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Texas Football 2012: Manny Diaz Talks Defense

Jul 24, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns linebacker Jordan Hicks speaks to reporters during Big 12 Media Day at the Westin Galleria.  Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE
Jul 24, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns linebacker Jordan Hicks speaks to reporters during Big 12 Media Day at the Westin Galleria. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE

Besides co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin dropping the news on Monday evening that both quarterbacks are likely to play in the opener against Wyoming, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz also met with the media, though the notorious quote machine didn't have anything quite as ground-breaking to say.

Horns_bullet_mediumDefense charting strip attempts. For the Longhorns to have a successful season, the defense will likely need to step up and make some plays to help out the offense -- that's not exactly shocking news. Problem is, with the quarterbacks protecting the football well and limiting interceptions with only one confirmed on a tipped pass through two scrimmages, the only opportunities have come in attempting to strip the football (notwithstanding any dropped interceptions).

And ball security is a major emphasis for co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, with his charges coming through and not putting the ball on the ground either.

Diaz is aware of the lack of turnovers, but has a way of tracking the attempts to strip the football in order to understand whether or not the effort is there:

Offense did a real good job of protecting it. What we do is we actually chart strip attempts because sometimes it is the pursuit of the ball, which is important in getting the ball itself. We are still happy about the way we are getting after it.

If the effort is there, the turnovers should come during the season. For Diaz, the lack of turnovers at this point is relatively typical of what happens after the first several weeks of practice:

Usually what I have seen happen in fall camp is the defense gets really hungry for the ball early on. The offense has gone all summer without having people touching them because they are out there on their own. So you see more turnovers early in camp, then the offense gets aware of it, and the coaches make a big point of emphasis and it gets really hard. That is really what you want. You want a team that is really hard to turnover in practice, but we are still relentless in our pursuit of getting turnovers.

Again, since the concern is on the offensive side of the ball and the defense is mostly a known quantity with the exception of the linebacker play, this isn't really the normal zero-sum game for these offense-defense discussions -- it's much better for the offense not to be turning the ball over, as Diaz says. The defense will be fine.

Horns_bullet_mediumCobbs has speed to erase mistakes. Last season, some issues with run fits early in the year resulted in long touchdown runs. A greater understanding of the scheme for all the players involved, even the young linebackers replacing Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, should help reduce those mistakes.

A new starter should help as well -- junior Demarco Cobbs. His position coach and coordinator believes that the linebacker from Oklahoma has the ability to erase mistakes made either by himself or others on the field:

Obviously the first thing anyone talks about him is his speed and his athleticism. When you have a defense with fast people at all three levels and not just DB speed, everybody should have DB speed. When you make a mistake on defense, it doesn't stay a mistake for very long.

That basically sounds like every defensive coordinator's dream. But Cobbs brings more to the table than just speed, as being a good linebacker is unquestionably about more than speed:

So Demarco certainly upgrades our speed at the linebacker position, but at the same time he plays with a lot of toughness. He is the guy that has enough ability to play the pass and [in]space, which in the conference you have to be able to do. A very versatile player and also a very intelligent player; it is fun being able to coach him.

Fast, tough, versatile, intelligent. Not a bad combination. Add in healthy and Cobbs should have a monster season. He certainly flashed with his speed off the edge getting on Zach Maynard in the Holiday Bowl before the Cal quarterback really even knew he was coming.

Horns_bullet_mediumLeadership void being filled by Jordan Hicks. The nature of college football is that leaders on both sides of the ball have to be replaced virtually every year. Unless, of course, recruiting and development stagnate, leading to wasted classes, which is far from ideal. Replacing leaders every year is really the ideal, and a major reason why there is so much pressure on every recruiting class to come through.

Since the offense was the victim of the aforementioned bed-wetting, the major leadership losses were on the defensive side of the ball. Junior safety Adrian Phillips will be able to step in for Blake Gideon, leaving the linebacker position as the question mark.

Someone had to step up, and the task fell to the most experienced linebacker -- former five-star recruit Jordan Hicks, who is now in his third fall on campus.

Diaz has told him that he expects him to lead like a senior:

Jordan Hicks-at some point I mentioned before that we sort of anointed him as a senior. When you only have two seniors on defense we sort of had to "knight" or get them on their knees and do the sword thing to knight a few juniors and turn them into seniors. We told them that you have two senior seasons. We couldn't wait around.

There's a significant amount of debate about whether leaders are born or formed. Diaz is clearly a believer in the former:

What you need is natural leaders and Jordan Hicks wants that role. He embraces that role, wants to be the guy that everybody looks up to, and everybody on the football team does look up to him. It is very important in a linebacker because they are the guys that make the calls. The DBs are too far in the back and D linemen all have their hands in the dirt. Linebackers are the ones that have got to raise their voices, get everybody set, and call all the plays. They have no choice but to lead, and I really like the guys that have done it in my room so far.

As Diaz mentioned, it's his linebackers that he relies on to make the last-second calls prior to the play to get the final say over the offense. Hicks will be the guy making those calls this season, and he sounds ready to take on the challenge.

For his part, Hicks said at Big 12 Media Days that he's been preparing for the role for some time ($):

I think that role is just something that comes naturally. It's not something that is ever forced or pressed upon. I'm excited about the role. It's something that I've been wanting for the past two years, but it wasn't my time. Now it's my time. I've been able to learn from Keenan and Emmanuel and been able to be ready for this position.

Like Cobbs, the key for Hicks will be to stay healthy after he too was dinged his first two seasons, including a hamstring injury last fall that never healed fully until the Holiday Bowl, when he turned in his best performance as a Longhorn.