- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The proverbial scab on Texas’ defense still stings a little, at least when it’s poked and prodded.
There’s an unmistakable hint of defiance that surfaces when Texas players are confronted with questions about their 2012 defense. They don’t enjoy talking about it. They’re motivated to move on, no matter how many inquiries they face. So is their leader.
“We’ve all wasted enough bandwidth talking about the problems of last year,” Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “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.”
Those returning starters aren’t tiptoeing around the topic of last season. Safety Adrian Phillips admits he’s still mad about 2012. Like everyone else in burnt orange, he wants Texas to have the nation’s most dominant defense.
How it lost its way in Big 12 play still isn’t exactly easy to pinpoint, even with the aid of all the unfriendly statistics about missed tackles and points allowed. And those stats don’t speak to the one Diaz cares about: If Texas truly had the worst defense in school history, how do you explain going 9-4?
Plus, don’t forget that despite having a defense that gave up more yards per game (404.2) than any Longhorn defense had before, it ranked fifth in the Big 12 in yards allowed and sixth in scoring defense. A bad year in some respects, sure, but practically an average one compared to the rest of the league. That’s the cost of playing ball in the Big 12.
How good this Texas defense needs to be to win the league remains the important question. Diaz brings back 18 defenders who earned starts in 2012. That ought to give him the luxury to push the envelope more this fall.
“He’s throwing different defenses at us every day and expecting us to learn it and watch film and come in the next day ready to go and ready to work again,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “He’s pushing us hard and wants us to be the best we can be.”
Diaz acknowledges that his expectations have changed, and rightfully so. Of the 18 coming back, 16 are juniors or seniors. They should know what they’re doing now.
That brings confidence. Phillips jumps right in to specifics when asked why he’s so sure this Texas won’t look much like the one of 2012, even if it features most of the same starters.
These are his demands: Everyone will run to the ball. There will be effort all over the board. Players will be physical and, just as important, mentally locked-in.
Add all that up and you get the kind of defense Jackson Jeffcoat envisions. The senior defensive end believes physicality is the most critical component, and after missing the final seven games of last season, he’s excited to inflict some pain.
“When a team steps off the field after the game, we want them to be like, ‘Wow, that Texas defense really got after it,’” he said.
Losing Jeffcoat and Hicks to season-ending injuries was one of the more popular excuses for why Texas struggled so mightily at times last fall. Hicks isn’t buying that explanation, but he knows what he saw from the Longhorn linebackers. Life got a lot tougher for them when he went down.
“We know exactly what the perception is of us. We were a weak link last year,” Hicks said. “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.”
Expecting Diaz to have a chip on his own shoulder isn’t unreasonable, either. He was ultimately made the scapegoat of last year’s mess by an unsatisfied fan base.
Some factions of it wanted him gone, or welcomed the possibility of him packing up and moving on to Florida International. And Diaz would’ve been replaced had Mack Brown lost faith in his ability to lead this defense.
So Brown scoffs at the perception that Diaz, hailed as a brilliant future head coach just one year ago, somehow got dumb in 2012. Going from beloved to betrayed in just a few short months had to wear on Diaz, and perhaps he enters year three of his tenure with a harder edge because of it.
“Nothing matters except how we play football this year. Nothing else matters," Diaz said. "We’ve got to go out and play football. Someone is going to set a ball down, they’re going to snap it and we’ve got to go chase it. And when we chase it, we’ve got to hit it hard whenever we get there. And that’s all that matters."
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