Posted: Friday March 23, 2012 1:18PM ; Updated: Friday March 23, 2012 1:18PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Offense still improving, but elite defense has Texas on the brink

Story Highlights

Texas could have gone 10-3 last season if the offense had done just a little more

Defense wasn't the problem, but Manny Diaz's unit wants responsibility anyway

Double-digit win 2012 season is possible even with question marks at quarterback

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Defensive end Alex Okafor is one of only two seniors playing on Texas' first-team defense this spring.
Defensive end Alex Okafor is one of only two seniors playing on Texas' first-team defense this spring.
Robert Backman/Cal Sport Media

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz can get nerdy with his statistics. As he tries to determine how to make his defense better, Diaz will analyze more obscure metrics such as Slow Grind (how many plays a defense forces an offense to run before it scores a touchdown) and Defensive PPP+, which measures how good defenses are at preventing explosive plays.

But earlier this month, Diaz clicked off the Radiohead pumping from his office computer and offered a statistical analysis even a journalism major could understand. "When I assess this, what matters is that we lost five times," Diaz said. "The way we can look at it for us is that all five losses could have been prevented by the defense."

Anyone who watched Texas last year could argue that Diaz is being unjustly critical of his unit. Playing against some of the nation's best quarterbacks guiding some of the nation's most explosive offenses, the Longhorns finished 11th in the nation in total defense. Advanced stats make an even better case for the Texas defense. Using the S&P+ rating from Football Outsiders, which adjusts for field position and quality of opponent, Texas finished fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency behind Alabama, LSU and Boise State.

Those numbers do as much to indict the Texas offense as they do to praise the Texas defense. The Longhorns finished 8-5 last year. In those five losses, the opponent's average drive started on the 36-yard line. Because of offensive ineptitude, the defense found itself defending a shorter field. If the defense had gotten even a little help from the offense in two of those losses (Kansas State and Missouri), Texas would have finished 10-3. With the exception of coaches and stat heads who recognize the margins between what we consider good and what we consider average are paper thin, most people's perception of the 2011 Longhorns -- and, by extension, the 2012 Longhorns -- could have been vastly altered by a few explosive offensive plays in those two games.

Because while the defense remains young -- defensive end Alex Okafor and safety Kenny Vaccaro are the only seniors playing with the first team -- it should be as good or better than it was last year. That means if the offense can get just a little bit better, the Longhorns will re-emerge from the darkness of their disastrous 2010 season and reclaim their normal place among the nation's elite.

Still, coming off an 8-5 season in a league that just added two excellent teams, it's difficult to pencil in Texas as a contender in the Big 12. But those defensive numbers make a compelling case, especially considering the fact that last year's group was still learning Diaz's system. "You harken back to 12 months ago," Diaz said, "and it feels like we're on a different planet."

Diaz's players have adopted their coach's attitude. In fact, they've taken it a step beyond what even Diaz would recommend. "Basically, our goal coming into this season is we don't let them score," Vaccaro said. "The offense can put up five. We'll still win." Said Okafor: "If we don't give up any points, we can't lose. It's kind of the mindset that there are no excuses."

Zero points is an almost impossible standard, and Diaz himself is quick to dismiss any shutout promises as youthful bluster, but the more important takeaway is that Diaz's players seem unwilling to pass the buck. Some teams spiral because one unit is so superior to the other and that disparity tears apart the locker room. If Longhorns defenders mean what they say, that won't happen at Texas.

"You can always find a way to pass blame," Diaz said. "Or you can always blame things on outside circumstance. So everything we do, we try to just point the finger at us and shine the spotlight on us. Especially at a place like Texas, where the spotlight shines bright, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard."

Okafor and Vaccaro will bear that standard, but the veterans want their younger teammates to understand that leaders don't have to be seniors. "I feel like sometimes the underclassmen still feel like they've got to wait their turn to speak," Okafor said. "We actually need them speaking more than ever now because there are so few of us." Okafor believes linebacker Jordan Hicks and cornerback Quandre Diggs can lend their voices.

