One of Taylor High’s leaders along the defensive line this season started playing defensive end a year ago. Of the Mustangs’ 25 sacks last year, Taylor’s top two defensive linemen that compiled 15 of them are graduated. Of 79 hurries, 47 are gone, another byproduct of the graduation of those two linemen.
One of those graduates is program all-time great Braedon Mowry, an elite talent head coach Chad Simmons says is unlike any other he’s had in his 33 years of coaching. One that, by Mowry’s lonesome, accounted for 12 sacks and 37 hurries in 2018.
And yet, the Mustangs feel very good about this year’s defensive line. It may not be as decorated as years past when Mowry, Max Wright and Otito Ogbonnia—now plying their trades at Texas A&M, Texas A&M and UCLA, respectively—were wreaking havoc, but it is booming with potential and as deep and balanced as any defensive front Taylor has had.
“They’re solid, athletic kids,” Simmons said. “But you don’t replace guys like Mowry. That’s once or twice in a career you get talent like that. But I feel really good about the guys we’ve got. They play real good technique, and we’ve made our living for a long time on playing technique and keeping (offensive) linemen off of linebackers.”
The Mustangs are entering their second year in Simmons’ 4-2-5 defense. They lack the matchup nightmare of a player like Mowry, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who had the hip flexibility, reaction and speed of a defensive back, but they don’t lack wit, depth or strength.
Jahmai Edwards (6-foot, 225 pounds) and Gregg Osaghae (6-0, 230) are senior tackles who saw quality varsity time last year. Mike Orechoneg (6-1, 215) is a senior defensive end with a high motor. Sophomore VJ Bronson (6-4, 305) and junior Marcus Daniels (6-2, 215) are precocious talents with length, strength and agility. Senior Shannon Johnson (6-2, 230) is a promising tackle.
‘These guys are a lunch-pail crew,” defensive line coach J. Jensen said. “They come to work, they compete, and they get after it. They’re not going to back down. There’s not a big name out there, but they’re a bunch of great high school football players. We have a chance to be special.”
Where the Mustangs were matchup-driven last year in their pass-rush, in large part because of the freedom Mowry’s ability allowed, they are fundamental and methodical this year.
It’s a group that adheres to Jensen’s principles for good defensive line play: mastering a good stance to allow the appropriate steps within the base and no overstepping, landing hands on the first punch to maintain gaps and squeeze down blocks, playing down the line of scrimmage on a string, not creating vertical rush lanes and not going outside the scheme to make plays.
“We’ve got to play good run technique, read blocks,” Simmons said. “They’re not going to make a lot of tackles, the way we’ve set it up, but when people have to throw the ball, we’ll cut them loose. We always tell them they’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer.”
“We’re getting to the quarterback faster,” Daniels said. “We’re squeezing the gaps, closing the gaps. Getting our hands up, swatting the ball down. We’re getting to the ball.”
It starts with the veterans Orechoneg and Osaghae, who combined to average 3.6 tackles and totaled 2.o sacks and two hurries last season alongside Mowry and fellow graduated pass-rushing specialist Shaun Tolbert. Last season was Orechoneg’s and Osaghae’s first on varsity; for Orechoneg, it was his first year playing defensive end as he moved from tight end.
“Being the second year in this defense, we’re definitely more comfortable and knowledgeable with our calls,” Orechoneg said. “We can call fronts now that maybe we would have been reluctant to before. Reading the schemes of other teams’ blocks is a lot easier. Picking up a down block with a pulling guard is a lot easier now. Our chemistry is better than it was last year, as a defensive line, and we have six or seven solid guys that can rotate in so we can be fresh.”
Mowry had significant influence on Orechoneg and Osaghae.
For Orechoneg, Mowry explained how to use the body and hands to gain leverage. For Osaghae, Mowry taught that it wasn’t just all about strength, teaching how to use an opponent’s strength against them.
“I thought being strong would take care of everything,” Osaghae said. “It won me a lot of battles, but I could’ve been better with my feet, my hands. I’ve been working on all of that. Hopefully this year, I’ll be more agile and be able to move more lateral.”
Johnson played particularly well in the postseason against Dulles and Cypress Creek, when he emerged as a capable pass-rusher.
“It’s the next man up,” Jensen said. “We’ve established a program that has good D-lines and it’s been passed down. Everyone wants to uphold their end of the bargain. I’m excited for new guys getting the opportunities to become main guys.”
Schematically, Simmons said little has changed. The thought process on defending the run, the coach said, doesn’t change. The thought process on getting pressure on the quarterback, however, does.
Last season, Simmons moved Mowry around and defensed more on movement, as Mowry served as a one-man terror in getting pressure on opposing backfields without necessarily having to blitz.
Taylor does not have that luxury this season, but coaches are confident that they can, and will, get to the quarterback just as they have before.
“There’s no reason why we can’t take a step forward from where we were last year,” Jensen said.
Players feel the same. Tradition suggests they must. It’s no coincidence that as Taylor has developed consistent, dominant defensive lines, winning has become the norm. The Mustangs have made the playoffs four of the last five seasons and won a playoff game in three of those years.
“It’s a sense of urgency,” Edwards said. “We have to rise to the occasion. Obviously it’s tough to fill the shoes of those guys, but I still feel like we have a responsibility to sustain what they’ve done and to do what it takes to continue that.”