Today we’re taking a look at the Texas defense, ranking the all time greatest defensive players to ever suit up in burnt orange and white. The list includes College Football Hall of Famers, Super Bowl winners, and some of the best players on legendary Longhorns teams over the past few decades.

Who are the Texas starting defensive line in the 2023-2024 college football season?

The Texas defense in 2023 featured a defensive line that was led by D’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II, who both applied pressure up the middle all season. Sweat is expected to be a valuable draft pick in the early rounds of the 2024 draft, while Murphy is right behind him in the rankings.

Murphy led the team with six sacks in 2023 but was supported by edge rushers Ethan Burke and Barryn Sorrell. Burke has a bright future with the program producing in only his second year with the Longhorns. The Texas defensive end had 24 QB pressures in 2023, with four sacks and a forced fumble.

Texas Defensive Back History

The Texas Longhorns have a rich history of defensive backs, particularly under the coaching of the legendary Mack Brown. He helped to develop the likes of Michael Huff, Nathan Vasher, Quentin Jammer, Aaron Ross and Earl Thomas, all of which earned All American Honors while playing for the Longhorns.

If you go further back than that the program boasted the likes of Johnnie Johnson and Jerry Gray, both of which are legendary figures in the rich history of Texas football.

Famous Texas Defensive Backs

Earl Thomas is one of the most famous Texas defensive backs in recent history, despite only playing for the program for two seasons. He had such a good year in 2009 that he declared for the NFL draft early, proving to be the right decision considering his success with the Seattle Seahawks.

Michael Huff was a legendary figure in the secondary in the early 2000s, helping the team win both the 2005 BCS National Championship and the 2006 Rose Bowl. Jerry Gray might be the best of them all though, with two Consensus All American honors to his name and a spot in the College

Football Hall of Fame, as well as some of the best defensive stats in Texas history.

Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Texas Defensive Players of All Time

  1. Earl Thomas (2007-2009)

Position: Safety
Awards: Consensus All American, First Team All Big 12

Earl Thomas might just be ranked higher in the Texas defense rankings had he played with the program a little longer. As it turned out, the 2008 and 2009 seasons were all he needed to prove his worth to the NFL.

After redshirting his freshman year, Thomas made his first appearances in 2008, starting all 13 games at strong safety. That season he recorded 17 pass break ups, a program record amongst Texas freshmen. He received numerous Freshman honors for his performance that year and would prove to be even better in 2009.

In 2009, which was only his sophomore year, Thomas recorded 65 tackles from the safety position, as well as managing eight interceptions, two of which he returned for a touchdown. Thomas was voted a Consensus All American and declared for the draft at the end of the season, opting to forego his remaining eligibility.

In the NFL, Earl Thomas became a crucial piece of the Seattle Seahawks famous ‘Legion of Boom’, helping the franchise to win Super Bowl XLVIII. He was a five time All Pro, including three First Team selections, and earned seven Pro Bowl selections. He is a member of the NFL’s 2010’s All Decade Team.

  1. Johnnie Johnson (1976-1979)

Position: Defensive Back
Awards: 2x Unanimous All American

Johnnie Johnson was about as do-it-all as it gets for a defensive back in college football. As one of several great players to feature for the Longhorns in the 1970s, he played both cornerback and safety on multiple great defensive rosters.

Johnson was a talented ball hawk, collecting 13 interceptions while playing for Texas, but an even better run stuffing defensive back. His 282 career tackles were mostly made up of downhill tackles to take down running backs, and helped to secure his two Unanimous All American selections.

Not only was Johnnie Johnson a superb defensive back, but also an elite level punt returner, with a single season high of 538 yards in his sophomore year. He was named to the SWC All Decade Team for the 1970s and went on to a successful career in the NFL.

Johnson was drafted in the first round of the 1980 draft by the Seattle Seahawks and went on to spend 11 years in the league as one of the most successful Texas defensive backs in the NFL.

  1. Brian Orakpo (2004-2008)

Position: Defensive End
Awards: BCS National Champion, Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Ted Hendricks Award, Lombardi Award, Bill Willis Trophy, Unanimous All American, Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year

Brian Orakpo redshirted his freshman year at Texas, before making his first appearance in 2005. While he was only playing in rotation, he made an immediate impact on the defense, and was a part of the team that won the fourth Texas National Championship in the 2005 season.

