You hear the phrase thrown around the UTSA program all the time -- “This program is led by big men.” While most football coaches love to lather praise on their big nasties, UTSA’s offensive and defensive linemen are proving that the sentiment isn’t just a hollow exclamation.
The UTSA Roadrunners are off to their hottest start in program history, racing out to a 3-0 record with a Power Five win under their belt. While stars like Dalton Sturm, Jalen Rhodes, and Josiah Tauaefa have all played very well, none of them are lighting up the national leaderboards in production. Instead it’s been the quiet domination in the trenches that’s paved the way for the Roadrunners’ undefeated foray.
Heading into the 2017 season the offensive tackle positions were UTSA’s lone question marks on offense. With 2016 starters Jevonte Domond and Gabe Casillas graduated, the Roadrunners were losing two solid seniors on the bookends. Fifth year senior Reed Darragh and true sophomore Josh Dunlop have answered those concerns with aplomb through the early going. Darragh looks greatly improved over his junior and sophomore campaigns while Dunlop appears to be a frontrunner for C-USA All-Conference honors.
To be fair, their comrades on the interior have given them plenty of assistance. Center Austin Pratt and right guard Stefan Beard have been monsters on the inside, pushing defenders off the line of scrimmage in the run game while opening up scrambling lanes for Dalton Sturm in the passing game.
For as good as the rest of the starters have been, the collective effort at left guard might be the most impressive aspect of this team. With 15 starts under his belt, senior Kyle McKinney looked like a good bet to earn all-conference honors this year. Unfortunately his senior season was an incredibly short one as he suffered a season and potential career-ending injury in this first quarter against Baylor in the Roadrunners’ first game of the year.
Fellow senior Juan Perez-Isidoro stepped up to answer the call after McKinney went down only to face injury trouble of his own. Perez-Isidoro would undergo a foot procedure following the Roadrunners’ second game of the season that will hold him out of action for the duration of the season.
With two seniors out for the year UTSA was forced to turn to a fresh JUCO transfer to fill in at left guard. Jordan Wright answered the call resoundingly against Texas State as he worked with Dunlop to blow open gigantic rushing lanes for UTSA’s running backs all night en route to a program record in rushing yards. While Wright still has some communication and scheme minutia to pick up, his performance in his first start of his Division I career was incredible, especially as a third string player that has been working as a center for most of his career. The Roadrunners appear to be in good shape with Wright both this year and in his 2018 senior season.
Flipping to the defensive side of the ball, UTSA’s defensive line has been flat-out one of the best in the nation so far this year. While the Roadrunners don’t feature many new faces on the defensive line this season, the addition of national champion and former Alabama defensive line coach Bo Davis has certainly provided a huge boost to the careers of UTSA’s defensive linemen.
The Roadrunners are averaging a shocking nine tackles for loss per game, the second most in the nation. While some of those tackles for loss come via linebackers and defensive backs, they all depend on the men in the trenches to gobble up blocks and allow the rest of the defense to get in on the action in the backfield.
Now standing at an imposing 6’7”, 255 pounds thanks to a fruitful summer of work with UTSA strength and conditioning coach Ryan Filo, Marcus Davenport has been straight-up unblockable for opponents this year. With 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three pass break ups, and six quarterback hurries through three games, Davenport is surely making an impression on NFL scouts in his senior season.
Davenport’s counterpart on the weak side has been equally impressive. The true sophomore suddenly looks like the biggest guy on the field after playing quarterback in high school just two years ago. Eric Banks has already totaled seven tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, and two forced fumbles — one of which was returned for a defensive touchdown. Banks’ potential is truly intriguing as he’s still learning the more technical aspects of playing defensive end.
UTSA has been just as strong in the interior. Junior Kevin Strong has teased UTSA fans with flashes of domination in the first two years of his career. Through three games of his junior year it appears that Strong has finally turned his potential into consistency. His stats have been somewhat modest - five tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three quarterback hurries, but he’s in the backfield on nearly every play, often causing offenses to panic and abandon their play call.
Perhaps most promising is the impact UTSA’s underclassmen have made on the defensive line this season. True freshman Morris Joseph dominated against the Southern Jaguars, quickly racking up six tackles with a quick step off the football. True freshman Joshua Booker-Brown has held his own and adopted well to the transition to defensive end from linebacker. Young guys like Jarrod Carter-McLin, DeQuarius Henry, and Jaylon Haynes have all made their presence felt on the defense.
The Roadrunners still have a ways to go before they reach their potential and compete for a conference championship. While there may be some bumps in the road along the way having such strong playmakers and depth in the trenches is going to do wonders in keeping UTSA’s play consistent and competitive.