The defensive line didn't always make plays and the Texas Longhorns secondary missed their share of tackles last season, but it was the linebacker corps that was the real weak link in the Texas defense last season, making an improvement in their play crucial to an overall defensive resurgence.
In a media availability after Saturday's open practice, junior linebacker Jordan Hicks said he believes that the linebackers have learned from their struggles last season and understand the perception that is out there about them:
We've definitely embraced that. We know exactly what the perception is of us. We were a weak link last year. But we have taken that head on. The linebackers have gained a sense of swag. We've got a little chip on our shoulders, and we're coming. We're attacking right now.
The issues with the lack of aggressiveness were no doubt apparent and a large part of the problem -- the Diaz defense as he prefers to run it demands that players master it to the extent that they can play fast and without thinking. Hesitation, indecisiveness, and a lack of high-level understanding of the offense derailed the group when Hicks went down, so the break through that occurred with the 2011 group late in the season never happened.
The difference heading into this season is about more than having the on-field leadership and expected high level of play from Hicks. It's about a more experienced sophomore Peter Jinkens building on his strong finish, about junior Tevin Jackson taking the next step and matching his play on the field with the physical gifts that have never been in question. The outlook isn't as optimistic for junior Steve Edmond, but he's still in the best shape of his career as a Longhorn. And if Edmond can pick up a half step from his added quickness at his lighter weight and a half step from a higher level of experience and confidence, he could become an effective situational contributor.
Hicks believes all those things starting to come together will translate to more physical play from the linebackers:
We're physical this year. We're a lot more physical, smarter, know where to go, and we'll come down and hit you. That's the biggest difference I've seen is we're not afraid to come hit you at all.
Saturday also represented the first time that Hicks was available to the media since the incident at the Alamo Bowl. The Ohio native took the opportunity to express his contrition to the fans for his actions:
I was a leader on this team. I was out past curfew, and as a leader I shouldn't have done that. I haven't had the chance to apologize to the whole fan base, and I would like to do that. As a leader on the team, I shouldn't have done that. I've done everything I can to earn the respect back to this team, and I think I've done that.
And despite his mistake, Hicks fully understands how much he let his team down, which he said was the hardest part of the whole situation:
Having to face the team. The people that I've earned trust with, the people that I love and care about. They're my brothers. So having to face them and tell them that I had to leave for the bowl game and wasn't going to be there with the linebackers to support them during the game, that was probably the toughest part for me.
But Hicks' poor decision-making in San Antonio wasn't the most painful part of last season -- it was the play of the linebackers and the defense overall.
A consistent theme throughout the first week of media availabilities during fall practice has been about the team's individual and collective hunger to erase the painful memories of the last several seasons. After going through the hip injury that sidelined him for most of 2012, Hicks is now more focused than he ever has been throughout his Texas career, using that incident as fuel:
Definitely. Especially after last season, being out all season. I've faced a lot of adversity since I've been here. I think it's made me a lot stronger, and I've embraced it. I think I've come out strong. At this point, I'm highly motivated.
Hicks also indicated that he is trying to take care of his body better -- despite all the help that players ostensibly get from the team nutritionist and strength and conditioning staff, it does ultimately fall in each individual player to make the right choices, something many don't learn until they've been in the program for several years, as evidenced by Hicks and junior running back Joe Bergeron, who lost about 20 pounds by giving up sweets. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the maturation process for players.
Head coach Mack Brown now needs that maturation to tell on the field.
Want to know more about why the Texas defense fell apart last season and how Manny Diaz can fix it? What about insight into Major Applewhite's influences and how they will impact the new Texas offense? Or why you should believe in David Ash making the jump this season? Get all the answers in 2013 In the Huddle: Texas.