That year was only a glimmer of what he was capable of, and by 2008 he was one of the best game wrecking defensive ends in the country as a member of the Texas starting defense. That year as a senior he posted 40 tackles, 17.5 for loss, 11.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles, all which were career-highs.

That season he earned the Bronko Nagurski, Ted Hendricks and Lombardi awards, as well as being named both the Big 12 Defensive lineman and Defensive Player of the year. His only issue was staying healthy, but when fit, he was one of the very greatest to ever do it, leading one of the best Texas rushing defenses in recent history.

Orakpo went on to a very successful NFL career, appearing in four Pro Bowls over the course of his career with the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans.

  1. Steve McMichael (1976-1979)

Position: Defensive Tackle
Awards: Consensus All American, 2x First Team All SWC

Steve McMichael played a key role for the Texas Longhorns in the 1970s, helping to establish the program as a powerhouse for interior defensive lineman. He would lead the way for the likes of Kenneth Sims, in a spell that saw several great defensive tackles sport the burnt orange uniform.

McMichael played every snap at 110%, often dominating offensive linemen with sheer energy and determination. He was a gritty old school player and applied relentless pressure up the middle on opposing quarterbacks.

The Longhorns defensive roster in 1979 was one of the best they’ve ever fielded, and it was Steve McMichael who led it. He was named a finalist for the Lombardi and Outland awards as a result and earned Consensus All American honors in the process.

Nicknamed ‘Mongo,’ McMichael went on to play for the Chicago Bears in the NFL and was a part of the starting defense that won the 1985 Super Bowl. He was named a First Team All Pro that season too.

He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and enjoyed a spell as a professional wrestler in the 1990s.

  1. Michael Huff (2002-2005)

Position: Safety
Awards: BCS National Champion, Unanimous All American, 2x First Team All Big 12, Jim Thorpe Award

Before Earl Thomas, there was Michael Huff, who was arguably the best of a bunch of great talent in the secondary for the Longhorns in the 2000s. Mack Brown had a knack for finding and developing great defensive backs, with talent like Nathan Vasher, Aaron Ross and Earl Thomas all succeeding in his teams, but Michael Huff has the most impressive resume of them all.

Talent wise, he was incredibly quick, played the ball like a receiver and supported as a tackler consistently throughout his career. He was a game changer and helped the Longhorns to win the National Championship in 2005 as one of the leaders of the defense.

Then in 2006, Huff had another sensational performance in the Rose Bowl, aiding Vince Young and the offense with a 12 tackle performance that earned him the Defensive MVP.

His career might not have panned out as planned in the NFL, but in college he was one of the greats, and was recognized as such with the Jim Thorpe Award in the 2005 season. He remains to be one of the most successful former Texas defensive players of all time.

  1. Kenneth Sims (1978-1981)

Position: Defensive Tackle
Awards: College Football Hall of Fame, 2x Consensus All American, UPI Lineman of the Year, 2x All SWC First Team, 2x Longhorn Football Team MVP

The number one selection in the 1982 draft had quite the resume by the time he entered the NFL, considered one of the best Texas defensive players of all time. He had spent his first couple of seasons on campus working and developing behind great Texas defensive linemen Steve McMichael and Bill Acker, and then took the reins himself in his junior year.

Sims exploded that year with 131 tackles, emerging as one of the country's best interior defenders. He would then go on to an even better year with 29 tackles for loss in 1981, earning Consensus All American honors in both seasons.

The legendary Longhorns DT was voted the Longhorn MVP in back-to-back seasons, and even received Heisman trophy votes in the 1981 season.

The New England Patriots selected him with the number one pick in 1982, and he went on to spend his entire professional career with the franchise. He is another of the Longhorns on this list in the College Football Hall of Fame, and one of the best to feature on the Texas defensive line.

  1. Kiki DeAyala (1979-1982)

Position: Defensive End
Awards: N/A

Kiki DeAyala might be the most underappreciated talent in Texas defensive players history. He was a do it all linebacker who caused chaos in the backfield, as shown by his outstanding career numbers.

