Will Jordan Hicks be able to stay healthy in 2013?
Though Kenny Vaccaro's departure has left questions at safety, the Texas Longhorns' most crucial defensive position in 2013 will be at linebacker. Thanks to a couple super sophomores, this group looks ready to turn things around this season.
The linebacking corps was simply awful in 2012. Due in equal parts to two starters to the NFL and its lone returnee Jordan Hicks to injury, this group was run over for the 4.64 yards per carry that made last season's the worst defense in school history. And teaching linebackers was supposed to be Manny Diaz's specialty.
This year, Diaz's linebackers have a shot at redemption. They return everyone that played last season, including Hicks, and bring up two of the most talented sophomores in the country. Will it be enough?
Following last season's strong finish, Jinkens will be a fixture at linebacker for the remainder of his career.
Longhorn fans are going to be most excited to see junior Jordan Hicks back in the starting lineup in 2013. But it will be his two running mates will provide the spark that was severely lacking a season ago.
Beyond a doubt, having Hicks back is going to pay dividends for the Longhorns up front. He is a sure tackler with above-average instincts that would be getting NFL attention if he could stay healthy. The evidence is in how drastically this defense fell off without him a year ago.
However, we cannot pretend that Hicks' presence would have saved the season. No other linebacker on the team had ever made a start, and neither Steve Edmond nor Demarco Cobbs were true linebackers to begin with. Even if he stayed healthy, Hicks was simply going to have his finger in the dam.
That will not be the case in 2013. Both Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos are high-energy players and ready to for the spotlight. On the outside, Jinkens has the athleticism to make every play on the field. Santos, on the other hand, is a natural at middle linebacker that will be the voice of this defense before his time is up.
These three are all seriously talented and at least two of them will be playing on Sundays—much more than could be said for last year's group.
Texas will miss Jackson's athleticism as he recovers from a major shoulder injury this summer.
Last season's injury to Hicks did afford the Longhorns one benefit in that everyone was able to get their feet wet in key situations. That will pay dividends should another serious injury befall this group in 2013.
Kendall Thompson and Tevin Jackson return as the team's top two backups. Both registered starts last season and will see plenty of action in relief of the starters. The athletic Jackson was positioning himself nicely for a role on third down as a blitzer, but is out until August with a shoulder injury and will take a while before he is up to speed.
Tim Cole, Steve Edmond, Demarco Cobbs and Aaron Benson round out this group. Cole, a redshirt freshman, had the best showing in the spring game and could help out in Jackson's absence. Cobbs missed the spring and is in danger of being buried on the depth chart along with Benson. On the other hand, Edmond is in the middle of an identity crisis and could be moved to defensive end given his lack of speed.
Texas should feel quite comfortable with Thompson and Jackson once he returns. The rest will be serviceable when called upon, but neither should be relied upon for a major role.
After bringing in five linebackers in their 2012 class, the Longhorns were content with bringing just two aboard in 2013. And each of them has a promising futures in the burnt orange.
Deoundrei Davis is Texas' top defensive player from its light 2013 class. In terms of athleticism and knowledge of the position, Davis was ready for immediate action. Unfortunately, he is still recovering from an ACL injury that derailed his senior season and has spent the spring soaking up whatever he can on the sideline.
The Longhorns also took on Naashon Hughes, brother of 2012 commit Camrhon, as a grayshirt in 2013. Provided that nobody transfers, this designation effectively eliminates Hughes from playing contention this season. Texas took this route with him because there is just no telling what he will turn into. He has game-ready speed, but is still growing at 6'4" and has the potential to end up just about anywhere.
While there is a strong chance neither of these two see the field in 2013, it is safe to say that they will make an impression once they do.
Santos has to prove he can handle the speed of the college game in 2013.
Obviously, the worst-case scenario with the linebackers begins with an injury to Jordan Hicks. But Dalton Santos' ability to shed blocks and cover ground will be just as important.
Hicks going down again for any period of time is going to be a major blow to this group. Especially early on when his fellow starters will be relying on his leadership and Tevin Jackson is still getting his legs under him. The Longhorns just will not have the depth to make up for it during the meat of their schedule.
Texas will also run into problems if Dalton Santos is not ready to be the starting Mike linebacker. Texas will live with Jinkens overrunning plays on the outside, but Santos has to be able to stop runs up the middle. If the 20 pounds he shed does not give him the speed to do that, the 'Horns will be right where they were a season ago.
Ideally, the Longhorns will be able to keep Hicks and the rest of this group healthy. If that happens, this defense is going to be everything fans hoped that the 2012 defense would be.
This group is going to be the lynchpin of the Longhorn defense. If they can handle the run, it will take pressure off the secondary to come up and attempt tackles in space, which they could not do last season. That would also allow corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs to lock up on receivers, rather than having to constantly keep an eye in the backfield.
The best thing that could happen in 2013 is that these guys shave off about a yard per carry from last year's 4.64 average. Should they be able to make that happen, 10 wins should be no problem for the Longhorns.