If there is one thing that the Texas Longhorns need more than anything else in 2013, many will say an improved defense.
Following a 2012 season where the 'Horns defense had their worst statistical year in the history of their program, getting back on track defensively should provide generous support for Texas' Big 12 title hopes.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz enters his third season in Austin, and if his first two years are any indication of what we could see in year three, then unpredictable is the best description of what could happen in 2013. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, Diaz has plenty to prove this season.
Diaz's first two years have been very two-faced. Production, confidence and experience ruled in his initial season, while inconsistency, inexperience and injuries riddled his second.
So in Diaz's third season, what is there to expect?
How Texas Got Here
In 2011, the Longhorns fielded a very capable, veteran defense, one that offered experience all over the field and most specifically at linebacker.
With a senior duo in Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho at linebacker, the middle of Texas' defense was hardly the work in progress that it would be a season later. Other notable veterans from 2011 include Alex Okafor, Kheeston Randall, Blake Gideon and Kenny Vaccaro.
Behind those upperclassmen, the Longhorns finished the year ranked No. 11 and No. 7 in total defense and rushing defense, respectively, and Diaz consequently was the recipient of some strong praise.
Those high-talkers would take big gulps in 2012 as the Longhorns were dealt a couple of big injury blows (Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks) and were forced to live with the ups and downs—and more of the latter than the former—of their young defensive players.
Defensively, Texas would finish 2012 ranked 90th against the rush and 68th in total defense, far cries from what it was merely a season before. Littered with underclassmen, the Longhorns suffered throughout the season with the hopes that the experience gained will pay huge dividends in 2013.
Steve Edmond, Kendall Thompson, Tevin Jackson, Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos were all first or second-year defensive players last season, and that just covers the linebacker position, a group whose performance has been connected with the team's overall success in the past two years.
Other notable underclassmen in 2012 include Desmond Jackson, Malcom Brown and Mykkele Thompson.
The biggest difference between 2011 and 2012 was at linebacker, where Robinson and Acho were succeeded by young guys like Edmond, Jinkens and Thompson. And their youth absolutely showed.
With the Longhorns losing three starters on defense—Brandon Moore, Okafor and Vaccaro—the expectations for the returning players will be high, considering the sacrifices made in 2012 for the potential payoffs in 2013, and the key may be at linebacker.
Dwelling on Diaz
One of the bigger questions surrounding Texas' overall defensive make-up involves Diaz and just how effective his pre-snap movement schemes are.
Diaz came into the fold in 2011 with a veteran presence at linebacker, and it really helped jump start his career in Austin by shadowing whatever shortcomings his scheme may or may not have had. But in 2012, without those veterans in the middle of the defense, Texas imploded and Diaz's future became uncertain almost immediately.
So is it Diaz to praise in 2011 for arriving with some crazy defensive mapping? Or is it Diaz who should take the fall in 2012 because of inexperience up the middle?
There really is no true verdict—given the wide array of circumstances between 2011 and 2012—on how well Diaz has performed as defensive coordinator on the 40 Acres.
One thing is for certain, though. The Texas faithful will get plenty of answers in 2013, a true make-or-break season for Diaz.
The Bottom Line
While some may have called for a new defensive coordinator following the defensive debacle in 2012, the jury is still deliberating just how much credit and blame Diaz deserves in his two seasons in Austin.
The 2011 season featured defensive leaders like Robinson and Acho, among a throng of junior playmakers. The 2012 group still offered good, veteran presences in Okafor and Vaccaro, but behind them were a slew of inexperienced space-takers buying time for a potential break out down the road.
Going into the 2013 season, new leaders will have to emerge like Quandre Diggs, Carrington Byndom, Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks. And with capable and experienced players behind them, it seems more likely that Texas' 2013 defense will look more like the 2011 version.