Despite the Longhorns’ 5–7 record in 2015, there were still glimmers of hope to be found as the team headed into the offseason. Texas found a way to knock off then-No. 10 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, and ended its season with a victory over heavily-favored Baylor in Waco.
More importantly than the two marquee wins, however, was the performance from Texas’ young defensive talent. The burnt orange sported Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Malik Jefferson as well as highlight freshman corners Holton Hill and Davante Davis.
“We played a large number [of freshman] last year… which you like to see happen,” head coach Charlie Strong said in July. “Now you’ve got to make sure that you bring them along and watch them develop and grow.”
But seven games into the Longhorns’ 2016 campaign, their young defensive stars have failed to make a serious impact.
For a defense that has been maligned due to its poor performance — the Longhorns have given up 45 points or more in four of their seven contests — an impressive showing from Jefferson, Hill or Davis would pay significant dividends. But so far, the three have been missing in action.
Jefferson’s struggles have been well documented. After committing to Texas as the state’s No. 1 recruit in 2014, the Poteet high school product has seen sky-high expectations since arriving on campus. And in his freshman season, Jefferson met those expectations. He recorded 61 tackles (seven of them for losses) and entered the 2016 season as a member of Sports Illustrated’s Preseason All-American second team.
This year has been a completely different story for Jefferson. He ranks outside the top 25 in the Big 12 in tackles, and is outside the top 20 in both sacks and tackles for loss. And as the games without impact plays mount, so does his frustration.
“A lot of people… put more expectations on you than you kind of asked for,” senior linebacker Tim Cole said regarding Jefferson. “You got to drown out the outside noise, put your head down and work and focus on the little things.”
While Jefferson has struggled on the field, Davis and Hill have failed to even see the gridiron. Hill has played in just four contests this year — starting only against No. 16 Oklahoma — and Davis has also seen his share of struggles. The Miami, Florida native has compiled seven tackles on the year, and recorded just two pass breakups.
The pair has faced a deep secondary unit — trailing sophomore John Bonney and sophomore Kris Boyd in the depth chart — but their inability to contribute has puzzled many.
Davis was named to the Preseason All-Big 12 team in 2016 and Hill arrived in Austin as the nation’s No. 7 cornerback recruit according to the 247sports composite. Now, the two spend their time contributing on special teams instead of matching up with opposing receivers.
“You look at some of those games early, you saw [Davis and Hill] out there, and you saw us give up some big plays,” Strong said. “We’re looking for a combination that can stay out there on the field and can get us off the field.”
Texas defense has improved over the last two weeks, rebounding from an abysmal start to give up just six and 24 points respectively.
But with a daunting schedule ahead (including battles with the top three offense in the nation) the Longhorns desperately need their former standouts to return to form. If not, Texas will be in danger of missing a bowl game, and potentially missing a head coach at season’s end.