AUSTIN, Texas – Jackson Jeffcoat said the words with equal parts self-assuredness and defiance. Last Monday, he laid down the law.
“This team is going to be a player-led team,” he said. “No matter who the coach is coming in, as leaders, we'll get this thing corrected.”
And if that’s what Texas’ senior defensive end is saying to the media, you have to wonder what’s being said behind closed doors, especially a week later, following another loss to kick off his final season in burnt orange with a 1-2 record.
The talk of these Longhorns being player-led sounds like a good thing. It sounds as if there are veterans stepping forward and taking ownership of this season.
But how exactly is that belief manifesting itself in the locker room? Reinforcing that culture is a lot easier when the wins are piling up, but it’s far more important now as Texas tries to break out of its two-game funk.
“The biggest thing is just making sure you keep everybody together and don’t let there become any dissention among the team,” senior lineman Trey Hopkins said. “That’s a thing the seniors have really been looking out for and making sure we don’t have any of that. I think it’s been good for us so far.”
In the wake of those two losses, Texas is trying to take a high-accountability approach to cleaning up its mistakes. On Sunday, the full team gathered for a film session. That’s not the normal routine -- usually, especially after wins, they review in their position groups.
Mack Brown and the staff played it all for them. The good, the bad, the ugly. If one guy screwed up, everyone else saw it. Everyone is clear on who is and isn’t doing his job.
This wasn’t about calling out the struggling players. The aim was to get everyone on the same page and it’s another step towards ensuring the players are looking out for each other.
A bunker mentality is setting in and the Longhorns are closing ranks. They’re concerned only with what’s going on in their building, in their locker room. Anything else – especially outside negativity – just serves as a distraction.
“We’ve stayed together pretty good with these two losses,” senior defensive tackle Chris Whaley said. “That’s going to help us out a lot. When people start falling apart, things can go bad. That’s our mindset right now. We’ve got to stay together and pull together even stronger.”
A year ago Texas didn’t have that luxury. Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor were the leaders of a small senior class and much was made of how vocal they needed to become, and that switch got flipped around midseason.
This year, the senior class has 14 scholarship players, most of them starters. Hopkins said he gave a speech to the team laying out what this start means to the seniors and how ending their college careers on this note won’t be acceptable.
It’s times like these, junior linebacker Jordan Hicks said, that you find out which guys can lead and which ones want to follow.
“When a team goes through adversity, you find out a lot about your team,” Hicks said. “It’s the same in life. Once you go through adversity, you find out who you are. We’ve done a lot of good things. There have been a lot of positive actions that have been seen throughout the locker room, after practice, before practice.”
Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite remembers dealing with these kinds of hard times as a player. He could tell at practice on Sunday that the seniors, the guys who can count the number of games they have left, step forward in these times.
“It always meant something to me when a coach said you’ve got 44 games, but that guy over there has 11,” Applewhite said. “I felt a sense of obligation to make sure the seniors go out the way they want to go out. Now that we start conference play, you could feel that a bit in practice.”
Mack Brown says this team isn’t like the 5-7 group in 2010. That group, he says, was too selfish. These guys are giving everything to get the season turned around, and doing so together.
Texas players began the season with a new team motto: “For the man on my right and the man on my left.”
Three games into the year, they’re figuring out what that really means.