Texas Football: 5 Longhorns on Defense with the Most to Prove
Defense, it is said, wins championships.
The Texas Longhorns, who fielded their worst statistical defense in their program's history, will have plenty of fixes to implement this season as they vie for a Big 12 Title. But the issues stemming from a curious 2012 season will have undoubtedly lingered into the current year.
Injuries to key players left Texas' defense very inexperienced at critical positions, and their absence stymied the group's true potential under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Diaz, now in his third year in Austin, is on the hot seat and will have to have his defense improve tremendously if the Longhorns are to have a chance at a conference championship.
Texas returns eight starters on defense, but very few provide the kind of consistent playmaking ability that Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor offered up.
We investigated the offense earlier in the week. Now it is time to look which players have the most to prove on a Texas defense that simply has to be better.
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Jackson Jeffcoat will be coming off of surgery for the second consecutive offseason. And while there are few concerns about his productivity when healthy, his inability to keep off the injury report has been a telling drawback to Jeffcoat's full potential.
With Alex Okafor moving onto the NFL, the onus falls directly on Jeffcoat's shoulders to provide big-time plays on a consistent basis, which means he will need to be on the field throughout the season, not just half of it like in 2012.
Jeffcoat has been flat out nasty at times, but will he able to stay healthy during his senior year and a 2013 season that needs a dominant force at the line of scrimmage?
Again, there is little question about the former 5-star recruit's ability to make plays. But on a defensive line that loses 12.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, Jeffcoat is the obvious choice to fill in as the disrupting force up front.
Health is the biggest concern.
Senior safety Adrian Phillips was often the victim of the blame game last season, perhaps sometimes unfairly, considering the inexperience one level below at linebacker.
Although Phillips improved on his performance significantly late in the season, he was typically the center of the discussion regarding Texas' defensive shortcomings.
Similar to the situation at defensive end, the Texas secondary loses a huge piece in Kenny Vaccaro, which means Phillips defaults as the most experienced player at the back end.
If the 2011 Phillips (43 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 Sack, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 3 FF, 1 FR) emerges in 2013, Texas will welcome the much-needed production. But if the struggling 2012 version (72 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PBU) is what the Longhorns get instead, the secondary could see some huge issues resurface this season.
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Last season, Steve Edmond fell well short of the expectations laid before him by the Texas faithful.
Many figured Edmond to be a huge, physical force from the get-go. Instead, the hulking linebacker appeared to get lost in the speed of the game in the Big 12. Nevertheless, Edmond still seems to provide plenty of promise for a defense aching for consistency in the middle.
Inexperience plagued the Texas defense last year, and Edmond was a huge culprit of those shortcomings. And with Dalton Santos -- a reserve linebacker who made a number of impressive plays on special teams -- nipping at Edmond's heels, the pressure is on for the former Daingerfield standout.
Now with some experience on his side, Edmond will have every opportunity to prove he is the answer at middle linebacker.
Can he keep up with the up-tempo offenses in the Big 12? How much of a difference can he make or will the coaches look elsewhere if Edmond cannot establish himself early on?
The leash is considerably short for the junior Edmond, but there is -- in fact -- a leash.
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It might seem odd that three seniors make the list as players who need to prove themselves this season, but defensive tackle Chris Whaley may be the biggest X-factor on this list.
The former running-back-turned-H-back-turned-defensive-tackle is likely a fixture in the rotation inside, but he isn't close to serving as the most talented option up front; praise that belongs to Malcom Brown or Desmond Jackson.
Whaley posted some pretty modest numbers in 2012 (22 TKL, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 2 QBP), but with the emergence of both Brown and Jackson behind him, the senior from Madisonville will have to find another level or his playing time could diminish.
The interesting thing here is that Whaley can bring a totally different set of skills to the table as a more nimble athlete with his feet, rather than the brute power from guys like Brown and Jackson.
Remember that former Texas DTs Lamarr Houston and Henry Melton were former running backs who successfully made the transition to the defensive line and now play on Sundays. Coincidentally, their senior seasons were the most fruitful.
Can Whaley do the same?
The Rest of the Defensive Ends
Take your pick.
Cedric Reed, Reggie Wilson or Shiro Davis.
Reed, a junior, is the favorite to start opposite to Jeffcoat at defensive end, effectively jumping over the senior Wilson in the depth chart. Reed posted 46 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures in 2012, giving the coaching staff some confidence that he will develop into a threat up front.
Wilson, meanwhile, has managed to start just one game in his career in Austin despite appearing in every game since arriving on campus. He has flashed the promise that placed him right behind Jeffcoat in potential, but Wilson has yet to put everything together to make the biggest leap.
Davis enters the fold as a sophomore who played very sparingly as a freshman, but contains about as much potential as any defensive lineman currently on campus. The Louisiana native is slotted behind Jeffcoat on the depth chart, but he figures to earn multiple chances to strut his stuff.
All three of these defensive ends can contribute, that much is for certain. But who will be able to bring it on a consistent basis? Playing time is definitely up for grabs.