Aside Johnson, quesions remain at LB

Anthony Wheeler, Gary Johnson (Will Gallagher/IT)
Anthony Wheeler, Gary Johnson (Will Gallagher/IT)

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AUSTIN — Over previous seasons Texas hasn’t been affected by the targeting penalty. Yet, before the 2018 season begins it already has.

After being ejected in the victory over Missouri in the Texas Bowl for targeting, senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler will miss the first half at Maryland. Wheeler is most likely the starter at the Mac linebacker spot in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense, but he won’t be for the first half.

“After the bowl game, once we got back to the hotel, it kind of hit me,” Wheeler said Thursday about the penalty. “‘I’ve got to sit out the first half of the first game.’ They’re not going to forget about that.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow not only for the Texas defense, but for Wheeler as well. The senior from Dallas has played in 33 games during his Texas career, but there was always an adjustment for him. During his high school career at Skyline, Wheeler transitioned from edge defender to a more traditional linebacker role.

At Texas, he was asked to be a middle linebacker full time. Although his best statistical season was his sophomore year, Wheeler said the game slowed down for him last year thanks to the help of Orlando.

“The game did slow down working with TO every day,” Wheeler said. “He actually tries to teach us football. Us trying to learn various positions and the offense slows the game down for us so we can play faster.”

Despite improving his players’ game, Orlando still has a considerable amount of work to do.

Linebacking depth is likely the thinnest of any position on the team. Gone is senior Edwin Freeman to Florida International. Junior Demarco Boyd’s status for Maryland is unclear after being charged for assault.

So what will happen when Wheeler is out for those first thirty minutes?

“Anybody in that room can take that role in that first half in that spot,” Wheeler said.

One of the options arrived in Austin during the spring. Freshman Ayodele Adeoye worked at Wheeler’s Mac LB spot along with the Rover LB spot during the spring. During his first public comments about Adeoye, Herman called him “the best high school middle linebacker I’ve seen in a long time.”

With Wheeler’s suspension, he might have to become a good college linebacker quickly, and Wheeler is helping make sure he gets there.

“We work with each other every day,” Wheeler said of Adeoye. “We push each other. If he needs help, I try to help him in the playbook. Sometimes we stay back and try to get some extra work in, watch film, and go over plays if he needs help.”

Two juniors also could play in Wheeler’s stead for the first half of Maryland, Jeffrey McCulloch and Malcolm Roach.

Roach, over his two plus years on campus, has changed positions several times. He was a linebacker his freshman year in 2016, a defensive lineman last year, and has moved back to linebacker this year.

Anthony Wheeler. (Justin Wells/IT)
Anthony Wheeler. (Justin Wells/IT)

He can play all three linebacking positions in Orlando’s defense, and when senior Gary Johnson was out during the spring, he worked at all three.

He believes his ability to do it all can only help the team.

“The opposing team never knows where I’m lining up week in and week out,” Roach said Thursday. “One drive I might come up playing this position, the next drive I might come out playing another position.”

Despite all this fluctuation, there is a mainstay at one of the two linebacker spots in the middle of the field; Gary Johnson.

Johnson is all but assured to be the first string Rover at Maryland. His ability last year to play fast and use his athleticism already has many Texas fans thinking this could be an even bigger year for Johnson despite his solid 2017.

Last season, Johnson totaled 57 total tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks. While he stated Thursday he could play both of the positions in the middle of the defense, he enjoys what he’s able to do at Rover.

“I love playing Rover,” Johnson said. “It’s basically one of those positions where you go and make plays. You make plays at Mac, but you blitz a little bit more at Rover than you do at Mac.”

Johnson already has a good amount of pre-season hype about him. He was named to watch lists for the Bednarik and Butkus Awards, and has constantly earned the praise of the coaches during his short time at Texas.

His teammates even know how important his play is to the team.

“It’s lovely playing next to him,” Wheeler added. “You see him playing that great, you want to just reach that expectation and make him happy.”

With all the constant change and mixing and matching at linebacker, Orlando made sure to train players at multiple positions during the offseason and will continue to do so during fall practice. According to one of the players who can play multiple spots on that defense that will only make things harder for opposing offenses.

“We just understand that if one person goes down, we have the pieces to put somebody else right there,” Roach said. “We can game plan a lot of things, mismatches and all that. Just being able to play more than one position, that’s always a plus for the defense.”