When asked to identify the main issue in the Texas Longhorns defense last season, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz didn't point to specific strategic decisions or the issues tackling or the poor play of the linebackers, but rather to the need to just get better:
We've all wasted enough bandwidth talking about the problems of last year. But I do know this: This is a player development job, and that's something you never waver from at any point during the last 12 months. We're fully invested in our guys getting better, and they're getting better.
Discussing the defense has been unpleasant, to say the least, and the hope has to be that Diaz is looking hard at the schematic decisions that he made last season, especially in regards to his attempts to run so many different Fire Zones without experienced enough personnel to handle the size of his playbook.
Still, it's worth noting that there is significant cause for optimism based simply on young players growing up, which Diaz believes is happening.
Take the middle linebacker position, for example. Expectations at the middle linebacker are now significantly reduced from last season, when Texas fans were giddy about finally having two pure middle linebackers with a strong record of high school success. What the 'Horns ended up having were two players in less than peak physical condition who struggled with leverage and were further slowed by indecisiveness.
But both junior Steve Edmond and sophomore Dalton Santos lost weight in the offseason and Edmond apparently acquitted himself well in the team's opening scrimmage on Monday:
Steve last night was sideline to sideline. He made the field look small, which is what he has the ability to do. He took a lot of confidence from that. That's just a preseason scrimmage. He had to go out and build on that today and tomorrow.
For a player who lacked that type of range last season, the assessment from Diaz is heartening, though the typical caveats apply for such a statement.
Even with that being said, there's a natural progression that takes place for players as they mature. It's often their junior season before things really start to click -- it's happening with running back Joe Bergeron with his conditioning and it's happening with cornerback Sheroid Evans in his overall level of play. Next in line may be Edmond.
Diaz believes that it's all about preparation and the trickle-down effect that has on a player's confidence:
These guys don't just come ready to play. It takes a while and these guys have got to get through offseason programs. All of this comes down to preparation. The preparations start the first time they put a bar on top of their chest when we got back in January. That's what's changed Steve. What's changed these guys is their ability to do things that they weren't able to do before. By nature, when you get stronger - you can be big and not be strong - but then all of a sudden you start getting strong and you start looking around at other things in your life that you're like, 'My god, I couldn't do that before too. What else have I been selling myself short on?' Then all of a sudden your expectation of yourself changes, and that's the maturity of an individual and then therefore a football team.
Several older guys were picked out as players who now have an even greater sense of urgency -- Diaz cited defensive tackle Chris Whaley and Ashton Dorsey as standouts in that regard, but also mentioned the strength gains of sophomore Malcom Brown, which is a scary proposition given how well he played at times as a true freshman.
Among the players in the secondary, it wasn't surprising to hear the name of Evans mentioned, but from a depth chart standpoint, Diaz pegging redshirt freshman Bryson Echols was remarkable, though Echols did clearly make some plays in open practices:
Bryson Echols has really done some impressive things, showed some toughness at the point of attack, really good feet at the line of scrimmage and he's seems like he's got a knack for getting his hand on the ball and making some plays.
And, of course, the competition for Evans at the boundary corner spot is sophomore Duke Thomas, now back on defense full time. The Copperas Cove product received mention from Diaz, who noted how well he incorporates coaching into his game, that he plays at full speed, and that he's a "pleasure to be around."
Individual improvement isn't the only thing that needs to happen for the defense -- the three main goals the Texas defensive coordinator has for his unit are to be fast, physical, and tough, areas in which the 2012 unit mostly failed across the board. The latter two mostly come down to mindset, while the former is a lot about comfort level, about playing with instincts instead of thinking, being indecisive. Junior linebacker Jordan Hicks believes that Texas is now attacking more, playing more aggressively.
Beyond the purely mental side, it seemed that trust broke down between players last season. With all the mistakes being made, some players couldn't guarantee that their teammates would be where they were supposed to be, leading to some freelancing that ultimately hurt the team further.
Rectifying that problem would go a long way towards helping Texas play winning defense:
First and foremost, I think just swarm. I think that has been a big rallying point. Team defense is trusting guys and leveraging the football. If I believe that someone is going to set an edge to the football play, then everyone can run and track the inside hip. When you do that, physics says that that's where the more violent tackles happen, creating a lot of knock-back because guys aren't having to stop their feet on contact. You see guys running through contacts. You're starting to see some of those glimpses of guys trusting their teammates. They say, 'Look, I know you're going to be there, so I believe you're going to be there, so I'm going to run to my area as fast as humanly possible.' That's encouraging.
In reflecting, the 2012 issues seemed to compound themselves in a negative feedback loop that consistently sapped confidence and trust. Diaz noted Monday that secondaries in the Big 12 are constantly under siege, something that applies for the entire defense. Merely surviving becomes the goal, but that may not be good enough this season for Diaz, who is under a tremendous amount of scrutiny.
And as much as Diaz will be judged for his schematic decisions this year, his immediate legacy as a talent developer will rest heavily on his ability to coax significantly improved play from his linebackers.
If that happens, the Texas defense has a chance to rebound because the defensive line and secondary should both be assets for this football team.