Like the Kama Sutra, we break down every position to let you know what to expect from Manny's boys in 2012.
On Wednesday we took a look at how the 2012 Longhorn offense figures to stack up to last year's version from a pure personnel standpoint. Today it's the defense's turn, and while there are a couple of areas for concern I get the sense that 2012 will be a very good year to be a Longhorn. And a fairly shitty year to be an opposing QB.
Defensive End (Alex Okafor to Alex Okafor) - SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: After a quiet freshman season and a sophomore year where he took one for the team and served as a miscast DT, many were wondering just exactly what all the fuss was about former 5-star recruit Alex Okafor. Then 2011 happened, and Okafor showed them. With a return to his natural defensive end spot came an emergence as probably the best two-way player in the Horns' front seven. A 260-pound frame that wasn't equal to constant double teams on the interior held up just fine against opposing tackles in the run game, and Alex also bagged opposing QBs seven times while showing some versatility as a stand-up OLB in some of Manny's 3-4 looks. While he's not always the quickest off the ball, Okafor takes full advantage of long, powerful arms to control and shed blockers against the run and work around them when he's pass rushing. As long as he's using his own long arms rather than tangling with the long arm of the law, he should be one of the country's best defensive ends in 2012.
Defensive Tackle (Ashton Dorsey/Desmond Jackson to Ashton Dorsey/Desmond Jackson) - MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: I'm cheating a bit here with two 'starters', but every indication is that Manny will be rotating his interior DL with enough regularity that several guys could see roughly equal snaps. Dorsey was somewhat up-and-down as a sophomore, but when he was on he was able to stand strong against the run while shooting the occasional gap. Jackson brings catlike gap-attacking quickness to the party, and he also flashed an ability to beat tackles to the outside when lined up as a 3-4 end. I like both guys' prospects of taking the next step in 2012, since both Bennie Wylie and Bo Davis know their business well and have been giving these guys a good bit of attention this offseason.
Defensive Tackle (Kheeston Randall to Brandon Moore/Chris Whaley) - MODERATE DOWNGRADE: To my mind, Randall is going to be the toughest guy to replace from our 2011 squad. He was a real force against the run, equally adept at knifing into a gap to disrupt a play or using dat man strenf to toss aside would-be blockers. While he wasn't John Randle as an interior pass rusher, he frequently drew double-team attention and was able to push the pocket or dip and rip to get free against single blocks. Having a rock in the middle makes life as a DC much easier, and Manny will be doing some mixing and matching to try and replicate as much of Randall's game as possible. Fortunately, our (arguably long overdue) dip into the JUCO ranks landed a potential hoss in Brandon Moore. From Spring Practice reports I had been envisioning a wide-bodied sluggo type, but at the Spring Game I was impressed by his build, quickness off the ball and ability to get into the backfield. He is first and foremost a run-stuffer, though, and if he's able to get his wind where it needs to be over the summer he'll wreck some run schemes. His pass rush counterpart, Chris Whaley, has left his former running back dimensions in the rearview mirror while retaining a level of quickness and athleticism that's damn near unfair in a 280-pound dude. Maybe his most memorable play for me last season was in the 4th quarter against A&M, when he simply ran around the Aggie center who was sliding right on a rollout protection and then just shocked Tannehill with his closing speed to deliver a major pop and force an incompletion. Although both Moore and Whaley have questions to answer and room to grow, the 'downgrade' here says more about Randall's excellence than concern that either of these guys is going to disappoint.
We've got a good stable of talented DTs with some some unique skill sets, and would seem to be tremendously well off if we could employ the classic 'play the run stuffer on early downs and bring in the pass rusher for 3rd and long' rotation. Unfortunately, the Big XII's spread-centric offenses tend to run and pass adeptly out of similar personnel packages, so the prospect of Whaley or Dez Jackson getting blown out of the hole by a double team or Moore huffing and puffing his way down the field on an OU no-huddle drive does raise some concerns that would be assuaged by a 3-down stud like Randall. But given our overall talent here and the highly anticipated arrival of Malcom Brown in the fall, I wouldn't stress overmuch.
