Texas Football: Power Ranking the 10 Best Defensive Players in Longhorn History

Zach SheltonFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2013

Texas Football: Power Ranking the 10 Best Defensive Players in Longhorn History

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    After 120 years of existence, Texas Longhorns football has produced some of the best defensive players ever to grace a college field. Trimming them all down to 10 gets messy, but we can all agree on the greatest defender ever to don the burnt orange.

    What defines a great defender? With offensive players that rack up the big numbers and get their face on the front page, it is relatively simple.

    Defense is another story. Often the best corner on the field is invisible, along with the guy he is erasing from the stat sheet. The same goes for the mudder in the middle that is simply eating space like a black hole. 

    National awards and records certainly help, but even those are not foolproof. Leading and delivering in big moments is always a plus as well. However, dominance on the scale of that these 10 players displayed is hard to miss and is the determining factor when separating 10 from thousands.

    Starting with safety Michael Huff and ending with the no-brainer at the top, here is the list of the 10 greatest defensive players in Texas history. Please feel free to state your case for the snubs, because there is definitely a case to be made for some.

10. S Michael Huff (2002-2005)

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    There have been a bevy of great defensive backs during Mack Brown's tenure, namely All-Americans Nathan Vasher, Quentin Jammer, Aaron Ross and Earl Thomas. But none of them paired winning ways with outright talent like Michael Huff.

    Huff was the total package at safety. He was blazing fast, had superb ball skills and was a sure tackler for two of the best Longhorn teams of the decade. 

    Huff's career accolades include being the first Texas Longhorn to receive the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. He was also a consensus first-team All-American in 2005 and owns the school record for most interception returns for a touchdown (4) and highest interception return average (23.1).

    But if you had to sum up Huff's career in one game, it would be his performance against USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Understandably overshadowed by teammate Vince Young, Huff earned Defensive MVP honors with 12 tackles, one for a loss and a fumble recovery. He also led the crowd that stuffed LenDale White on 4th-and-2 to give Young the ball back one last time.

    While it remains a mystery that Huff has not been a slam dunk in the NFL, his career at DBU stands above the rest. And perhaps finally getting away from the Oakland Raiders will allow him to once again make game-changing plays.

9. DE Bill Atessis (1968-1970)

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    Bill Atessis was the best defensive player on one of the dozen greatest teams in college football history. That pretty much sums it up. 

    A Darrell Royal favorite that started every game of his career, Atessis helped build Texas into a dynasty. Over his three-year tenure, Atessis saw the Longhorns go on a 30-game winning streak in which they won consecutive national championships, three SWC titles and two Cotton Bowl Classics.

    Atessis also played in the "Game of the Century" in which the No. 1 Longhorns came back to defeat No. 2 Arkansas 15-14 in honor of college football's 100th season.

    Throw in career accolades such as two All-American selections and being named to the Austin American-Statesman's All-Time University of Texas team, and Atessis comes out as one of the most accomplished defensemen in Texas history.

8. DE Brian Orakpo (2004-2008)

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    As complete a defensive end as college football has ever seen, Brian Orakpo was a force from the moment he stepped on the field. In fact, one could argue that the only blemish on his Longhorn career was the fact that he won only one national title.

    As a freshman, Orakpo was a backup to Tim Crowder and Brian Robison. But that did not prevent him from making his mark, playing in all 13 games for the eventual national champions and being named as a First-Team Freshman All-American.

    Orakpo remained a backup as a sophomore before bursting onto the scene as a junior. He missed four games, but returned to full health for the Holiday Bowl in which he was named Defensive MVP after recording two sacks.

    He then carried this success into a senior year for the books. Thanks to his 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, Orakpo was a unanimous All-American selection and swept the Hendricks, Nagurski and Lombardi awards. And he should have been able to add Defensive MVP of the national championship to the list.

    Though he has had trouble staying on the field, Orakpo remains one of the most dominant football players in the world when healthy.

7. DB Johnnie Johnson (1976-1979)

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    Before there was Aaron Ross or Nathan Vasher, there was Johnnie Johnson.

    Named the nation's top defensive back by the New York Athletic Club, Johnson did everything that could be asked of a player at his position. He played both safety and cornerback, recording 13 career interceptions and racking up 282 tackles, many against the run. 

    The two-time consensus All-American was also a pretty darn good punt returner. He is fourth all time with 1,004 career yards and the 538 he recorded his sophomore year is second only to Nathan Vasher.

    After being named to the SWC's 1970s All-Decade Team, Johnson was able to continue his success and played 11 seasons in the NFL.

