Late to the Game: We Got a Really Big Team


Charlie Strong’s statewide annihilation on National Signing Day had implications beyond inspiring re-appropriations of DJ Khaled’s “Another One” meme as one highly rated defensive tackle prospect after another donned a burnt-orange cap inside their high school auditorium. The team colloquially referred to as “DBU” due to the program’s rich history of excellent defensive backs, from Jackrabbit Crain to Earl Thomas, suddenly became DTU: Defensive Tackle University.

The night before the main event, Louisiana DT D’Andre Christmas-Giles announced he’d be heading west to the Forty Acres. Bright and early on National Signing Day, Strong had signed two more DTs in the span of 15 minutes, Duncanville’s Marcel Southall and Euless Trinity’s Chris Daniels. As the day wore on, linebackers and defensive backs like Erick Fowler, Jeffrey McCulloch, and Brandon Jones, for whom A&M recruiting site TexAgs produced a slick (re: expensive-looking) documentary, all pledged allegiance to the burnt orange flag. Most Longhorn fans would’ve been fine if the Horns packed it in right then and there. Strong’s strength (say that 10 times fast) was defense, and it was lacking in 2015; in one fell swoop, he reinvigorated it.

At 1 p.m., Longhorn fans readied for the final target announcement of what was already a whirlwind day, as Houston Westside and ESPN top-300 DT Jordan Elliott set to make his announcement. The day was a already a win for Strong and his staff, who’d caused rapid backpedalling by incorrect beat writers and anguish for Aggie fans (and their own stud defensive tackles) as he presented a top-10 recruiting class essentially out of thin air in a matter of hours. Fans, thusly, prepared themselves for the former Michigan commit to take his massive frame elsewhere; the Longhorns already had four skilled incoming DTs, and it would be highly unlikely for Strong to have grabbed a fifth in a matter of 24 hours. We’re just not that lucky was the sentiment on Twitter from fans who haven’t had much to feel lucky about in the last 25 months.

But when it rains, it pours. On schedule, Elliott did what was starting to seem like overkill: He committed to become a defensive tackle at Texas. Another one.

This recent run began when DT Malcom Brown left Texas after his junior year, when it became apparent that not only would Texas end its one-year—but nonetheless historically incomprehensible—NFL Draft drought, but that he might be able to stop the madness on the 2015 event’s first day. Texas’ recruiting corps sighed a breath of relief as the Patriots took the 320-pound run-stuffer with the final pick of the first round.

The connection between Brown signing for $6 million-plus in guaranteed money and the wealth of highly touted freshman DTs signing with Texas on Feb. 3 can’t be overstated. Especially when Brown’s former battery-mate Hassan Ridgeway rises up 2016 draft boards as April approaches. If Ridgeway had stayed in school for his senior season, it’s likely Texas would have had a repeat of the 2014 draft, when zero Longhorns were chosen. As much as Strong has downplayed the impact of the NFL Draft on his ability to recruit, it certainly has an effect on the big men he so highly covets. Strong told the media after the ashes had settled on National Signing Day, “If it was up to me I would have signed 20 big body guys.” Is it outside the realm of possibility that most of these “big body guys” were aware of a player whom Strong didn’t recruit but succeeded so immensely in his and Vance Bedford’s defensive system that he became a multimillionaire and automatic NFL starter?

When Ridgeway declared for the NFL, it was a big blow to the Longhorns’ defense, especially with fellow DT Tank Jackson graduating, and little-to-no DTs actually committed yet. With Strong’s insane recruiting class full of defensive tackles, the double-edged sword of Ridgeway leaving really only cuts one way now; he’s a symbol of successful DT play and its translation to the professional level, instead of that plus a 315-pound hole on the offensive line. Strong found a couple guys who can plug that one, likely as soon as September.

Ridgeway, initially projected as a 7th-rounder or undrafted free agent when he unexpectedly declared early for the 2016 NFL Draft, is now projected as high as a second- or third-round choice on some boards. That matters for recruiting, as tenuous a connection it sounds. If two DTs can succeed in the same defensive scheme at Texas, why can’t three? Why can’t five?

Ridgeway had a spectacular season in 2014, as opposing linemen expended themselves trying to derail the Malcom Brown train, leaving Ridgeway single-teamed, to the tune of six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Not bad at all for an interior defensive lineman. In 2015, as the anchor of Texas’ defensive line, he was effective, but the numbers took a dip, down to 3.5 sacks and and 6.5 tackles for loss during an injury-plagued season. Still, he made some important crunch-time plays, like the fumble recovery he returned for a touchdown on Sept. 26 in a loss to Oklahoma State. Yes, that game.

On Nov. 26 against Texas Tech, Ridgeway recorded half a sack and a fumble recovery, a nice day. In the stands? High school junior and consensus No. 1 DT in the country, Bellaire, TX’s Marvin Wilson, the cream of the 2017 recruiting class. If Ridgeway goes early in the NFL draft and Strong keeps the DT train rolling, grabbing Wilson for next year—with all respect due to the extended list of stellar defensive backs who’ve pulled burnt-orange jerseys over shoulder pads—Texas might officially unofficially become DTU.

Illustration by Melissa Reese


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