Defensive End (Jackson Jeffcoat to Jackson Jeffcoat) - SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT: When last we saw Jackson Jeffcoat, he was starring as the lamia in Cal QB Zach Maynard's personal version of Drag Me to Hell. After a slow start to his sophomore season (remember the 'What's wrong with our DE's?' rants during our non-conference slate?), Jeffcoat found his rhythm and started terrorizing offensive tackles throughout the Big XII. He comes off the ball like he's been zapped by a cattle prod, and tends to arrive the QB with the disposition of a man who's been, well, zapped by a cattle prod. Perhaps Jeffcoat's most impressive performance came in the Holiday Bowl - not just because he got up close and personal with more Bears than Timothy Treadwell, but because he ravaged the Cal offense while playing with a torn pec that he suffered in the A&M game. His offseason surgery unfortunately meant sitting out of Spring ball, but he should be back to work over the summer and breathing fire by the fall. Todd McShay had Jeffcoat as the #3 overall pick in his 2013 mock draft, but don't let the endorsement of a vapid imbecile fool you - Jeffcoat actually is an elite talent who figures to contend for All-America honors this season.
Middle Linebacker (Keenan Robinson to Steve Edmond) - A DIFFERENT KIND OF KICKASS: Although Robinson never quite had the instincts or inclination to be a classic, run-plugging MLB, his lateral speed and coverage ability were as strong as you can hope to see from an interior guy. While Edmond is unlikely to replicate Robinson's excellence in space, I'm far from willing to concede the idea that he'll be a liability in coverage. Assuming his play in space lets him stay on the field in most sets, we may see a force in run defense that probably hasn't been equaled on the 40 for at least a couple of #60's (no offense, Brian Jones). An unholy amalgamation of Levon Kirkland, Grendel and Clubber Lang, Edmond appears personally affronted by the existence of the Yards After Contact stat and absolutely blasts runners backwards on seemingly every hit. He brings the strength to take on and shed blocks, and could provide Sergio Kindle-caliber violence as a blitzer. While the 2012 defense seems to have gained against the pass and possibly lost some against the run, Edmond may be the only run-game improvement the defense needs.
Outside Linebacker (Emmanuel Acho to DeMarco Cobbs) - SLIGHT DOWNGRADE: Acho Uno Ocho was probably Texas' most complete linebacker last season, and his leadership and character were obviously off-the-charts excellent. Whether filling against the run, covering short zones or getting after the QB, Acho brought it strong every down and had to be one of Diaz' favorite players. Cobbs brings some blazing speed to the position that will enable him to handle the diverse OLB coverage responsibilities in Diaz' scheme (he often found himself lined up over a slot receiver or flexed-out TE last year and acquitted himself well) while also serving as a terrifying blitzer in his own right. I don't know that we'll be quite netting out to the positive in the run defense and leadership for sick speed trade we'll be making at the position, but if Cobbs' health concerns are behind him he'll be a very fun player to watch.
Outside Linebacker (Jordan Hicks to Jordan Hicks) - MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: If you grew a linebacker in a lab specifically to combat modern spread offenses, you'd probably be in violation of the Human Cloning Prohibition Act. But before the cops busted down your door, you'd probably have come up with something pretty similar to Jordan Hicks. Jordan absolutely annihilated anything on his side of the field in a coming-out party against BYU, but seemed to fade into the background a bit over the next several games. He might have been the best player on the field during the defense's valiant effort in Columbia, though, and finished the season strong. His greatest asset is his speed and coverage ability - particularly important in Diaz' Fire Zone looks where linebackers can find themselves needing to cover a lot of acreage in the flats behind the blitzers. All the usual 'improvements with time in the scheme and under Wylie' statements apply here, and his tremendous coverage ability will enhance others' productivity as Diaz can be even more creative in bringing pressure.
