December 26, 2007

Season-in-review: The defensive line

As we continue our final breakdown of the 2007 season for the Texas Longhorns, we'll take a look at the defensive line. With one of the nation's top group of players coming back this season, expectations were sky-high for a unit that featured a number of potential difference makers. Did they live up to expectations? We're going inside to find out.

Defensive Tackles

Frank Okam (Senior)

Expectations - When Okam arrived at Texas, he was expected to be the next big thing at defensive tackle. However, for the first three years of Okam's Texas career he's been a player that has never seemed to able to turn the corner from being a good player to a great player. Heading into this season, Okam was showing up on numerous pre-season All-America lists and this year represented his final opportunity to evolve into the player everyone has been waiting for.

Reality - Okam had his best season this year, but he still didn't emerge as a dominant player in his final season.

Stats - 49 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, 16 quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Bottom Line - On the surface Okam's numbers are impressive, but when you factor in that six of his tackles for loss and three of his sacks came in games against Arkansas State and Rice, the rest of the season looks like the rest of his career. There was a solid of very solid play this season, but not a lot of memorable plays. In games against TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, Okam failed to record a TFL, a sack or any created turnovers.

Derek Lokey (Senior)

Expectations - While Okam has been on everyone's All-America list for years, Lokey has quietly put together a career that has been every but as good. In fact, when Lokey went down last season with an injury, the Texas defense fell apart and there was some feeling from those in the program that Lokey had emerged as the most important player on the defensive side of the ball. As he headed into this season, everyone had hoped that Lokey could build off of an excellent 2006 campaign.

Reality - Lokey had a solid, but certainly not a spectacular final season in Austin.

Stats - 46 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one sacks, 13 quarterback hits, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries.

Bottom Line - It's very possible that Lokey's absence from the line-up was given too much credit when last year's slide began because his return to the line-up didn't exactly create cause for the defense to elevate its performance level. Lokey was a very solid run stuffer this season and he does a great job against double teams inside, but he wasn't a guy that generated big plays for the defense and he was a guy coming in that had shown a propensity for making them. At the end of the day the expectations for Lokey were probably too high considering his position and the fact that he was coming off of an injury the previous season.

Roy Miller (Junior)

Expectations - Although he wasn't expected to start this season, there were many (including myself) that considered Miller to the best defensive lineman on the Texas roster. As he headed into his third season, Miller was expected to take the next step as a player and become one of the Big 12's best interior linemen.

Reality - Like Okam and Lokey, Miller was a very solid player, but there were very few times when you looked at him during a game and came away thinking he was one of the best player on the field.

Stats - 36 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one sack, six quarterback hits and one forced fumble

Bottom Line - As he enters his senior season in 2007, it's now or never for the former Killeen Shoemaker star. He's been somewhat handcuffed because of the presence of the two seniors in front of him, but there won't be any excuses for Miller not to turn in an elite-level performance next year. If the Longhorns are going to be a Big 12 challenger next season, Miller must be better than good or very good.

Thomas Marshall (Senior)

Expectations - The fifth-year senior has been a solid reserve and as he headed into his final season, much of the same was expected.

Reality - Once again, Marshall proved to be a very dependable reserve for the Longhorns. The staff was never afraid to put Marshall into any situation, which is not something you can claim about every back-up player on the roster.

Stats - seven tackles, two tackles for loss and four quarterback hits

Bottom Line - Marshall never emerged as a front-line player for the Longhorns, but he was a good soldier for the program and never stopped working hard, even when it was apparent that he was always going to have a limited role in the program. In an age when most players flea to second-tier schools in search of playing time when the early part of the careers don't take off, Marshall deserves credit for being one of the team's best team players.

Ben Alexander (Sophomore)

Expectations - After a disappointing freshman season, not much was expected from Alexander this season because of his lack of on-field progress in 2006 and the number of upper-classmen on the roster in front of him.

Reality - One of the real surprises this season was the development of Alexander into a pretty good piece of the defensive puzzle for the Longhorns. As the season went on, Alexander saw more and more snaps. He wasn't a player that proved to be anything more than a role player, but he gave everyone reason for hope that there are better days ahead for him.

Stats - Seven tackles, two tackles for loss and one quarterback hit

Bottom Line - There's a very real chance that the Longhorns are going to need Miller to play starter's snaps at nose-guard this season, so his continued development will be one of the most important storylines of the upcoming year. Through two seasons, Alexander has been flying under the radar, but that's about to change with increased expectations.

Brian Ellis (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - When you talk about the young defensive tackles on the roster, none have as much raw ability as Ellis, but he was expected to need another year or two before emerging as a potential front-line player.

Reality - Nothing has been said about Ellis this season by the coaching staff, but it's widely believed that Ellis spent this season focusing on his academics.

Bottom Line - If Ellis can put it all together he has a chance to be a very good player for the Longhorns because he has all of the physical tools needed to be a starter down the road. At this point, it's tough to say what you can expect from him, if anything, for the 2008 season. He's a total wild card.

Tyrell Higgins (Redshirt freshman)

Expectations - With the number of upper-classmen in the program, there were zero expectations that Higgins would play this season.

Reality - As expected, Higgins redshirted this season.

Bottom Line - There weren't any expectations for Higgins this season, but that will change in 2008 when the Longhorns call on him to perform in their two-deep.

Michael Wilcoxon (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - See Tyrell Higgins. With the number of upper-classmen in the program, there were zero expectations that Wilcoxon would play this season.

