2012 Longhorn football preview
Defense wins games: Okafor and Jeffcoat lead a buzzworthy Longhorn defense
"With great preparation comes great confidence. That's where things like swagger come in. It's like walking into a test where you already know the questions to the exam before the teacher hands it out. That's the type of defense we want to be," said Texas Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz.
Confidence, preparation, swagger: hardly terms anyone used a year ago to describe the Texas Longhorns. Another word you never heard: Experience.
"Because of the experience we have coming back," explained Diaz, "because of the depth we have coming back, all of our freshmen class, now, we can start them off in the mail room a little bit and then work them into [bigger jobs] later on."
A year ago, no one could predict how the secondary would play, a year later they are touted as perhaps one of the best ever and that is high praise.
The 2012 Texas defense is generating national buzz and it's not because of how young the team is, it's because of the incredible expectations heaped upon them. That buzz began when a few unknown freshmen started playing lights out football last season, while a few sophomores grew into big-time players. This year, the freshmen will spend time learning rather than trying to figure it all out on the field.
Senior free safety Kenny Vaccaro leads what is now a seasoned Longhorn backfield that includes junior safety Adrian Phillips, junior cornerback Carrington Byndom and sophomore corner Quandre Diggs.
A year ago, no one could predict how the secondary would play; a year later they are touted as perhaps one of the best ever and that is high praise. Secondary coach Duane Akina is running his own NFL development squad, he has nine proteges in the league right now.
Diggs was named the 2011 Big 12 Freshman of the Year, while sophomore Byndom made first team All-Big 12. Today they are a year older and a season wiser. These four were responsible for 10 interceptions — Diggs had four himself — and over 200 tackles.
They hit like a freight train, can run with anyone, and after playing together for a full season, they can almost read each other's minds. That's important in the secondary as the guys play with their backs turned to the ball pretty often following receivers around the field.
If there is a question mark on the team it's here behind the defensive line. Jordan Hicks is the first question mark. While the junior linebacker has taken on a strong leadership role on this defense, his play has not lived up to his recruiting hype two years ago. This may be the year Hicks breaks out.
At least Hicks has a full season behind him and played well in the Holiday Bowl. Demarco Cobbs and Steve Edmond are larger questions. Although Edmond played in 12 games last season, he rarely made the highlight reel. Cobbs played far less.
This linebacking corps, though, has tremendous upside. Whether they realize that upside — and no one is better than Manny Diaz at bringing the nasty out of a defensive player — will only be determined as the season gets underway.
Diaz knows a team can't win if they don't score and his goal is to create controlled chaos on the field for the opposing offense, hit people into next week and take the ball away.
"I don't know, this sounds like a copout," explained Diaz. "I don't know who the defensive ends are in the country to compare these guys to. Certainly probably from what they accomplished, I don't know if anybody had a tandem that could have accomplished that."
Diaz is talking about senior Alex Okafor and junior Jackson Jeffcoat. Along with the secondary, these two guys are worth the price of admission alone.
Jeffcoat is already being hyped as a high first round NFL draft choice next spring (yeah, he's just a junior and it will suck to lose him) and Okafor, after being named a 2011 All-American, joins Byndom, Vaccaro and Jeffcoat on the preseason watch list for the Bronco Nagurski Award, given to the best defensive player in the nation.
The two combined for 15 sacks and 35 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Those are crazy numbers and they point to the core of this defense. These guys will get after the quarterback as two quick defensive tackles, Chris Whaley and Brandon Moore plug holes.
"I want a confident team," said Brown. "And I want a defense that forces some turnovers and pressures quarterbacks and stops the run. And that's what we are looking for."
Brown's wish will come true. If the linebackers play to their ability and if the team can avoid injury, this Texas defense matches up with the best ever. In the recent past, the Longhorn defenses needed a "bend, but don't break" mentality. That does not apply to this defense. Diaz knows a team can't win if they don't score and his goal is to create controlled chaos on the field for the opposing offense, hit people into next week and take the ball away.
Years like this happen when young teams are allowed to learn from their mistakes. Texas defense last year was good and won some games the offense didn't deserve to win. The 2012 Texas defense will play at a whole other level. Expect them to dominate games — and who doesn't love watching that?
Tomorrow we preview the Longhorns' opening game against Wyoming.