The Longhorns will field a competitive defense in 2014, but the potential for creating a special unit rests as much on the play of a half dozen or so players vital to creating a solid floor as much as Cedric Reed and Malcom Brown pushing a high ceiling. Defensive knowns like Steve Edmond, Quandre Diggs and Desmond Jackson may jump to the next level, but it's more reasonable to assume that they'll operate within their demonstrated historical range of play. Or that their elevated play will be a function of other players doing their jobs.
Building a truly good defense isn't just about having a few great players - it's equally about starting no bad players.
Modern offenses have a way of ferreting out your defensive weak spots and then ruthlessly exploiting them. Texas has had a good taste of that for two years running now.
Which players have to step up to change the recipe?
My Horn X Factors come in three distinct forms.
THE PERPETUALLY INJURED
Are frequently injured players simply not designed for football or can they be salvaged with smarter S&C? Two Longhorn seniors will help us find out.
Jordan Hicks is still the best linebacker on campus. The 5th year senior (who has had three different LB coaches in the last year) has good instincts, tackles well and can play inside or outside. He's also missed 19 games in the last two years with injuries to his hip and achilles. Injuries of that type can be freak, suggest a genetic predisposition, or they imply a paint-by-the-numbers S&C program that doesn't do a particularly good job of simulating the actual stresses of a football game or identifying outliers who need help. In Jordan's case, I'm leaning heavily towards the latter two explanations.
Hicks missed Spring practice and it's unclear how much his injuries have depleted his overall game. However, a healthy Jordan Hicks, even a step slower, is a significant asset to the defense.
The elite track athlete has perfect size and speed for cornerback. Incredibly, Evans is a senior. Where did that time go? Evans has proven injury prone throughout his career in Austin (and in high school before that).
Sprint athletes like Evans are walking bundles of fast twitch muscle fiber prone to overtraining easily with track-specific body development that can create imbalances exposed by the requirements of football. While Evans is clearly injury prone, our prior S&C regime did him little good.
A healthy Evans could offer immense value as the #2 or #3 CB - particularly in locking down a big outside receiver, allowing Quandre Diggs freedom from a clear mismatch and to operate as the nickel. Big 12 spread offenses feast on the mismatches between their 2nd and 3rd wide receivers matched against the defense's #2 CB and nickel. As the Denver-Seattle Super Bowl recently demonstrated, defensive back units that can meet that challenge across the board don't just have success - they can utterly destroy an offense that's grown fat and complacent on the candy the defense was supposed to concede to them. Defensive backfield depth is everything - and Evans is the wildest of wildcards.
COACHING & DEVELOPMENT BENEFICIARIES
While Duane Akina rightfully has the universal respect of all Longhorn fans, his last few efforts - in clashing combination with the coordination of Manny Diaz - fielded individuals instead of cohesive units, demonstrated poor fundamentals and talented players fed into the system never maximized. A change was needed. And change is here.
Mykkele Thompson flashed glimpses of a very different player in the Spring game. Is he officially on the Michael Huff growth curve? Simplified defensive responsibilities and physical maturation have created a more fearless, confident athlete willing to engage in the physical aspects of the game, complemented by inherent ball skills. If Thompson can simply check the reliable tackler box while owning space on the back end, the Texas defense should improve substantially.
The slightly built senior isn't an ideal pairing with Thompson's skill set against teams that can run the ball, but he also demonstrated much greater comfort level this Spring. Undersized safeties can be effective, but Turner will have to continue to play with abandon and few mental errors in order to overcome physics. He's showing signs of doing just that.
Thomas has all of the attributes required in a good cornerback. Will he be simply competent or our #1 corner? He is the one player on the X factor list who can improve the defense not by moving the needle from substandard to solid, but from solid to excellent. Is he up to the challenge?
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Every year, young Longhorn players flash their potential. A little sprout of growth peeks up and greets the world of possibilities. Are they just two months away from blooming...or two years?
My focus is on two DL sophomores...
The massive force-of-nature has immense natural strength and quickness. He's also raw - a career edge player still unaccustomed the maelstrom of DT play who doesn't know how to use his hands and doesn't play with consistency.
A solid #3 DT option is important on its face, but Ridgeway's potential impact is far greater. A legitimate physical force that can spell two starters with no drop-off (and even bursts of upgrade) for 35+ snaps a game is a major asset.
The 260 pound sophomore DE shined in the Spring game and demonstrated a level of athleticism and pursuit that was notable even going against air (which our OT's were at times). Bluiett also demonstrated much more fundamental play against the run than Shiro Davis. Whether he actually starts is unimportant - if Texas can rotate three DEs capable of high level play in combination with a good DT trio, they can compensate for a back 7 that may not always be sound in run support and provide legitimate pass rush pressure for four quarters. Playing on the opposite side of Cedric Reed is going to create one-on-one opportunities - is Caleb capable of exploiting them?