6. DT Brad Shearer (1974-1977)

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    Defensive tackle Brad Shearer was a force throughout his Longhorn career, though his senior season stands out as an achievement we may never see again.

    In 1977, Shearer was not just a consensus first-team All-American—he was the Outland Trophy winner as the nation's top interior lineman. And not only did he lead his team to a No. 1 ranking that same year, but he did it averaging 10 tackles a game.

    Averaging that many tackles per game is tough for anybody. But doing it playing defensive tackle is a level of dominance not even Ndamukong Suh enjoyed. 

    Unfortunately a knee injury cut Shearer's NFL career short before he was able to reassert himself at the next level.

5. DB Jerry Gray (1981-1984)

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    Just like Johnnie Johnson before him, recent Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Gray was a Swiss Army knife in the defensive backfield. 

    On Texas' all-time great 1983 defense, Gray stood alone as the best. In that season, he earned the first of his two consensus All-American selections and SWC Defensive Player of the Year awards. He also delivered the signature play of that season with a one-handed interception against No. 4 Auburn en route to a Texas blowout.

    Gray left Texas tied for the single-season interception record and second in career picks. He has since been named to Texas' All-Time Team and All-Decade Team for the 1980s. 

    Gray went on to play nine seasons in the NFL and was selected to four Pro Bowls. He has spent the last 16 years as a coach in the league and is currently the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.

4. DT Steve McMichael (1976-1979)

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    Steve "Mongo" McMichael graduated from Texas as the greatest defensive lineman to ever step on the 40 Acres. 

    A small-town prodigy, McMichael was a brawler at the defensive tackler position. Full effort was always implied and he was totally unafraid to get caught at the bottom of the pile.

    For his career, McMichael was a two-time All-American, once unanimous, and finalist for both the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy after leading a blistering 1979 Longhorn defense.

    Mongo graduated as the school's all-time leader in career sacks and tackles, and he is still in the top 10 for four other records. 

    After winning the 1985 Super Bowl and going to two Pro Bowls, Mongo retired from football in 1994 and went on to become a professional wrestler. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

3. DE KiKi DeAyala (1979-1982)

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    If you peruse the Texas football record book, you are bound to come across the quirky name KiKi DeAyala. Mostly because it is in there a ridiculous 13 times and at the top of six of them.

    The fact that DeAyala did not receive any national awards over his career is a travesty. His 22.5 sacks in 1982 may never be topped, along with the 40.5 he had for his career. The same goes for his single-season record of 33 tackles for loss, his 56 quarterback pressures in 1982 and his the 117 he had over his career. 

    Dominance. Pure dominance.

    DeAyala followed his illustrious Longhorn career with a season in the USFL and then another with the Bengals in the NFL before calling it quits in 1986.

2. LB Derrick Johnson (2001-2004)

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    If you could build a modern linebacker in a lab it would be Derrick Johnson, who is second only to one in the long history of elite Longhorn defenders.

    Johnson was not much of a sack maven, but there was not a single other deficiency in his game. He could cover anyone, was a sure tackler and had the best punch-out move of anybody in the nation. Currently, he holds school records for forced fumbles in a season, season and career interceptions for a linebacker and career tackles for loss.

    The two-time consensus All-American reeled in Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski Awards in 2004 while also being unanimously voted as the Big 12's Defensive POY. In his final game, Johnson tied the national record with his ninth forced fumble in the Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

    Since his graduation, Johnson has become one of the NFL's premier linebackers for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was selected to First-Team All-Pro in 2011 and was selected to his second Pro Bowl in 2012 after recording a career-high 130 tackles and nine forced fumbles.

1. LB Tommy Nobis (1963-1965)

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    The other nine players on this list were difficult to peg. The top slot is a no-doubter, filled by none other than linebacker Tommy Nobis, the only Longhorn defensive player to ever have his number retired.

    Averaging nearly 20 tackles per game for his career, Nobis was a three-time All-SWC player and two-time All-American playing both offense and defense. In 1965, he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman and the Maxwell Award as the nation's best overall player.

    Though he was the lone sophomore starter on Texas' 1963 national championship team, everyone will agree that Nobis' most memorable game came in his junior year. With No. 1 Alabama's Joe Namath angling for a game-winning score on 4th-and-inches, Nobis stopped him cold at the goal line to seal the win for the Longhorns.

    After his career with the 'Horns was over, Nobis went first overall to the Atlanta Falcons. He was selected as the Defensive Rookie of the Year that season after setting a rookie record with 294 tackles. He went on to earn two All-Pro designations and played in five Pro Bowls. 

    Nobis' No. 60 jersey was also retired by the Falcons and he is currently a member of six different sports' hall of fames.