Hassan Ridgeway

Junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway has big shoes to fill.

With departing defensive tackle Malcom Brown projected to be taken in the NFL Draft’s first round, the Longhorns are looking to replicate the production and leadership Brown brought to the defensive front.

“Replacing Malcom? I don’t know,” Ridgeway said. “It’s not about replacing him. It’s about stepping up and doing the job.”

Although Ridgeway won’t necessarily be replacing Brown, the Longhorns will need him to play a similar role. Ridgeway burst onto the scene last season while filling in for injured senior Desmond Jackson, and he immediately became one of Texas’ biggest playmakers, finishing second to Brown in sacks with six while recording nine-and-a-half tackles for loss.

If he can replicate, or even improve upon, his production from last season, Texas’ defense will be in good shape.

“He’s so strong, so powerful, and he can get off blocks and make plays,” head coach Charlie Strong said last season.

While Ridgeway stood out as one of the Longhorns’ defensive staples in 2014, he’s still looking to improve upon his weaknesses. He has the skill set to become a force on Texas’ defensive line, but he said he can work on the technical aspects of his position. 

“This year, that’s the one thing that I’m trying to focus on — to get my fundamentals down and get better at the little things that I didn’t do right,” Ridgeway said. 

If spring play is any indication, Ridgeway seems to be doing his job. Strong has recently used words such as mainstay and great to describe Ridgeway and his play through the offseason.

In Saturday’s Orange-White scrimmage, Ridgeway made only three tackles, but he was still able to cause disruption in the backfield and get pressure on the quarterback. Ridgeway’s play helped the entire defensive line control the trenches, and that is something of which he is especially proud.

“The defensive line is the one that always has to stand up,” Ridgeway said. “It’s always been up front. If you’re not good up front, the whole defense collapses.”

Ridgeway has led the unit with his play, but the next step is stepping into a leadership role in the locker room.

“I see Hassan Ridgeway leading the D-Line room,” senior cornerback Duke Thomas said.

While his coaching staff and teammates have shown confidence in him as a leader, Ridgeway envisions the entire team stepping up.

“You can’t do it by yourself, so everybody has to grow a little bit,” Ridgeway said. “In our positions, everybody has to take a little bit of leadership and step up on their own. We’re going to obviously have somebody lead it, but everybody has to grow up.”

Ridgeway has been persistent about the Longhorns improving this season. And with over three months until the Longhorns travel to South Bend, Indiana, to take on Notre Dame in the season opener, he and his teammates still have time to restore the defense’s dominant presence from last season with the same determination Ridgeway has shown so far. 

“We might be tired and barely making it, but we’re still going to keep going,” Ridgeway said. “We aren’t going to give up, and we aren’t going to bow down to anybody.”

The defense battled through a number of injuries Saturday. However, players still feel that they’re in a good place.
Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

With a battered offense, Texas’ bright spot in 2014 was its defense — and if Saturday’s Orange-White game is any indication, the defense can still hold its own. 

During the spring scrimmage, the Longhorns’ defense, which ranked No. 25 in total defense in 2014, showed potential in its first time on display since spring practice started. 

Junior safety Dylan Haines said earlier in the week that turnovers were a focus this off-season, and the improvement in that regard was on display Saturday. The second-team unit forced two turnovers while also adding five sacks and seven tackles for loss, ultimately only giving up one touchdown.

“I feel like we’re in a good place,” junior defensive end Hassan Ridgeway said. “I feel like with all of the injuries, we’ve showed that we can come through, and we can still go out there and play.”

Much like last season, the defensive line excelled in containing the run and generating a pass rush. Head coach Charlie Strong pointed to senior Shiro Davis, sophomore Poona Ford and Ridgeway as standouts on the defensive line, but he said he was especially impressed with junior Bryce Cottrell, who picked up a sack and two tackles for loss.

“You talk about Bryce [Cottrell], he is faster; he is someone that’s coming on that we’re going to need to come on for us,” Strong said.

Behind the defensive line, the linebacker corps also succeeded despite only having four healthy linebackers on scholarship. Junior Timothy Cole topped off his strong spring, leading the unit with seven total tackles and two sacks, while senior Peter Jinkens made six tackles of his own. Freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson also shined with a few big hits and a forced fumble, which redshirt freshman linebacker Edwin Freeman returned for a touchdown.

