AUSTIN, Texas -- Entering the season, Texas’ starting defensive line was comprised of the following: An injury-prone former five-star end, a tall and underrated end with limited starting experience, a young defensive tackle coming off an inconsistent true freshman year and, last but not least, a converted running back playing tackle.
With five games left in the 2013 season, Texas’ starting defensive line features four future NFL players, and perhaps several All-Big 12 candidates. Same guys, of course.
Talent was never the issue for Jackson Jeffcoat, Cedric Reed, Malcom Brown and Chris Whaley. The potential was always there. But it was a ragtag group, at least on paper, and one that had to answer a lot of questions this season.
They’ve done a lot more than that this season, fortifying the Longhorns defense with their consistent pressure and knack for creating game-changing turnovers.
“They're pushing the pocket back, and those guys are caving it in,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “We're really doing a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback.”
The numbers since Texas began conference play are impressive. Texas has recorded 20 sacks on the season, with 16 coming from its defensive line and a Big 12-best 18 coming in conference games. The front four is responsible for 39 of the Longhorns' 58 tackles for loss on the year.
During these last five games, Jeffcoat leads the Big 12 in sacks with six and he and Reed are among the top three in the conference in tackles for loss. And their head coach believes Whaley and Brown are playing like two of the better defensive tackles “in our history,” which is fairly high praise.
This truly is a front four that specializes in pass rushing, which has become an absolute must to be competitive in this league. According to ESPN Stats & Info, sacks have accounted for 49 percent of Texas’ tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season.
If that didn’t make passing difficult enough, the long-armed Reed and the disruptive Brown have each already broken up four passes. Jeffcoat has deflected two and grabbed the game-sealing interception at Iowa State.
And Whaley is doing just fine, with the pick-six against Oklahoma and the fumble return for a touchdown against Kansas. He might’ve gotten the 40-yard run back and the glory on that one, but Jeffcoat brought the pressure and Reed recorded the sack and strip.
When all four are clicking at the same time, like this line is, opposing offensive lines are left to make impossible choices about how to properly account for all four. Just ask Texas senior offensive lineman Mason Walters, who faces these guys on a daily basis.
“I think that's the thing our defensive line has done the best: They've been able to give them a problem on matchups or somebody has got a mismatch every time, and that one person is able to jump and make plays,” Walters said. “I think they all continue to play at a high level and you start to have more and more of them with household names.”
This defensive line’s next potential victim, West Virginia, had quarterback issues early in the year but settled on Clint Trickett. He has a TD-INT ratio of 5-5 in Big 12 play and has fumbled on two of the nine sacks he’s taken.
The real challenge is limiting talented Mountaineers running back Charles Sims. The more he’s slowed early, the more the ball stays in Trickett’s hands and the sooner he starts feeling uncomfortable.
That’s just what this pass-rushing unit wants. More important, they don’t want to lose any of the confidence they’ve built during this five-game streak.
“There are still people out there that kind of doubt us,” Jeffcoat said, “so we've got to show that we can do it against anybody.”