As the 2011 college football season creeps closer, we now take a look at the Texas Longhorns' defensive depth chart for their season opener against the Rice Owls.
The Longhorns had an unexpectedly awful season in 2010, finishing at 5-7, despite having a very talented team and one of the top recruiting programs in the country.
In addition to a nonexistent running game and disappointing play from quarterback Garrett Gilbert, an underachieving defense was one of Texas' downfalls. Despite the best efforts of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, a normally-dominant Longhorns defense inexplicably struggled.
With the departure of Muschamp to the Florida Gators, head coach Mack Brown lured Manny Diaz away from Mississippi State to take over the Texas defense.
Now that Sam Acho, Curtis Brown, Aaron Williams and Chykie Brown have all left for the NFL, Diaz will spend all summer and fall evaluating and selecting players to operate in his scheme. But, he won't be short on talent; the Longhorns are known to reload year after year, and 2011 won't be any different.
Texas will look to rebound this coming season, and here are the defenders at each position that will lead the way on opening day.
Sources: MackBrown-TexasFootball.com, NationalChamps.net, Rivals.com, Bleacher Report
Jackson Jeffcoat is a former 5-star prospect out of Plano, Texas who appeared in eight games and posted 15 tackles, six tackles for loss and two-and-a-half sacks in 2010, all while missing four games due to an ankle injury.
Did I mention he did that as just a true freshman? With potential that's off the charts, Jeffcoat will rapidly improve as a sophomore.
With the departure of Sam Acho, the defensive end position gets significantly thinner, and the 6'5", 253-pounder will be counted on to make a big impact as a sophomore.
Second String: Reggie Wilson, So.
Wilson is a former prep All-American from Haltom City, Texas who appeared in 11 games on special teams and three at defensive end. The 6'3", 252-pounder recorded five tackles.
Alex Okafor started eight games at defensive tackle in 2010, but at 6'4" and 260 pounds, he's better suited for defensive end.
Okafor collected 30 tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble in 2010, establishing himself as a consistent and reliable defender.
The Pflugerville, Texas native will be counted on to be a force across from Jeffcoat in 2011.
Second String: Chris Whaley, So.
Whaley joined the Longhorns as a running back prospect after nearly achieving three 2,000-yard seasons in a row out in high school. A switch to defensive end should become permanent.
The 6'3", 250-pounder appeared on special teams in 11 games.
Kheeston Randall was a force at tackle for the Longhorns defense last season. He started all 12 games and racked up 39 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, a sack and two blocked kicks.
Randall will return as one of Texas' best defensive players without question.
His 6'5", 295-pound frame should stack up nicely against Big 12 offensive linemen. Look for Randall to earn All-Big 12 honors in 2011.
Second String: Ashton Dorsey, So.
The 6'2", 295-pound Dorsey played in nine games as a freshman.
He recorded two tackles and a forced fumble and should be an integral part of the defensive tackle rotation.
Calvin Howell showed a lot of promise as a freshman in 2009, recording four tackles and a sack in just three games before going down with an injury, which resulted in a redshirt season.
In 2010, Howell played in 11 games. The 6'4", 290-pounder is due to take a big step forward as a sophomore, and the Longhorns will count on him as a starter next to Randall.
Second String: Taylor Bible, RFr.
Expect Bible to make a strong push for the starting job next to Randall.
While Howell should beat him out, Bible should still see plenty of time. His 6'3", 310-pound frame is more than ready for Big 12 play.
Emmanuel Acho started 11 games as a junior, with seven being at middle linebacker. While he's also able to play outside, his permanent position should be in the middle.
Acho was one of Texas' best defenders in 2010, recording 87 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
The 6'2", 240-pound senior will be one of the top Longhorns regardless of position and will need to step into a leadership role if they are to rebound from last season's debacle. Acho will be up to the challenge.
Second String: Aaron Benson, RFr. or Dravannti Johnson, Jr.
Quite frankly, I have no idea who to put as the second string middle linebacker. Needless to say, an injury to Acho would be quite costly with very little depth.
