- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is the first of a five-part series on Texas players with the potential to change the course of the Longhorns' 2013 season. The No. 5 player on this year's list: Junior linebacker Jordan Hicks.
AUSTIN, Texas -- The truth is, Jordan Hicks was not really at fault. The problem was the timing.
The Texas linebacker went down against Ole Miss on Sept. 15 with a hip injury that was expected to keep him out a few weeks. He missed the rest of the season, but the impact of his injury was felt immediately.
Just look back at that schedule: Oklahoma State. West Virginia. Oklahoma. Baylor. And, yes, even Kansas.
The Texas defense was as bad -- particularly against the run -- as Hicks or anyone else could've feared in those first five games after he hit the sidelines and never came back.
He was sure he'd return at some point. The uncertainty of it all only made watching worse.
"I fully expected to come back," Hicks said. "That was a tough deal. It was really hard to be out, watching my team out there battling. I wanted to be out there battling with them. That's in the past. We're moving forward, and I think we're in a good direction."
Look back on his absence, though, and the raw data is still a little hard to believe.
Those first four games to open Big 12 play came against some of the most prolific offenses in the country. Against them, Texas gave up 2,320 total yards, 1,065 rushing yards, 8.84 yards per attempt and 6.02 yards per carry. Foes picked up 109 first downs and went 9-for-9 on fourth-down conversions. The Longhorns couldn't stop the run and couldn't get off the field.
Lump in the near-debacle in Lawrence, Kan., and another defensive stat becomes striking: Explosive rushes.
There's no disputing the Texas run defense was weakened without Hicks anchoring an inexperienced linebacker unit. In those first five games without him, the Longhorns were plenty vulnerable to big plays in the run game.
Texas gave up 34 rushing plays of 12 or more yards during that stretch, including 18 rushes of 20-plus. In the entire 2011 season, Texas opponents produced only 31 such runs. Last season that number rose to a 64, seventh-worst in the nation.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Texas ended up giving up twice as many rushing yards in 2012 as in 2011. Hicks wasn't going to stop all those big runs by himself. The problems were far more systemic.
At the very least, his return should more than solidify a group of linebackers that saw seven players make starts last season. When the Big 12 slate hits and Texas finds itself playing more nickel, he'll be one of the two linebackers patrolling the second level.
"I feel better than I have in a long time," Hicks said. "I feel like I'm moving well and taking better care of my body. I feel great."
He arrived at Texas as the No. 4 ranked recruit in the country, with as much potential as any linebacker the Longhorns have had in years. He earned preseason All-Big 12 honors this summer despite missing every conference game last year.
Yes, the expectations are as high as ever. But that's nothing new for Hicks.
"I think the pressure has always been there. Playing at the University of Texas, you're going to have pressure," he said. "Every single player on this team has pressure. If you let it get to you, it's only going to bog you down. I come out every day trying to get better. That's what I'm focused on."