Weâ€™re a day away from seeing the 2012 University of Texas Longhorn football team run through the white smoke as they trot onto the field to kick off the season against Wyoming. Much hype, anticipation, and questions have been placed on the offensive side of the ball, mainly the quarterback position. But one of the more refreshing topics to look forward to this off-season has been not just how the defense will play this fall, but how well they will play and how nasty this unit can be. Iâ€™ll say it now, and Iâ€™m sure many of you will agree, but the Longhorns should have the best defense in the Big 12 this season and one that could fight to be the best in the nation. Itâ€™s a defense that returns 8 starters and has crazy athleticism and above average depth all across the board. Letâ€™s break it down though.
Starters: Just try to throw the ball against this secondary. Seriously, I dare you.Â Mack and his staff have done it again by assembling arguably the best defensive backfield in the country. Starting corners Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom, and starting safeties Adrian Phillips and Kenny Vaccarro could all be playing on Sunday when they each leave the 40 Acres. Last year all these players played well but I fully expect them to improve their 12 total interceptions from last year to closer to 20 this season. The one guy I really want to watch early in the season in Adrian Phillips. I truly think he has the talent and skills to have a season that could be very similar to Earl Thomas as far as interceptions and big plays. I know, I know Kenny Vaccarro is also a beast roaming the field back there, but Phillips actually has the better coverage skills than Vaccarro. Regardless, every one of these starters have the ability to match up with any receiver in the country and give them trouble.
Reserves: Mykell Thompson and Josh Turner lead the reserve unit that also currently includes freshman Duke Thomas and sophomore Sheroid Evans. Other than the freshman Thomas, all of the reserves have seen some game action and add to the strength of the entire defensive backfield.
Starters: The two names that come to mind first are senior Alex Okafor and junior Jackson Jeffcoat. These two combined for 14 sacks and 60 solo tackles last season as both made huge individual improvements from the previous season. But neither have hit their full potential yet and either one could very well end up as the top defensive end in the country. They are both that good.
Reserves: Backing up Jeffcoat and Okafor are Reggie Wilson and Cedric Reed. These two athletes are both talented but have very limited game experience. Their lack of game play contributes to the main weakness of the defense, which is inexperience. But Iâ€™ve liked the moves Iâ€™ve seen Wilson make on the field in his limited play and I actually feel pretty good about both these guys as reserves to the two studs on the outside.
Starters: When I think of defensive tackles from UT I think back to the days of Casey Hampton, Frank Okam, and the other big mammoths from years ago. What was once a strong position for UT has been in a funk recently. I say funk because the position wasnâ€™t necessarily a bad one but was a weird one that seemed to be patched up rather than fixed. There were tackles that ended up leaving the team, tackles who didnâ€™t ever give nearly enough effort, and tackles that simply didnâ€™t pan out. But with the help of Juco Transfer Brandon Moore the defensive tackle position is already in a better place now than where it was late last season. Both Brandon Moore and former running back Chris Whaley (Mack has gotten good at this conversionâ€¦) are locked in as the starters for Saturdays game. Iâ€™m excited to see what type of craziness these two can create in Wyomingâ€™s backfield as both have shown the ability to push opposing linemen around and get into the offensive backfield this off-season.
Reserves: For the first time in a long time the Horns actually have good depth at defensive tackle. Both Desmond Jackson and Ashton Dorsey have seen game action. Add those two guys with 5-star freshman Malcolm Brown and that gives UT one of the best defensive tackle reserve units in the country. All three of these guys could be big time starters next year and beyond.
Starters: Led by junior Jordan Hicks, the LB core has a ton of talent. And itâ€™s time for Hicks to put all of it together and make the next step in his play. He had just 30 solo tackles last season, compared to Emmanuel Achoâ€™s 61 and Keenan Robinsonâ€™s 52. With both of those two guys heading to the NFL Hicks should have more opportunities to show why he was so highly recruited out of high school. But as talented as this LB unit is, it has a lot of inexperience as well. Other than Jordan Hicks no other linebacker has seen any extensive playing time, if any at all. That doesnâ€™t worry me though. The other starters, Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs, have been tearing it up in practice all summer long. And on top of that Cobbs was poised to make a difference last season as a sophomore who was supposed to be the fourth linebacker in the rotation on game days before his season ending injury last year. Â This is a unit who does have to prove itself, but they shouldnâ€™t having any trouble doing so.
Reserves: Currently sophomores Kendall Thompson and Tevin Jackson are locked in as the back ups to the three starters, with Thompson as the reserve at MLB and WLB. Once again these are guys with immense talent but lack any game experience. If any of the starters were to go down we may see some growing pains for a few games but I fully expect both of these players to contribute each game as well off the bench.
This defense is full of talent all across the board. There are players at each level of the defense who could emerge as the best at their position in the country. But Manny Diaz will have to get these players to create more turnovers and big plays than they did last season if they want to live up to all the pre-season hype. If I was a betting man Iâ€™d go all in with Diaz and this defense, though.
Kicking/punting: What was once a big question mark and potential weakness after the departure of current starting kicker for the Baltimore Ravens Justin Tucker, Mack Brown was able to work his magic once again and recruit one of the top kickers in the country away from Penn State to play for his Horns this fall. Though he is currently injured and may miss a couple of games, Anthony Fera is undoubtedly a huge get for the Horns, as he alone could end up being the difference in a couple of games this season. In his absence freshman Nick Jordan will handle the kicking duties. But even if Nick does well while Fera is out, expect Fera to be inserted as the starter once he returns.
Though Fera is capable of punting as well, I actually donâ€™t expect him to hold any of those responsibilities once healthy, unless there is some special need for him. Duke transfer Alex King is listed as the current starter and I bet he remains there for the entire season if he kicks well.
Kick Return/Punt Return: The starting punt returner is Quandre Diggs, and his back up is Jaxon Shipley. Both guys are dangerous and can take it to the house on any kick.
The starting kick returners are D.J. Monroe and Mykell Thompson. I personally prefer Marquis Goodwin over both of those guys, but maybe D.J. Monroe will finally make a name for himself this seasonâ€¦
On top of the kicking game and return game Iâ€™m also excited and interested to see if the special teams unit can block some punts and kicks. Having a great special team unit means being great all around. In the return game, kicking game, and blocking punts/kicks. This is exactly what Mack wants to achieve this season. “What we’re trying to do, we’re trying to have the best special teams we’ve ever had,” Brown has said. “We’d like to lead the country, and you’ve got to put your best players out there to do that. And if every time they punt to us we’ve got a chance to block it or return it for a touchdown, that gives us a chance to win a tight ballgame.” This quote is very important for this team since they may have some struggles on offense.
Both the defense and the special teams have the potential to be the best in the country. Itâ€™s great to see buzz and potential back for the team on defense and special teams. Whatâ€™s sad is that the potential and greatness of the defense and special teams could be hindered and wasted by the lack luster offensive play, specifically of that by the quarterbacks. But hey, if SEC teams can win a national championship with incredible defenses, great special teams, dominant running backs, and average quarterbacks, then UT can as well. Is it Saturday yet?