Benson was a prep All-American out of high school that could possibly be a surprise contributor for the defense at either middle or outside linebacker.
Johnson is listed as an outside linebacker, but his versatility could serve him well at middle linebacker in a pinch.
Along with Acho, Keenan Robinson was an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention in 2010. Robinson was one of the few bright spots for Texas, racking up 113 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, two picks, a forced fumble and a touchdown.
The fifth-year senior will return in 2011 as the unquestioned leader of the Longhorn defense and should earn first-team All-Big 12 honors.
Expect the playmaker to contend for All-American honors as well.
Second String: Dravannti Johnson, Jr. or Jordan Hicks, So.
Depending on who starts at outside linebacker opposite Robinson, the other will likely be the backup for both positions.
The battle between Johnson and Hicks should rage throughout the fall.
At the end of fall camp, Jordan Hicks should be dubbed the starter at outside linebacker across from Robinson.
Hicks appeared in all 12 games in 2010, eight of them at linebacker. His 23 tackles and one sack aren't terribly impressive numbers, but when you consider he was just a freshman, you start to get the sense that he could be in for a breakout season.
The 6'2", 228-pounder received an honorable mention as Big 12 freshman of the year, and if he significantly improves over the course of the offseason, the coaches will let him loose as a starter in 2011.
Second String: Dravannti Johnson, Jr.
Johnson might lose the starting job to Hicks, but that doesn't mean he won't be utilized.
The 6'2", 235-pounder had five total starts at both outside linebacker positions and recorded tackle and sack numbers identical to Hicks' last season.
His versatility should make him the backup to both outside spots, and he'll frequently relieve both Robinson and Hicks.
With the losses of three major players at cornerback, Texas well be looking to reload at the position, and Carrington Byndom is one of the leading candidates to take over as a starter.
The Lufkin, Texas native played in all 12 games last season and notched 20 tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked punt.
Byndom's 6'0", 175-pound frame is well-sized for the position. Expect him to be an early-season starter after a competition-filled fall.
Second String: Eryon Barnett, So.
Barnett hails from powerhouse Euless Trinity High School. He appeared in seven games last season, and his 6'2", 195-pound frame is an exceptional size for the position.
Amongst a logjam of young cornerbacks, expect Barnett to make his mark and crack the two-deep.
AJ White is yet another young and unproven cornerback for the Longhorns. White holds an edge over others, however, as he appeared in six games and recorded three tackles.
The 6'0", 175-pounder was an Under Armour All-American out of high school and has the talent to beat others out and take over a starting job.
Second String: Quandre Diggs, Fr.
This is purely a projection pick. Diggs is a member of the 2011 recruiting class and is talented enough to break into the two-deep even as a true freshman.
Diggs statistically dominated both sides of the ball in high school, and those skills could quickly translate into playing time.
Aside from Acho and Robinson, this is the easiest projection out of any position.
Blake Gideon has started at safety since his true freshman year, and he has earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention three years in a row.
The 6'1", 205-pounder recorded 68 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a sack in his junior season and has recently been added to the watchlist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which annually goes to college football's best defensive back.
Expect Gideon to be a team leader and have a big season in 2011.
Second String: Adrian Phillips, So.
Phillips appeared in five games and notched nine tackles and a pass breakup as a freshman.
The battle between junior Kenny Vaccaro and senior Christian Scott for the starting strong safety spot should be just as heated as the one between Jordan Hicks and Dravannti Johnson, if not moreso.
In the end, Vaccaro should be triumphant. Starting six games in 2010, the 6'1", 214-pounder racked up 56 tackles, eight pass deflections, an interception, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
Expect him to start most or all of the season at strong safety.
Second String: Christian Scott, Sr.
Scott started 10 games in 2010, recording 53 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception.
The competition between the Vaccaro and the 6'1", 217-pound native of Dallas should be so close that they are interchangeable, and they could realistically switch off as starters throughout the season.
Barring injury, Scott will frequently see the field in 2011 as a senior leader even as a technical backup.