Steve Sarkisian and the Texas Longhorns won't be given a "rebuilding year" on the Forty Acres. One season after losing three games by 13 total points, the fans are expecting immediate competition for a Big 12 title.
Sarkisian, who's entering his third stint as a head coach, already has adapted to the ways things run in Austin. The battle of quarterback will be something new for the fans to watch, as will a new base 4-2-5 front under D.C. Peter Kwiatkowski.
A 9-3 season from 2020 only shows that Texas is in the realm of being "back" in the conversation of national title aspirations. Although two teams look to stand in the way, several players could be the difference-makers in the Longhorns underachieving or perhaps meeting the standards Longhorns fans are hoping for come December.
In our new series on Longhorn Country, we will be breaking down the top 10 names to watch for during the 2021 season. Some will be role-players, others will be full-fledged starters. Either way, each will be a benefactor to the success found in DKR.
Let's kick this off with the rising defensive star from the swamps of Louisiana.
No. 10 DE/OLB Ray Thornton
In the base front that Kwiatkowski will be trying to run, pass-rush is essential to the team's success. During his time in Washington, the former Huskies D.C. helped transform a plethora of defensive end and outside linebackers to the next, including Hau'oli Kikaha and most recently Joe Tryon.
The Longhorns will be looking to upgrade off the edge with the departure of Joseph Ossai to the NFL. Currently, the one player that has stood out the most has been Thornton, a graduate from LSU with loads of experience during his four seasons in the Bayou.
Although never a full-time starter, Thornton played 41 career games with the Tigers, registering 41 tackles, 5.5 tackles for losses, and three sacks. The Killeen native primarily was used in pass-rushing sets off the edge, playing more of a standing nine-technique over the base five-tech with his hand in the dirt.
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Defensively, he's an ideal replacement for Ossai, who only managed to record 5.5 sacks in his final season due to COVID-19's conference-only schedule. Sarkisian has seen up close and personal the upside Thorton can bring to a defense during his two seasons as the Alabama offensive coordinator.
“He came in with high energy,” Texas senior cornerback Josh Thompson said of Thornton this offseason. “He’s just one of those leaders that comes in and everybody feels him."
The job is not just won yet by the former Tigers linebacker. Thornton will compete with former Notre Dame edge rusher Ovie Oghoufo and Alabama linebacker Ben Davis. Of the three, Thornton has the most production and might be the more natural fit as a hybrid defender.
Ideally, the job of a pass-rusher is simple: add pressure to the backfield and force the QB to cause a mistake. Thornton isn't going to have the easiest of jobs this season. He also is a rapidly raw for a veteran trying to earn a starting role.
Given the role played at LSU and the fit for Kwiatkowski's front six, the job is Thornton's to lose. In the Big 12, the more pressure added to a backfield, the better chance a team has to win late.
Thornton finished the Orange-White game with five tackles, only second to linebacker sophomore linebacker David Gbenda’s seven. He's proven the skills are there, now it's about harnessing the skills to finish with high energy that ends in a negative light of any offense.
Are you excited to see Thornton start in 2021? Comment and join in on the discussion below!
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