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Texas revival requires robust pass rush

John Rivera/Icon Sportswire

If you haven’t heard, there’s a revival going on in Austin.

At least, that’s the hope for the Texas Longhorns entering their third year with Charlie Strong as head coach. Long gone are the days of the Heisman-worthy quarterback play Vince Young and Colt McCoy provided. With the arrival of superstar QBs elsewhere in the Big 12, passing efficiency has become more vital than ever.

Therefore, it’s understandable that local headlines in Austin try to make sense of the situation under center between Tyrone Swoopes and Shane Buechele. How can Texas move forward if an identity doesn’t surface under center?

While the Longhorns certainly need a quarterback who can recall the glory days of the 2006 Rose Bowl, that position is hardly the only vital piece to the puzzle in the 40 Acres. In the pass-happy Big 12, the Longhorns have to be able to take down opponents’ quarterbacks with appreciable consistency.

If Swoopes or Buechele can’t provide support on offense, the least the Longhorns can do is cut other offenses down at the knees.

Malik Jefferson will get a lot of attention this season. Whether he’s asked to blitz or stay back in coverage, his All-American skills will be invaluable. He’s the team’s leading returning tackler, including seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The hope is that his presence will propel others to new heights.

The defensive front should be the greatest beneficiary of Jefferson’s presence on the field.

The Horns have not struggled to cultivate a presence along the defensive line. Quite the contrary — they’ve done well in this part of their defense. Why the point of emphasis on improving an already-strong unit? Here’s why: Texas needs a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense from top to bottom.

Last season, Texas ranked fifth in the nation with 3.1 sacks per game. It also ranked 15th in the nation with an 11.3-percent sack rate on passing downs, per Football Outsiders. However, the loss of defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway a year early has made some people trepidatious — they’re not as convinced this line can become what it needs to become.

The Longhorns have always found a way to keep attacking the quarterback, having ranked among the top of the Big 12 in sack totals for the better part of a decade. Defensive end Naashon Hughes will make sure that trend continues this season. He returns with a team-high 5.5 sacks and nine TFLs.

Hughes started to pick up the pace at the tail-end of last season. Over the last five games, he totaled four sacks, 5.5 TFLs, and 29 total tackles. Much of that production came when opponents Baylor and Texas Tech were at their most susceptible (due to interior offensive line injuries) down the home stretch. There’s certainly room for the junior weak-side defensive end to grow.

Last season Hughes was one of the younger players up front, but now he’s in a position of more seniority as a redshirt junior. He’ll be the guiding hand for sophomores Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu, who will play opposite him on the line (though Hager is currently the primary backup for Hughes.)

Texas has already shown an ability to get to the quarterback, but now it’s time to show that it’s not only the best in conference, but the entire nation. Any improvement should put UT back on the path to national relevance again.

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