Defense looks to rebound versus Miners

Michael Shapiro

Texas’ victory over No. 18 Notre Dame on Sunday brought more fans than ever to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. A record 102,315 fans packed into the stands, witnessing the Longhorn’s 50-47 victory. 

Saturday’s battle with UTEP will provide a quieter atmosphere than opening night. But don’t tell that to Texas. 

The Longhorns are eschewing the hoards of praise thrown their way over the past week — most notably Texas’ No. 11 ranking in the AP poll — and focusing solely on their matchup with the Miners. 

“[We] have to block out all the extra noise,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “We just have to stay within ourselves, stay focused, stay driven, and I think we’ll be alright if we do that.”

Not every aspect of the Longhorn’s upset victory in week one went smoothly. Texas gave up 444 yards of offense and 33 points after halftime. Notre Dame junior quarterback DeShone Kizer torched the Longhorns to the tune of six touchdowns—five passing and one rushing — and kept Texas on their toes throughout the evening.

But the Longhorn’s biggest challenge on Saturday won’t come from UTEP’s signal caller. It will come from the Miners’ backfield.  

UTEP sports one of the nation’s best running backs in redshirt junior Aaron Jones. Standing at 5 feet 10 inches and weighing 215 pounds, Jones hits the hole with a vengeance, inviting contact from oncoming defenders. The El Paso native excels in the open field, where he lowers his pad level and unleashes a lethal stiff arm.  

Jones reintroduced himself to the nation in week one after missing much of 2015 with a foot injury. Aa a member of the 2016 Doak Walker Award watch list — given to the nation’s top college running back — Jones rumbled for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries in the Miners’ opener. 

“I don’t care who you’re going against, [Jones] rushed for 249 yards,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “He’s 215 pounds, he’s wide, he’s quick, he runs downhill, he rushed for 249 yards … I woke up at three o’clock in the morning thinking about how we can slow this cat down.”

Texas’ defensive line will be tasked with slowing the nation’s leading rusher down. The Longhorns flaunt a trio of defensive tackles who weigh over 295 pounds in senior Paul Boyette, junior Poona Ford and sophomore Chris Nelson. The three look to consistently break through the UTEP offensive line to stop Jones. 

Nelson is coming off a standout performance against Notre Dame. He earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors after compiling eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss on Sunday night. After recording just seven tackles in all of 2015, Nelson has developed into an anchor of Texas’ defensive front.

“I’m just filling in my role, trying to better myself,” Nelson said. “I had a lot of players ahead of me [last season], so I had to take the back role and key in on certain things.”

Sunday’s victory over Notre Dame set the tone for Strong’s third season in Austin. But to the Longhorns, it was just one victory — one that will mean little if Texas falters against UTEP on Saturday.

“It’s just one game,” Bedford said. “It’s great that everyone’s loving us right now and it’s versus Notre Dame. There’s no one that could be more excited than me … but it’s one game.”