Will senior RDE Kalen Thornton be fully recovered from the 2002 injury hampered season that rendered him a shell of the dominating force he was as a sophomore (a team-leading 20 quarterback pressures) and a freshman (The Sporting News first-team Freshman All-American)? A slower-than-expected recovery time from off-season reconstructive surgery on his right knee was compounded by an ankle injury and, consequently, limited Thornton to three starts last season. Thornton is almost, but not quite, 100 percent, Reese said, but is optimistic at Thornton being at full throttle come the August 31 kickoff against New Mexico State. Otherwise, look for RS-freshman Chase Pittman to step up to the plate.
Just how important is defensive end to a team’s success? Recall the 17-14 win at Kansas State when Thornton and dearly departed Cory Redding single-handedly dictated the tempo of the game. In that one, Thornton registered four tackles, three QB pressures, one PBU and one blocked PAT -- and that was at three-quarters speed.
The heir apparent to Redding’s spot at LDE is sophomore Bryan Pickryl, who started five games as a true freshman but sat out spring drills following off-season shoulder surgery. Junior Austin Sendlein, sophomore Mike Williams and sophomore Kaelen Jakes should also see time at LDE.
Reese played musical chairs with his linebackers last spring, and told me recently that more flip-flopping is not out of the question. Heading into the fall, we’ve got Butkus Award semi-finalist Derrick Johnson at WLB, senior Reed Boyd at SAM and sophomore Garnet Smith at MLB. Boyd led the team in tackles last season, while Smith laid some serious wood during spring ball. If Johnson returns for his senior season, he deserves to wear No. 60 in 2004.
We expect freshman LB Robert Killebrew to lose his 'shirt and make a difference. The Houston Klein product was a joy to behold in last week’s Texas High School North-South All-Star game, drawing raves from broadcasters on a particular goal line play late in the second quarter where he stood the running back straight up like a telephone pole.
As an aside, Reese rarely uses the word ‘great’ to describe his youngsters but he has bequeathed the title both to Johnson and DT Rodrique Wright. (He actually said they both "have a chance to be great" and, with Reese, that’s about as good as it gets.)
With Wright and senior DT Marcus Tubbs, Texas has its best DT combo since the days of Casey Hampton and Shaun Rogers. But check to see if a couple of the DTs are too fat. Reese basically called out Tubbs about every other minute when I interviewed the DC for the August issue of Inside Texas magazine (all but attributing his nagging injuries last season as a direct result of poor conditioning). The word is that sophomore DT Larry Dibbles is making strides toward playing shape, but Mack Brown joked last spring that Dibbles could play during limited, short-yardage situations once the cool weather arrives (i.e., the big’un was still not at a level where he can be counted on for an extended drive during those hot, early season contests).
Meanwhile, the best show in town is senior CB Nathan Vasher versus SE Roy Williams every day in practice. It is simply the irresistible force versus the immovable object, but conducted at warp speed with acrobatic plays on both sides of the ball. FS Dakarai Pearson, last year’s interception leader with six picks, returns for his senior season while sophomore SS Michael Huff is fully recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him halfway through spring ball. This could be a breakout year for sophomore CB Cedric Griffin, whose solid play was overshadowed by his more high profile counterparts.
Otherwise, the notable battles in the secondary will be for back-up roles, particularly among some of the incoming freshmen, now that FS Kendal Briles has transferred to Houston and CB Edorian McCullough has been lost to academics. Look for marquee defensive recruit CB Tarell Brown and another true freshman CB Aaron Ross to work their way into the two-deep chart. Listed at 5-11, 180 and 4.3 speed, Brown was a Parade All-American while at North Mesquite High and Ross, originally a member of the '01(!) recruiting class, will finally get a chance to play on fall afternoons after two years of NCAA Clearinghouse limbo.