“[Jefferson] is always seeing and making plays,” Ridgeway said. “He may not do exactly it the right way, but he’s going to be there to make the play.”

Like the linebackers, the secondary was thin, with three cornerbacks held out with injuries. Junior cornerback Bryson Echols and redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney benefited most from increased playing time, as Echols grabbed an interception, and Bonney impressed fans with two crushing hits.

The secondary still saw continuity with both Haines and sophomore safety Jason Hall getting starting nods. Hall particularly impressed with solid coverage, including a pass breakup that almost went the other way for 6.

“I expect [Hall] to really develop and come into his own and really stand up and become a leader back here and especially in the back end,” Strong said. “As big and strong as he is, we need him to play like that all the time.”

Although they showed potential Saturday, the Longhorns are still riddled with injuries. With three starters returning from injury among several other contributors, competition will be deep in the summer.  

“We can be a dominant group; that’s not the problem,” Ridgeway said. “We just have to make sure we come together as a group. And when people come back from injuries, we need to make sure we have everybody together and do what we need to do.”

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

Over the years, Texas fans have grown accustomed to gaudy statistics from the team’s pass rushers. In 2008, defensive end Brian Orakpo led the team with 11.5 sacks. In 2012, defensive end Alex Okafor recorded 12.5 sacks, and, last season, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat led the team with 13 sacks.

The above examples blow sophomore defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who leads Texas with five, out of the water. Despite the lack of individual production, the Longhorns are averaging three sacks per game — their highest average over the first 10 games of a season since 2008.

This is largely a result of consistency and depth along the defensive front, as seven different players have dropped the quarterback at least twice.

Despite none of the players recording elite numbers, the Longhorns have proven they have an abundance of talent leading the way on the defensive side of the ball this season.

Senior linebacker Jordan Hicks is finally healthy and has acted as the quarterback of the defense.

“Just think about the term linebacker,” said Vance Bedford, defensive coordinator and secondary coach. “It means he is half of a lineman and half of a defensive back. He’s in the middle of our defense and controls our defense.”

With 110 tackles on the year, Hicks is tied for the most by a player in a power-five conference. He has also picked off two passes and has recorded 1.5 sacks.

But Hicks does not lead strictly by example. He is extremely vocal, which is a very important characteristic of a linebacker.

“You need a guy who can do it by example but also a person who’s vocal,” Bedford said. “Jordan Hicks has been that guy for us this year.”

Despite receiving many accolades, such as being named a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, Hicks is quick to tell you his success is not all his own doing.

“I haven’t had a perfect game out there, never will, but I feel like I’m playing my best ball, and, obviously, I have a lot of confidence right now and a lot of credit to the guys in front of me,” Hicks said. “Having Hassan Ridgeway and Malcom Brown ahead of me is kind of nice.”

Brown, a junior defensive tackle, has arguably been Texas’ best player this year, and the coaches have taken notice of his performance.

“I think he’s at an All-American level,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “The way he’s playing, it’s amazing. It’s fun to watch.”

Brown is tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks, but his impact on the field goes beyond his personal stats. Brown often draws double teams from the opposing offensive linemen, which helps explain why his numbers are not as dominant as his talent might suggest.

He also has the potential to become a top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and have a long, successful NFL career.

“If you ask me right now, I think the young man is a first round pick,” Bedford says.

Other players, such as senior defensive end Cedric Reed, have also made their presence felt on the unit. Reed is coming off the best game of his career, during which he tripled his sack total for the season.

Reed and the defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback could be on display again in Stillwater, Oklahoma, this weekend against a Cowboy offensive line that allows three sacks a game to conference foes, most in the conference. That’s something worth remembering as, since sacks became an official stat, the Longhorns have not lost to Oklahoma State when they win the sack battle.

Seniors

There are 28 seniors on Texas’ roster – 12 are starters. Head coach Charlie Strong called out those veterans at his weekly press conference Monday.

“I told the seniors it’s all about their leadership,” Strong said. “Their senior year, you like to see them go play their best football, and some of our seniors aren’t playing their best football. It’s not going to change until we start developing pride, and we have pride within ourselves and pride within the team.”

