"It's not a drop-off. It's not a drop-off," repeated defensive end Brian Orakpo this week.
Depth at defensive tackle has been one of the biggest concerns this season and that that depth suffered a big blow this past weekend when starting DT Lamarr Houston was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Texas coaches have not yet come to a decision on Houston's suspension, but it has been decided that he will not join the Horns in El Paso this weekend. However, Orakpo and his fellow defensive linemen say the backups at defensive tackle are better than most think and that starts with Lewis.
"(Lewis) is another one of those great athletes on the team," said nose tackle Roy Miller. "Ben (Alexander) also has been doing very well. That's the thing about Texas. We've got depth and we're going to use it."
Lewis is far from inexperienced and has started ten games at Texas, but all of those were at defensive end. This season he has been practicing at both defensive end and defensive tackle and played both on Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
"Every other series I was switching backing and forth," Lewis told Inside Texas.
Specifically, the senior lineman logged 16 snaps on the inside and 14 snaps outside. According to his defensive coordinator, Lewis' football savvy is one of the main reasons he's been jumping between the two spots.
"Football is important to Aaron. He spends time on it off the field, which is why, and it's almost unfair to him, we've made him learn two positions," said Texas DC Will Muschamp. "Certain guys, you know what they can handle. We wanted him to learn inside and outside to provide us more depth and he's a quality starter in both situations and that's what we've considered him all along."
Lewis didn't register any tackles on Saturday, but he was credited with a pair of quarterback hurries. Lewis, along with the rest of the Texas defensive line, didn't gather any sacks against FAU, but Orakpo said it's not all about getting to the quarterback. A D-line can also be effective simply disrupting and getting hurries, like Lewis did.
"The main thing is getting pressure on the quarterback, effecting the guy," said Orakpo. "Aaron Lewis, Roy, the other guys, we did a great job of affecting the quarterback. Sacks is a good stat to have, but pressure is the main thing."
Of course, sacks are still sacks, and Lewis admits that the Horns need to get to the quarterback and wishes he and he teammates had put Florida Atlantic QB Rusty Smith into the ground at least once.
"It was really frustrating," Lewis told Inside Texas. "We've really got to finish. We got close to the quarterback a couple times, but we've got to finish it. We've got to bring him down, we've got to get batted balls and interrupt him a little bit more to give our defensive backs some time."
The young Texas safeties will need as much time as possible as they get their feet wet. Texas is starting a redshirt freshman (Earl Thomas) and a true freshman (Blake Gideon) at safety, but their job will be a lot easier if the pressure from the defensive line increases and Lewis expects that to happen and expects the DBs to improve as well because of how hard they are working.
"The new defensive backs are a little bit younger, but their attitudes are great," said Lewis.
One of the reasons the Horns struggled to get to the quarterback was because of Florida Atlantic's frequent use of 'slide' protection to move Smith away from pressure, but Texas won't see much of that against UTEP. The Miners use a much more traditional, straight up protection scheme. Miller is prediction more sacks because of it.
"They're more of a 'big' protection, where they block you man-on-man," said Miller. "That's the kind of blocking that we always look forward to as a defensive line."
Along with Lewis and Miller, Texas fans will also see Alexander, redshirt freshman Michael Wilcoxon and true freshman Kheeston Randall fill out the depth chart at defensive tackle. Against FAU, Wilcoxon and Alexander each registered one tackle and Randall didn't play. Coaches have confirmed that Randall will lose his redshirt on Saturday and, along with Wilcoxon and Alexander, will be out to prove that DT isn't a thin position at Texas. Muschamp said he's just happy he's got a guy like Lewis to step in when he loses a player.
"Aaron's got a great motor. He plays hard, plays with good pad level, great hands and he's a guy that we're excited about him playing Saturday," said Muschamp.
Last season as a junior, Lewis put up 26 tackles, eight TFL, two sacks and ten pressures playing in 11 games at defensive end, starting seven (he missed two games with a left elbow injury). Texas heads out to El Paso this weekend to take on UTEP. Kick-off is set for 9:15 p.m. CST on Saturday.