Reality - As expected, Wilcoxon redshirted this season.

Bottom Line - There weren't any expectations for Wilcoxon this season, but that will change in 2008 when the Longhorns call on him to perform in their two-deep.

Defensive ends

Brian Orakpo (Junior)

Expectations - After two seasons of action as the team's third defensive end, Orakpo appeared destined for a breakout season. Everyone in the program talked about Orakpo being a double-digit sack threat and a potential all-conference player.

Reality - An injury in the season opener against Arkansas State cost Orakpo four games and after returning for the Oklahoma game, Orakpo never seemed to play at the level that was expected.

Stats - 31 tackles, six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and one forced fumble

Bottom Line - Since earning freshman All-America honors in 2005, everyone has been waiting for Orakpo to develop into an elite pass rusher, but thus far he just looks like a fair pass rusher, who just happens to be the best of a group that was very average in creating a pass rush. Orakpo is a good player and the injuries were a major issue with his production this fall, but he has one season of eligibility left, so he needs to understand that the clock on his college career is ticking and thus far he hasn't been able to shake the potential label for a productive one.

Lamarr Houston (Sophomore)

Expectations - As one of the more talented young players in the program, everyone was expecting big things from Houston at some point, but there was no way of knowing whether he could make a big jump this season. At the very least, Houston was expected to play considerably as a member of the two-deep, but the hope was that he could give them a boost off the edge.

Reality - Houston was the team's best defensive lineman throughout the course of the season, but he wasn't quite able to go from good to great just yet.

Stats - 63 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 21 quarterback hits and one forced fumble

Bottom Line - If the Longhorns are going to have an elite player up-front next year, it might be Houston. As it stands, he's very close to becoming an elite-level performer. If he remains committed this off-season and continues to mature, the sky is the limit for him in 2008.

Eddie Jones (Redshirting Freshman)

Expectations - After a redshirt season in 2006, Jones was expected to give the team a real shot in the arm as a potential starter and difference maker off the edge.

Reality - Jones showed some real spark at times this season, but injury issues continue to haunt his development. He was a good player, but he wasn't a difference maker and that's what was expected of him when he was recruited.

Stats - 26 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and six quarterback hits

Bottom Line - Just like Houston, when you talk about Jones, you're talking about a player with a lot of potential. The key for Jones is going to remain being his ability to stay healthy. It's unlikely that Jones will beat out Orakpo or Houston for a starting spot next year, but he needs to be the guy the coaches turn to for big plays as a situational player.

Aaron Lewis (Junior)

Expectations - The Longhorns would have been in real trouble last year on the defensive side of the ball without the emergence of Lewis at defensive end. When projecting Lewis' role heading into 2007, the expectations were that he would build off of his strong play from the previous season when he was at times one of the best players on the UT defense.

Reality - Frankly, Lewis wasn't able to use last season as a springboard and a case can be made that his role significantly diminished as the season went on.

Stats - 26 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, two sacks and 10 quarterback hits

Bottom Line - As Lewis heads into next season, he might need to make a decision about his future because there's a strong chance that he might not rank among the four best defensive ends on the roster. The staff has reportedly toyed with the idea of moving Lewis inside to tackle, but it hasn't been a move that Lewis has been in favor of in the past. In looking forward to 2008, moving inside could prove to be the quickest way to substantial playing time.

Henry Melton (Junior)

Expectations - Who really had any for Melton? After moving from running back to defensive end, there was no way of knowing whether or not he could serve a real purpose this season, especially in light of a three-game suspension for an arrest earlier this summer.

Reality - To almost everyone's surprise, Melton proved to be a pretty good player for the Longhorns at end and he got better each week. There's no question that his future is on the defensive side of the ball

Stats - nine tackles, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble

Bottom Line - A move inside to defensive tackle might be just what the doctor ordered for Melton. As a defensive end, he's an athletic player, but not an elite player off the edge. If he can make the adjustment inside, he could be a very tough player to deal with. If Melton is seriously thinking about the NFL, he needs to be open to this idea.

Sam Acho (Freshman)

Expectations - With a number of potential young playmakers on the roster, not much was expected from the former private school player.

Reality - Acho surprised everyone by putting himself in a position for early playing time. In limited playing time this season, Acho showed some promise as a potential difference maker off the edge. The coaches believe he can be a building block for the defense in 2008.

Stats - Nine tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits.

Bottom Line - If you talk with the staff about Acho, they'll tell you that he can be a great player down the road, but he's going to need some time to round off the edges on his game. Look for him to compete for playing time with Jones for the No.3 end next year and it wouldn't shock anyone if he pushes for a starting position because he rivals Orakpo for the honor of being the team's top threat off the edge.

Russell Carter (Freshman)

Expectations - With so many young players on the roster, Carter was expected to redshirt this season.

Reality - As expected, Carter did redshirt.

Bottom Line - The word coming from everyone regarding Carter is very positive, but the spring should represent the first real chance to determine whether he can have a dramatic role next season. The talent is there, but the competition for playing time will be intense.

Overall thoughts

When you look at this group of players at tackle and end this season, they were just ok. The group was good against the run, but the pass rush was anemic (60th nationally) at times and you can count the difference making plays by this group on one hand. The talent is there, but it just never seemed to come together for the group as a whole, which was an obvious storyline for the entire defense. For a unit that was regarded as one of the nation's best units coming into the year, it's safe to say that this group underperformed when taking the expected production level in mind.


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