Meanwhile, the defenders are excited about some potential new starters. Sophomore Steve Edmond should replace Keenan Robinson at middle linebacker, and the 260-pound Edmond has wowed teammates this spring with his sideline-to-sideline speed. "An athletic freak," said Okafor, who at the time was weighing in just two pounds heavier than Edmond. Meanwhile, junior college transfer Brandon Moore has given Texas a massive presence in the interior of the line that seems more reminiscent of an SEC defense. That makes sense, since Moore, a 6-foot-5, 335-pounder from Montgomery, Ala., played at Alabama before a suspension forced him to transfer to East Mississippi Community College.

So if the Texas defense can maintain the level it reached last year, can the offense make enough progress to catapult the Longhorns back to the echelon to which they became accustomed during a nine-year streak of double-digit win seasons? That remains to be seen. Texas coaches and players concede that offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin's system takes longer to master than Diaz's, so they expected the offense might lag behind in year one. The decision to start Garrett Gilbert at quarterback -- followed by the decision to yank Gilbert and rotate Case McCoy and David Ash -- didn't help matters.

This spring, quarterback remains unsettled. Coach Mack Brown doesn't expect to announce a starter anytime soon, but he doesn't consider that an issue. Brown said that while he has held off on issuing a public depth chart, coaches make the pecking order clear to the players at every practice. "They're told every day where they stand," Brown said. "Every day, there's a guy who walks out of there first and a guy who walks out there second."

If Texas has the stable of backs it expects, having a star at quarterback may not be so important. As freshmen, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron averaged 4.3 and 6.4 yards a carry, respectively. Add incoming freshman Jonathan Gray, who set a national record with 205 career touchdowns at Aledo (Texas) High, and the Longhorns should be stocked at tailback. The trio will have to stay healthy -- the offense struggled mightily last year against Missouri because Brown and Bergeron were hurt -- but if it can, it should take pressure off Ash, McCoy, or AshCoy.

"We want to have the Vince Young and the Chris Simms and the Major Applewhite and the Colt McCoy," Brown said, "but we also don't want to have so much pressure on that position that if he has a bad day, he gets sick, he gets hurt and we automatically lose the game."

The Longhorns also want to stop telegraphing plays with their personnel. One of the challenges of switching offenses was that Texas hadn't recruited traditional tight ends. So when 295-pound converted tackle Luke Poehlmann jogged on the field wearing No. 82, opposing defensive coordinators could be reasonably sure he was in the game to block. That meant the play probably was a run, but even if it wasn't, it didn't matter. Opponents could send an extra man into the box because they barely had to worry about covering Poehlmann. (Even though he wore No. 82, we probably can award Poehlmann an official fat-guy touchdown for his three-yard snag against Baylor.) Brown hopes M.J. McFarland, a 260-pounder who redshirted last season in order to improve his blocking, can fill the blocking/catching role that Texas had to use multiple players to fill last season.

The same goes for track star D.J. Monroe. Brown lamented that when Monroe stepped on the field, opponents expected a speed sweep, and they usually were correct. This week, Brown moved Monroe from running back to receiver in an attempt to expand his role. If Monroe proves he can also gain yards on a bubble screen or by running a more traditional route, defenses won't be so quick to expect a sweep. "We can break more tendencies now," Brown said.

Before the wheels came off in 2010, the prevailing tendency at Texas was a double-digit win season and a shot at the Big 12 title. The defense has the scheme, the talent and the mindset to hold up its end of the bargain. The offense, meanwhile, still has plenty of progress to make. But if it can improve -- even slightly -- the Longhorns might rejoin that double-digit club. "We made a bigger jump off the field from 2010 to 2011 than we did in the numbers on the field," Brown said. "That's why I'm excited."

 
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