While the Longhorn seniors have managed to pull out the occasional big win over the course of their careers, they have, for the most part, struggled in big games. Although the matchup with Kansas won’t be considered a big game, Texas needs its seniors to lead by example if it wants to contend for a Big 12 championship.

DT Hassan Ridgeway

Texas lost senior defensive tackle Desmond “Tank” Jackson during its game against UCLA when he broke his ankle. Since then Jackson has undergone surgery that will likely sideline him for the rest of the season. Sophomore defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway is expected to fill Jackson’s void.

Ridgeway will have to step up as he has “Tank” sized shoes to fill. Jackson was an important piece in stopping the run, and his absence was noticeable against the Bruins, as they were able to run the ball with ease after he was carted off.

It may be difficult to replace Jackson, but the coaching staff expects Ridgeway to come in and have success.

“The thing about Ridgeway is he is so strong and so powerful,” Strong said. “And he’s big and strong where he can get off blocks and make plays. You just see him engulf people and just throw them back and then reach over and get sacks.”

Linebackers

The key to a good defense is a formidable linebacking corps. Texas has solid linebackers in seniors Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. The Longhorns also rotate a handful of other guys into the second tier of their defense. But, at times, the veterans have faltered.

During the UCLA game, Hicks whiffed on a tackle that led to a big run by the Bruins. At other times, Edmond failed to fill his gaps. Some of the rotational guys have also been caught out of position.

For Texas to be successful against Kansas, and the rest of the Big 12 for that matter, it needs its linebackers to step up.

Before the season, those who had been around Hassan Ridgeway knew that the redshirt sophomore defensive tackle had the talent to be a special player. His teammates often spoke about the flashes of brilliance they had seen in practice, but, to some, it appeared that a poor work ethic prevented him from reaching his full potential.

Nicknamed the “Green Mile” by his teammates, Ridgeway’s challenge for 2014 was to “bring it” on every single play. As the season grew near, junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown saw Ridgeway putting in the extra effort.

“He’s grown up a lot,” Brown said. “Sometimes Hassan just goes. And when he really goes, you’re like, ‘Man, just do that every play.’ But he’s grown up a lot, I feel like his mind has gotten better, and he’s going to be a great player for us.”

In Texas’ season opener against North Texas, Ridgeway immediately demonstrated that potential, accumulating two sacks, the first two of his collegiate career. 

“I hadn’t gotten a sack since high school, so that was a big moment for me,” Ridgeway said. “That was my first college sack, I was pretty emotional for that one.”

In Texas’ two game since, Ridgeway has continued to make an impact in the defensive line rotation. 

In the second half of Texas’ loss to UCLA, senior defensive tackle Desmond “Tank” Jackson suffered a season-ending foot injury. Ridgeway played well in relief of Jackson but will now be tasked with the added pressure of replacing him as a starter.  

Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford expects Ridgeway to be able to handle the added playing time but knows it will be tough to replace Jackson’s leadership presence. 

“Hassan Ridgeway was backing up Malcom [Brown]. Now he has to go to nose [tackle],” Bedford says. “As far as a physical presence, I think we will be good there. But, as far as the excitement, the enthusiasm [and] the emotional leader, you can’t replace that. “

Head coach Charlie Strong really likes what he’s been seeing from Ridgeway, who now will need to continue to play at a very high level to make up for the loss of Jackson.

“Without a doubt, [he’s been] playing very well,“ Strong said. “Now, he gets an opportunity to go start. He’s so strong, so powerful and he can get off blocks and make plays. And you just see him go at people and just throwing back and just reach over to get sacks. He’s playing very well — just love his whole attitude.”

After Jackson left the game in the third quarter, the Longhorns struggled to consistently stop the UCLA offense and running game. Given the success the Bruins had, it’s safe to assume that Big 12 opponents are going to try to take advantage of Ridgeway’s lack of experience in the middle.

“I would run at Hassan Ridgeway,” Bedford said. “One of these days, Hassan is going to actually get mad. He is one of the nicest young people I’ve ever been around. If he ever gets mad I’m going to be the first one to leave the room because he will hurt somebody. My man could be a beast. I think he has ability to be a special talent.”

Ridgeway’s coaches and teammates clearly believe he will develop into a great player. Now, it’s up to him to prove them right and make an impact as the Longhorns try to turn their season around.