That day the 14th-ranked Longhorns avoided another catastrophe at Kansas Memorial Stadium with a 24-17 win in which Ossai recorded five tackles, a career high and fourth-most on the team. It was a precursor to his true arrival.
The freshman linebacker was even better in his next start, recording a team-high eight tackles in a 28-21 win over fifth-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Ossai displayed all the tantalizing traits that allowed him to grow into a consensus top-20 weakside defensive end coming out of Conroe Oak Ridge.
Ten and a half months later, Ossai has solidified himself as the Longhorns’ starting B-backer, a spot occupied last season by Malcolm Roach and Jeffrey McCulloch. It’s a hybrid position that requires an extensive knowledge of the playbook and an ability to line up in multiple spots around the field.
Ossai might drop into pass coverage on one play, then morph into an edge rusher the next. It’s a critical spot, one that requires a certain positional plasticity that eludes many.
“The defense is complicated,” Ossai said Tuesday. “But you want something challenging because if you’re not being challenged you’re not growing.
“I’ve known that it’s going to be a challenge to play in this defense from the first day I got in so it’s not really much to me. I just put my head down, study extra during the week and hope I can go out there and produce. Having all these roles doesn’t faze me too much.”
Through six games, Ossai leads Texas in tackles (37), tackles for loss (6 for 21 yards), quarterback hurries (4) and is tied for the team lead in sacks and interceptions with two apiece. He’s recorded exactly eight tackles in three straight games, though after all the whiffs Oklahoma induced in last Saturday’s 34-27 win, the Longhorns could’ve used a few more stops.
Ossai’s numbers look impressive, but he’s not fooling himself into believing this defense is great. Perhaps it can be good, but thus far coordinator Todd Orlando’s hobbled unit has been a severe disappointment.
But Ossai has at times flashed an ability to disrupt and force the opposition into timely mistakes. He is responsible for one of LSU quarterback and Heisman hopeful Joe Burrow’s three interceptions this season. A few weeks later, he jarred the ball loose from Oklahoma State star tailback Chuba Hubbard on a 2nd-and-goal from the 1-yard line on a key goal-line stand.
“He’s a really smart player,” coach Tom Herman said Monday. “Love his intensity, effort level, leadership. I’m glad he’s on our team. I think he’s done a great job.
“It’s definitely a tall order. He did have a few assignment errors that we need to clean up. But you’re not going to find a guy that plays harder on defense and is more suited to do multiple things like he is. So really, really proud of him and his development and where he’s come to just be a true sophomore at this point in his career. Excited about the future with him.”
Ossai understands his individual numbers matter little if the outcome isn’t a Texas win. He criticized his technique in last week’s loss to Oklahoma and, like the rest of the Longhorn defense, has vowed to learn from half a season’s worth of lessons, good and bad.
“I’ve grown tremendously, I’d like to think,” Ossai said. “Just being under Orlando and learning from him and opening my eyes, taking off those shutters they put on horses during a race and see the big picture.”
Texas to honor the ’69 champs
No. 15 Texas (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) will honor the program’s 1969 national championship team this Saturday against Kansas at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Texas will wear “special throwback uniforms” and honor past champions on the field at halftime.
That season is remembered for, among other things, the “Game of the Century,” for a nerve-wracking 21-17 win over Notre Dame at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1970, for the heart-breaking and compelling story of cancer-stricken safety Freddie Steinmark.
That Texas team will also be remembered as the last all-white team to be named consensus national champion.
Texas did not allow African-Americans to participate in varsity sports until 1963, but the football program did not roster a black athlete until Julius Whittier enrolled in 1969. (Whittier did not play that season, as freshmen at the time were ineligible to participate in varsity sports.)
The next season, Texas would claim a share of the national championship with Nebraska, marking the third title for both the program and coach Darrell Royal.