate his play and lock down a starting job.
3. Tim Cole: Going into his fifth and final season, Cole (6-1, 240) has plenty of experience to draw from. He’s played in 31 career games but started only four. His career best was an eight tackle performance against Texas Tech last season.
4. Edwin Freeman: Coaches are always looking for consistency. Freeman (6-1, 232) had four tackles in the season opener against Notre Dame and four in the season finale against Baylor. But only four tackles in four games in between.
5. Dalton Santos: The Van linebacker had ankle surgery before last season began, and he missed the entire year. Santos (6-2, 257) promised that he’d return, and he did. It’s unclear whether the fifth-year senior will have the speed to see extensive playing time.
6. Cameron Townsend: Once considered the second-best outside linebacker prospect in Texas, Townsend (6-0, 222) redshirted last season.
7. Demarco Boyd: By enrolling in January, Boyd (5-11, 240) got a leg up on the other freshmen who won’t get here until the summer semester. But his size alone is a worry. Can he avoid getting blocked by the typical 6-foot-4 Big 12 offensive lineman?
2016 freshmen: Last year, coaches, reporters and fans all got caught up hyping one player who referred to himself as “The Diesel” on social media. Cecil Cherry didn’t even last one week before transferring out. So tap the brakes on inserting McCulloch, nicknamed “The Shark,” into the starting lineup just yet. Both McCulloch and Fowler need to show up, keep their head down and go make plays.
2015 review: Prior to last season, Peter Jinkens was thought of as nothing more than good role player. Given a full-time starting role, Jinkens became UT’s leading tackler with 9.5 tackles for loss. Jinkens and Jefferson finished 1-2 atop the tackling statistics, respectfully. With Jinkens gone, someone else must step up and help Jefferson patrol that area with gusto.
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