DeAyala holds the record for single season sacks at Texas, recording a whopping 22.5 in 1982. He also holds the record for career total sacks with the program (40.5), single season tackles for loss (33), single season quarterback pressures (56), and career QB pressures (117).

DeAyala is perhaps underappreciated because he never made much of a splash in the NFL, but at Texas his performances were unmatched. Many believe he was deserving of national recognition with season awards like many of the other players on this list, but was snubbed, especially in 1982.

Regardless of the lack of trophies, Kiki DeAyala is one of the best to have ever played for the program, and Texas football fans who watched him play remember him fondly.

  1. Jerry Gray (1981-1984)

Position: Defensive Back
Awards: College Football Hall of Fame, 2x Consensus All American, SWC Defensive Player of the Year

Jerry Gray is arguably the greatest defensive back to ever grace the Texas defense. He was the standout talent on an already great 1983 Texas defense, earning the first of his two All American selections for that season's performance.

That season, Jerry Gray made one of the most famous plays in program history, making a stunning one-handed interception against number four ranked Auburn that would help secure a Longhorns blowout win.

He left the program tied for the single season interceptions record, recording seven in his fourth and final year with the team. He was once again voted a Consensus First Team All American and went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the first round of the 1985 NFL draft.

Gray is now a well respected coach in the NFL with nearly 30 years experience. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 and remains one of the best Texas DBs in history. 

  1. Derrick Johnson (1963-1965)

Position: Linebacker
Awards: College Football Hall of Fame, Dick Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Jack Lambert Trophy, Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, 2x Consensus All American, 3x First Team All Big 12, Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year

Derrick Johnson might be one of the most underrated linebackers in NFL history, but he was just as good in college.

Johnson was one of Mack Brown's most esteemed talents in the early 2000s, emerging as a freshman in 2001 as a key piece of the defense. He played in 12 games that year, totaling 83 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble, and would go on to be one of the most successful Texas linebackers in school history.

Over the course of the next three seasons, Johnson would post 120+ tackles every year. Not only that, but he also picked up nine interceptions while covering over the middle, and in 2004 managed a stunning nine forced fumbles in one of the greatest college football seasons ever achieved by a linebacker.

Johnson was voted a Consensus All American in back-to-back years in 2003 and 2004, and in the latter took home the Butkus, Nagurski and Lambert trophies. He was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of the 2005 draft and went on to have a very successful NFL career with two All Pro selections and four Pro Bowl appearances.

  1. Tommy Nobis (1963-1965)

Position: Linebacker
Awards: College Football Hall of Fame, National Champion, Outland Trophy, Knute Rockne Memorial Trophy, Maxwell Award, Consensus All-American

Tommy Nobis is one of the greatest Texas Longhorns of all time and earns the top spot on this list as the best defender to ever wear the burnt orange and white.

He played both ways in the 1960’s, playing exceptional football at linebacker and starting every game at guard on the offense too. He was an old school iron man, picking up almost 20 tackles a game as part of the defense and then often lead blocking on rushing touchdown plays too. According to legendary Texas head coach Darrell Royal, Nobis was ‘the finest two-way player I have ever seen.’

In 1963, Nobis was the only sophomore starter on a Longhorns team that won the College Football National Championship, defeating Roger Staubach’s Navy team in the Cotton Bowl. He was also responsible for the last gasp tackle against Joe Namath and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1965 Orange Bowl, which saved the game and resulted in a 21-17 win for the Longhorns.

At the end of the 1965 season, Nobis won the Outland Trophy and Knute Rockne Memorial Trophy, awards presented to the best lineman and best interior lineman respectively, but also claimed the Maxwell award presented to college football's best overall player. He was named a Consensus All American and went on to spend over a decade in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

Nobis was voted a five-time Pro Bowler at linebacker with two All Pro selections. He recorded 1,688 career tackles and was compared to the likes of Dick Butkus as one of the toughest linebackers in the game during that era. He was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981 and gets our vote as the greatest Texas defensive player of all time.

Parameters for Ranking

These defensive players have been ranked based on their skills, stats and accomplishments while playing for the Longhorns specifically. Their talent and achievements in the NFL are often mentioned, but did not factor into the final rankings.


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