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Jeffcoat, Hicks critical to success of 2013 Texas defense

The Five-Star Friday commitments face career-defining seasons.

Jordan Hicks following his commitment more than three years ago.
Jordan Hicks following his commitment more than three years ago.

Just over three years ago, the Texas Longhorns football program was coming off the massively disappointing loss to Alabama in the national championship game, but the narrative was much different -- it was considered the golden era of Longhorn sports.

No single day seemingly defined the positive trajectory of the program more than Five-Star Friday. On January 29th, 2010, five-star defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat announced that he wouldn't be following his older sister to Oklahoma and that he would be taking his talents to Texas instead. Hours later, five-star linebacker Jordan Hicks announced that he would be attending Texas instead of Ohio State or Florida.

It was a heady day that I gushingly described at the time as the "best of days," one that seemed to illuminate a future in Austin that would be so bright as to be blinding.

The two were supposed to be the final pieces that helped put a 2010 class over the top. At the time, it was being billed as perhaps the best in the history of Texas football, but it took little time for prominent members of the class like wide receiver Darius White and defensive tackle Taylor Bible to wash out of the program without having made any significant contributions. In all, eight of the 25 in that class have left Texas.

Now, more than three years later, it turns out that the future of the football program was not entirely bright at all as the 'Horns once again battle to place themselves back in the conversation with the best football teams in the country, all as Texas fans wait with bated breath for the former five-star prospects to turn in their first respective transcendent season.

Jeffcoat and Hicks will both be major pieces of a defense attempting to recover from a disastrous 2012 season, one in which the two players had little part of after Hicks played in parts of only three games after suffering a hip injury in the Ole Miss game and Jeffcoat ruptured his right pectoral muscle in the beatdown at the Cotton Bowl.

At this point, a major concern is that the two won't be able to stay healthy for a full season.

Jeffcoat has now suffered two pectoral injuries in the last two seasons, though he has proven that he can play at a high level. His start to the 2012 season was excellent -- despite playing in only six games, his 9.5 tackles for loss were still good enough to rank 11th in the conference. Had he kept up that pace for the rest of the season, he would have led the Big 12.

The start to his 2012 season bodes well for 2013 because it suggests that he wasn't impacted by his inability to make strength gains in the weight room as he rehabilitated.

In 2011, Jeffcoat flashed his significant upside with 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks, so he's put it together at a high level on the field, even if it's clear that there's still the next step that he can take. If he can take it in his last year in Austin, he could turn in a season that would rank among the best the program has seen at the defensive end position, no small task.

Of the two, the career of Hicks has been the more disappointing one. He's not a bust and still has two seasons to make a big impact at Texas. The problem is that there's increasing evidence to suggest that he's prone to injuries. He suffered an ankle sprain his freshman season that limited him, broke his foot during one spring, played through a hamstring injury as a sophomore, and the hip injury last year. Then another hamstring injury that kept him from participating fully in either of the two open practices this spring.

Every college football player has to battle through some type of nagging injury during the grind of the conference season, but regardless of his toughness, Hicks has had trouble playing effectively through the smaller ones and the big one last year cost him nearly a whole season.

As a leader of the defense, Hicks will be relied upon in 2013 to make calls at the line of scrimmage before plays, a task that becomes even more crucial with the speed of opposing offenses in the Big 12. Last season the 'Horns struggled mightily to align in the weeks after Hicks went down.

He'll also have to build significantly on his career high of 55 tackles and 4 tackles for loss in 2011. He was the team's leading tackler in 2012 when he was injured and was on pace for around 70 tackles as a junior, a number he'll probably need to surpass in 2013.

Aside from improved decision-making from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in terms of his schematic choices, the return of Hicks may be the best bet for the Longhorns to significantly improve upon the disappointing defensive performance in 2012, particularly against the run.

The future of Texas football hasn't turned out to be as bright as hoped for back in 2010 when the two players committed, in part last season because of those aforementioned injuries, in part because of larger cracks and fissures that showed themselves later in 2010 and resulted in the great purge.

For the future of the 2013 defense to be brighter than skeptics currently envision, both players need to finally completely fulfill the prodigious potential that made that Friday that seems so long ago so incredibly heady.