At the beginning of last season the Texas Longhorns defense had a lot of growing up to do, but by the end of the year they were easily the best defense in the Big 12. Heading into the 2012 season, the Longhorn defense is poised to be the best unit in the Big 12 and possibly in the country.
Last year the Longhorns defense was third in the Big 12, allowing 23.3 points per game, and first in the conference in total yards allowed per contest—numbers that should only improve this season.
Although the Longhorns defense will return seven of last year's starting 11 this season, there is still a lot of room for them to grow as a unit heading into the fall. Early reports out of spring practice say there doing just that, and the defense has looked sharp.
The Longhorns feature talent and depth at all of the key defensive positions, and the group should wreak havoc all season long. However, the core of this year's defense will be their ability to defend the pass.
In the pass-happy Big 12, the ability to rush the quarterback and defend the pass is of the utmost importance. The Longhorns have a bundle of future pros in both of those areas, which will make life difficult for opposing Big 12 offenses all season long.
The Longhorns will feature the best defensive-end duo in the conference, as both Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor return for their junior and senior seasons, respectively.
Okafor was a first team All-Big 12 performer last season after posting 58 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. When you couple Okafor with Jackson Jeffocat, the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2010, you get a dominant pair of defensive ends that will create chaos in opposing backfields.
Rushing the passer is important, but having a shutdown secondary is even more crucial in the Big 12, where the spread offense is king. Fortunately for Texas, their secondary has the potential to be something special.
Texas will return three of their four starters from last year's secondary, missing only Blake Gideon. The loss of a four-year starter like Gideon will hurt, but his replacement, junior Adrian Phillips, has above-average cover skills and the size, quick feet and field vision to fill the strong safety role nicely.
Phillips' coverage skills will complement hard-hitting safety Kenny Vaccaro—a likely first round pick in the 2013 draft—effectively, and the pair should form a formidable last line of defense for the Longhorns.
However, cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom are the real backbone of this secondary.
Both players are entering their second year as full-time starters, and if the talent they displayed in their first seasons is any indication, the pair should both be shutdown corners this season, if they continue to develop at the rapid pace they did last season.
With such a talented secondary in orange and white, opposing Big 12 quarterbacks will have a difficult time finding anyone to throw to next season.
As good as this team will be in the secondary and off the edge, they do have some holes to fill at linebacker. The 2011 season marked the end of the storied careers of Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, whose departures create a big hole in the middle of the Texas defense. Thankfully for the Longhorns, they have the ability to quickly reload.
Where will the Texas defense finish ranked nationally at the end of next season?
Jordan Hicks, a 5-star recruit in 2010, will continue his role at outside linebacker, a spot in which he excelled last season through his sideline-to-sideline speed and knack for finding the football. Fellow junior Demarco Cobbs will take the other outside spot, looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued sophomore campaign. When healthy, Cobbs is an explosive player with a knack from making big plays.
The middle linebacker role, which was manned so well by Robinson, will most likely be filled by Steve Edmond, who saw limited playing time in his freshman season. Having been a highly-touted top-100 recruit coming out of high school, it will be interesting to see what Edmond can offer after a year of learning behind linebackers like Robinson and Acho.
With his first season as defensive coordinator under his belt, Manny Diaz can expect a defense that's more comfortable with his game plan his coaching style in 2012, which will only pay dividends for the team.
Last season Texas was 11th in the nation in total defense, allowing 306 yards a game, which put them 21 spots higher than any other Big 12 team.
Last year’s youthful defense is now an experienced and battle-tested bunch that will only continue to improve. So, the question shouldn’t be whether Texas will have the best defense in the Big 12, it should be will Texas have the best defense in the country?
If Manny Diaz and his motivated defense have anything to say about it, they will certainly be close to the top.