With fall camp now underway, BON is taking a look at the storylines surrounding each position entering the 2012 season. Today, we look at the linebackers.
Departures: Emmanuel Acho, Keenan Robinson
No positional group loses more in 2012 than the defense's linebacker group. On the stat sheet, Acho and Robinson represented 237 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, four sacks, 13 passes broken up, three forced fumbles, and nearly every start at linebacker over the last two years. Beyond the stats, Acho and Robinson represented the head and heart of the Texas defense.
The senior leaders provided Manny Diaz a wealth of schematic flexibility because of the seniors' jack-of-all-trade natures, comfort with playing alongside each other, and ability to pick up a defense and learn how to attack an offense. Often, Acho and Robinson were responsible for changing the defensive playcalling and placing the defense in a position to succeed.
Their skill sets were largely duplicative, allowing them to swap in and out of positions in their last two years, with both players spending time at the middle and weakside linebacker positions. No moment was more indicative of this than a play against Florida Atlantic in 2010. Manny Acho, looking to draw an easier assignment and rest an injured knee, swapped positions with Robinson to cover the flat. The assignment put Acho in position to pick off a pass and return it for a TD. It was an audible Robinson did not let Acho live down.
If the 2012 Texas defense will reach its potential, it must replace the production of the longtime starters. Both Acho and Robinson were solid in filling run gaps, turning the hips for pass coverage, blitzing, and being in the right position. They were good in all facets of the game, but not great.
Arrivals: Peter Jinkens (Dallas Skyline), Dalton Santos (Van), Tim Cole (Brenham)*
*Click on the names for their respective Recruiting Spotlights. You know you want to do it.
The 2012 linebacker class includes some solid, though not spectacular, talent that will look to add depth soon.
Peter Jinkens, the emotional and vocal star out of Dallas Skyline, has the ability to contribute right away as a back-up strongside linebacker. He's smaller than what you're looking for in a linebacker (at 6'1", 213 lbs, he's smaller than Kenny Vaccaro), but has the speed and mobility to fill the linebacker/safety hybrid role that Texas looks to use at the strongside linebacker spot. If Demarco Cobbs struggles to remain healthy again this season, Jinkens may be asked to contribute sooner than expected.
At one point early in the 2012 recruiting cycle, the standout tandem of Brenham defensive stars Tim Cole and Malcom Brown were considered heavy Texas A&M leans. Fortunately for the good guys, Cole and Brown committed to Texas at the 2011 Orange and White Game. Cole brings solid leadership qualities, heady football play, and while he may never be a star at Texas, he should be a solid piece for this defense for years to come.
The late flip of former Tennessee commit Dalton Santos provided a strong boost to an otherwise lackluster LB class. He's now at Texas, and he brought hell with him. For the second straight year, the Texas defense adds a prototypical big, strong, and fast middle linebacker prospect. While Santos and Edmond may have similarly striking skill sets, they couldn't have more different personalities. Where Edmond is quiet, almost reserved, Santos is brash and vocal. Santos will push Edmond at the MLB spot early, and both provide solid options to command the middle of the defense.
Starters: Jordan Hicks, Demarco Cobbs, Steve Edmond
What the starting linebacker group for Texas lacks in experience, it makes up for with raw talent. Manny Diaz will look to replace departed seniors Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, both players that did everything well but nothing spectacular, with a group of LBs that are much more specialized and skilled in their respective niches.
Sophomore Steve Edmond (6'3" 255 lb) is the type of linebacker Texas hasn't fielded in quite some time. The big, powerful, strong, long armed Daingerfield product is impossible to miss on the field. Personally, he's probably the player I'm most excited to see this season. Right away, he'll be a strength for the Texas defense by blitzing the middle gaps and forcing run plays to the perimeter of the defense, where defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat will look to rack up silly tackles-for-loss totals.
The question concerning Edmond is how he will hold up against the pass-happy spread offenses of the Big 12. He won't be able to blitz on every passing down, so he'll need to prove he can move with TEs and running backs if he wants to stay on the field. Fortunately, all the talk out of spring drills and summer workouts is how well Edmond moves for a player his size.
Apparently, physics isn't his favorite subject and he seeks to discredit its theories every down. Except for f=ma. He likes that one. Edmond flashed brilliantly in spot duty last season (including a stonewall play at the goal line against Missouri), but he'll need to become an every-down linebacker for this defense.
Junior Demarco Cobbs (6'2" 218 lbs) is probably the antithesis of Edmond. The Oklahoma export is built and bred to run with the spread offenses of the Big 12. As a former high school running quarterback, Cobbs spent the early part of his freshman season at running back before moving to safety, where he saw limited action throughout his freshman year. Cobbs was ahead of his time when it comes to Texas recruiting strategy, as he falls in line with the current staff's ideology to take the best athletes and figure out the position when they get to campus.
Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he grew into a linebackers's body and was moved down to outside linebacker, where he looked to be a breakout player in the spring. What followed was an injury riddled sophomore campaign, followed by a junior spring spent on the sideline with injury. But Cobbs looks healthy entering fall camp this season, where he looks to make an impact as a versatile piece to Manny Diaz's defense.
At strongside linebacker, Cobbs will line up to the field side of the ball, where he will be able to work in space as a terror when blitzing off the edge. And if Texas wants to stick to its base 4-3 alignment against spread offenses, Cobbs will need to show some flexibility in his hips to cover slot WRs and TEs. If Cobbs can stay healthy for the entirety of the 2012 season, Manny Diaz will put him in position to stuff the stat sheet with a lot of sacks, TFLs, and PBUs.
While Edmond and Cobbs will be given free reign to run around and make plays, junior Jordan Hicks will be asked to provide defensive leadership and clean-up plays behind his LB cohorts. The former 5-star standout from Ohio has shown moments of brilliance in his two seasons, but hasn't had a chance to string together several successful performances.
Playing behind star leaders on defenses that typically only roll with 2 LBs, in addition to a hamstring injury that slowed Hicks through the middle portion of last season, have limited Hicks opportunities. This coming season, this is Hicks' defense. He'll look to replace the on-field leadership of Acho and Robinson, as well as the ability to put the defense in winning positions.
The key for Hicks will be to avoid being out of position, mistakes that led to long runs last year in the middle of the season, evidenced in the OU and OSU games. Whether those runs were mental errors, or a result of Hicks' hamstring injury, is yet to be seen. But if the Texas defense is going to feature Edmond and Cobbs flying around making plays, it will have to feature Hicks providing mistake-free performances behind them.
Depth: Tevin Jackson, Aaron Benson, Kendall Thompson
While much can be said of the starting group's talent, upside and what they've flashed so far in games and practices, little can be said of the same for the group's returning depth.
Sophomore Tevin Jackson may be the most likely of returning starters to contribute next season, but didn't necessarily impress in the spring when given the opportunity for starter's reps. After failing to qualify with academic issues out of high school, Jackson made his way to the team last season with a reputation for being a strong downhill blitzer. Jackson slid in to the starting strongside linebacker spot with Demarco Cobbs sitting out the spring nursing a neck injury.
Unfortunately, the spring game featured a highlight reel of Jackson being swallowed up by blocks and disappearing in space when plays flowed his way. If Jackson wants to see the field, he'll need to learn to shed blocks and make plays.
Sophomores Aaron Benson and Kendall Thompson look slated for middle linebacker, but neither have showed much to this point. And if both are expected to stick at MLB, they could be in trouble with Dalton Santos coming in this season.
For Benson and Thompson, it's either step up and prove worthy of a spot in the rotation, or become the targets of attrition speculation. Thompson may have the size and frame to add some weight and become a situational pass rusher as a 4-3 end, but he's likely behind a large group of players in that position. As for Benson, well, he's produced virtually no buzz since arriving on campus.
Recruiting: Commitments: Deoundrei Davis, 6'1" 210 lbs, Cypress, TX; Naashon Hughes, 6'4" 211 lbs, Harker Heights, TX
The small class of 2013, tagged the Dream Team, features only one true LB commitment, and will likely finish with just the one commitment. Deoundrei Davis, the 33rd ranked player in the state of Texas by 247 Sports, is built in the same mold as current players Demarco Cobbs and Peter Jinkens. Davis is a smaller linebacker that could play at Texas around 220-225 lbs and will slide in on the strongside. He's a talented athlete who also plays deep safety and runs track, and doesn't have a problem covering receivers.
Another commitment that could end up at OLB is 2013 grayshirt commitment Naashon Hughes. Little brother of 2012 signee OT Camrhon Hughes, Naashon showed his strong desire to play at Texas by accepting a grayshirt offer over scholarships from a variety of schools, including LSU and South Carolina. Hughes will play safety, linebacker, and possibly tight end for Harker Heights this coming season, showcasing his athleticism and impressive frame.
As of now, he appears to be headed to OLB when he arrives at Texas, but if his brother's size (6'7" 320 lbs as a true freshman) is indication of where his body will end up, Naashon could slide down and be special as a defensive end. If you're familiar with the Hughes family story, then I'm sure you share the sentiment that Naashon is a great kid. Here's to hoping his grayshirt becomes a full scholarship offer before he makes his way down to Austin.
What to watch for in fall camp
There are two things I'll be looking for as we get through fall camp. The first concerns the starting group. How is the group meshing? Is each LB filling the niche we expect them to? When Texas goes to two-linebacker looks, which linebackerss are on the field? For a group that hasn't had any concerns about chemistry for the last few years, we'll have to wait and see how the 2012 group plays together.
The second thing to watch in fall camp is how the second group of linebackers look. The returning depth hasn't shown much to this point. Will the sophomores be passed on the depth chart by freshmen? I wouldn't be surprised to see this happen. And if it does, look out for attrition.