Texas’ opening game against Louisiana Tech was more than two weeks away, and fall camp was in full swing for the Longhorns as several key players were given the chance to field questions for the first time of the 2019 season. The lineup of interviews included a young sophomore linebacker who didn’t make a name for himself until the final game of his freshman year.
Joseph Ossai made his name known to the college football world after leading the team in tackles against Georgia on Jan. 1, 2019 in the Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs averaged less than 2.5 yards per rush and didn’t have an answer for Texas’ defense. Two senior linebackers — Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler — were playing their final college game. But there was also a young, new playmaker in Ossai, who showed he could be the new face of the Texas linebackers.
And there he was on Aug 14, 2019, with his hands still taped from practice and a burnt orange headband bearing a large white Nike swoosh, calmly answering questions. Ossai discussed how he learned multiple linebacker positions, complimented his teammates and how hard everyone worked. The previous veteran leaders were gone, and Ossai knew he would have to step up and become one of the new ones.
“We just take it day by day,” Ossai said. “(We) try to start with energy. It spreads throughout the team, so it’s great for everybody.”
Even though Texas’ defense took a step back in 2019, Ossai became an integral piece of a unit that suffered numerous injuries. He was the only linebacker to play in all 13 games for the Longhorns. Ossai’s talent and consistency saw him leading the team in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss.
What stands out most about Ossai is his quickness. Coming out of high school as a defensive end, he had an above average time in the 20-yard shuttle drill according to ESPN. That ability to quickly change direction helps him make plays from unexpected places.
One of Ossai’s best games was Texas’ win over Utah in the Alamo Bowl. He finished with nine tackles, including six for a loss paired with three sacks. On Utah’s second play from scrimmage, Ossai came crashing in from the left side of the line. The handoff went to the right, but Ossai still made the tackle behind the line of scrimmage after tracking down the runner from behind.
Ossai found a way to impact the field in whatever position he was in. On Oct. 19, in Texas’ narrow win over perennial bottom-dweller Kansas, the Longhorns needed a spark. Kansas had the chance to tack on three more points with a field goal at the end of the first half, but Ossai burst through the line to block the kick.
As a young player, Ossai’s area for the most potential improvement lies within the angles he takes to make tackles. Coming out of high school, Ossai’s 40-yard dash time was average compared to the other defensive ends in his class.
Ossai was bested several times by scrambling quarterbacks simply because he got too aggressive and took a poor angle. In the loss to Baylor on Nov. 23, junior quarterback Cade Brewer scrambled for a first down near the end of the second quarter. Ossai was in the perfect position to stop Brewer from taking off. However, he got upfield too quickly and had to avoid several linemen scrumming it out. He got an arm and a hand on the Baylor quarterback, but ultimately Ossai didn’t have enough leverage to bring him down.
With the Longhorns’ new defense under defensive coordinator Chris Ash, Ossai will get more opportunities in a role similar to the one he played in his monster game against Utah. If the other pieces around him develop just as much as Ossai has, Texas’ defense will have a lot to look forward to in the fall.