Cornerback (Carrington Byndom to Carrington Byndom) - MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: The Carringtons on Dynasty made their money in oil. This Carrington figures to make his money as a first-round draft pick after exceeding all expectations during his sophomore campaign. Blessed with the length and speed to track guys deep downfield as well as the quicks to stay with them out of breaks, Byndom can absolutely put a blanket on wideouts. His signature moment was a 58-yard pick six at Kyle Field to help ensure a delicious harvest of Aggie tears, but I was just as impressed with his ask-and-give-no-quarter performance against Top Five draft pick Justin Blackmon. As good as Byndom was as a sophomore, can we expect further growth in his junior season?
Yes. Yes, we can.
Cornerback (Quandre Diggs to Quandre Diggs) - MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: Throw into the fire as a freshman, Diggs proved equal to the task and grew into an aggressive and reliable corner. He's got the thickness to disrupt receivers' routes off the line and the quickness to turn and stay in their hip pocket after the jam. Diggs is also hell on bubble screens, attacking with a ferocity reminiscent of Ryan 'Death Ewok' Palmer while still possessing the requisite height to board all the adult rides at Six Flags. Diggs is still learning some of the nuances of the position, but figures to raise his game in 2012 because
Safety (Kenny Vacarro to Kenny Vacarro) - MOAR HAVOC: Arriving on campus as a threat to running backs and first-year law students, Vacarro has evolved what is probably the defense's most unique skill set. His versatility in the slot, against the run and as a deep player reminds me of Darren Woodson's heydey with the Cowboys, with less in the way of centerfield coverage ability and more in the way of Travis Bickle-style bad intentions. Vacarro figures to the the key to a ton of different defensive looks as his Swiss Army Knife capabilities let Diaz trot out nickel and dime looks without sacrificing run support while also blitzing like a madman from the slot. Assuming he doesn't suffer any lower-leg injuries from breaking his foot off inside recalcitrant pizza vendors, Vacarro may do more cumulative damage to Big XII skill position guys than any other player in the conference.
Safety (Blake Gideon to Adrian Phillips/Mykkele Thompson) - SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT: Blake Gideon was a player who always elicited - ahem - um, strong emotions from me during his playing days (and I don't think I'm alone here), but his strengths and contributions are easier to appreciate at a bit of a remove. He knew his responsibilities, was reliable and tended to have the right idea on where he needed to be, though the speed and angles with which he headed there tended to cause consternation. I didn't put as much stock in the value of his 'gets the defense lined up' contribution, but if we open up against Wyoming with Carrington Byndom next to the Lemon Chill vendor and Diggs in the back of the end zone staring quizically at Bevo then I'll know I misjudged his importance. One thing you can't misjudge the importance of, however, is range in a free safety, and in that area we figure to see a major upgrade. My guess is that Adrian Phillips sees the lion's share of snaps playing deep, but the Texassports website currently lists him at corner so it may be that we'll see a good bit of Mykkele Thompson back there as well. However things shake out in August, we'll be getting a big improvement in our ability to track down deep out-breaking routes while losing little from a tackling aspect - at least with respect to tackling players who are running up the field with a head of steam.
So What Does It All Mean?
The short answer is that all the pieces are in place to field the best defense of Mack Brown's tenure in 2012. Manny Diaz is one of the best defensive minds in college ball, and he comes into his second season with the #1 asset that any pressure-loving DC covets - a pair of stout corners who can hold up in deep coverage when we bring extra guys after the QB. Then consider a pair of DE's that rivals the 2008 Orakpo/Kindle Pincer of Doom as the best edge-rushing tandem the Horns have run out since '83 or so. Mix in a deep and athletic DT corps, lightning-fast linebackers and sprinkle in some versatile safeties, and Diaz will be whipping up a big batch of hot fuck you to serve up to Big XII offenses this season.