Texas Longhorns: Alex Okafor

Season Deciders: DE Jackson Jeffcoat

August, 22, 2013
Jackson JeffcoatKirby Lee/US PresswireThe Longhorns will be counting on a healthy Jackson Jeffcoat to lead their defense.
This is the fourth of a five-part series on Texas players with the potential to change the course of the Longhorns' 2013 season. The No. 2 player on this year's list: Senior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Jackson Jeffcoat’s senior season began on Oct. 14, 2012.

A torn pectoral, Jeffcoat’s second, suffered against Oklahoma the day before, abruptly ended Jeffcoat’s promising junior year. The clock has been ticking ever since.

“My senior season did start back then,” Jeffcoat said last month. “I knew I had to prepare myself for this season.”

What’s driving Jeffcoat these days isn’t the thought that his NFL draft stock is on the line. He doesn’t look at 2013 like a contract year or a chance to pry his way into the first round.

If he does what he plans to do (and plays all 13 games), the rest will take care of itself.

“This is my senior year. It’s my last year,” Jeffcoat said. “I haven’t had the season that I’ve hoped to have, just because of the injuries. I want to come out and make this my best year. It’s more about leaving my mark on the University of Texas than leaving my mark on the NFL.”

The final chapter in his legacy as a Longhorn has yet to be written, but Jeffcoat is plenty aware that his injuries have been costly. He wants to be remembered for his accomplishments, not his rare potential.

At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Jeffcoat has all the tools and traits of a guy you don’t want coming your way if you play quarterback. He’s played in 27 games and started 20, but his best days are still ahead of him. Especially if he stays on the field.

In the five games he’d played entering the showdown with Oklahoma, Jeffcoat was ranked in the top four in the Big 12 in tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles. He’d had one of the best nights of his career a few weeks earlier at Oklahoma State, with seven tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.

He even fared well against the Sooners, pushing his season tackles for loss total up to 11. Jeffcoat now has 38 in three years and made stops in the backfield on nearly a third of his career tackles. He has the opportunity to be truly prolific in his final year.

Jeffcoat was slowed in spring practices as a precaution, though he says now he’s been ready to get back to hitting for months. Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz recognizes the need for some restraint and rotations to keep Jeffcoat fresh, but so far he hasn’t shown any rust in fall camp.

“Every time there's been a physical question asked of him, he's come up with the right answer,” Diaz said. “We're happy with where he's at.”

He’s busting counter moves on tackles, pressuring quarterback and batting down balls again. Just like old times, and just what Longhorns teammates like to see.

“Same old Jackson,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “Just a monster out there. Just Jackson Jeffcoat.”

This season, his impact goes beyond the tackles and sacks. Even with Alex Okafor on one side and Jeffcoat or Cedric Reed on the other, Texas was still inconsistent in its ability to pressure passers a year ago. That will always be critical in the Big 12.

So will Jeffcoat’s leadership. He’s seen and endured plenty and been humbled enough in three years. The sense of urgency is a tangible one for Jeffcoat. It’s now or never.

The healthy Jeffcoat can be as good as any defender in the conference. He speaks these days with the kind of confidence that suggests he knows that. But just what will he make of his final year? He can’t wait to find out.

“We’ll see after the season,” he said. “That is my goal, to be the best defensive end in the Big 12.”
AUSTIN, Texas – Mack Brown didn’t grab a Sharpie and circle Aug. 5, 2013, on his calendar.

He didn’t believe all his problems would be gone by this date, that he would step onto Texas’ practice fields Monday evening and behold a team well-suited to compete for a national championship.

But he had to know the pains and progress of the past two seasons were preparing him and his Longhorns for this date. After responding from the disastrous losing season in 2010 by going 17-9 and winning as many Big 12 games as they lost, the Longhorns coach can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

How quickly and painlessly they’ll reach that light is still anyone’s guess, but Brown likes the makeup of the team he’ll resume coaching when fall practices start Monday.

Mack Brown
AP Photo/Eric GayTexas coach Mack Brown is more confident in his team's ability and experience level this season.
“I am more confident this team will be the best we’ve had in the last two years or three years,” Brown said Sunday. “We’ve improved each year and we’ve tried to win every game. But we also knew we were going to take some hits by playing young guys. Now we’ve got an older team, and it should be fun to watch them play.”

He believes being settled at quarterback with third-year starter David Ash is an advantage, if not a must.

He believes a program chock-full of freshmen and sophomores playing early the past two years has produced a program chock-full of experienced players.

He believes this Longhorns team will have tangible player leadership, the kind Brown has struggled to find in recent years.

He said last season’s leaders -- seniors Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro -- didn’t become vocal in the locker room until midseason. He likes that the burden now falls on Ash, Jackson Jeffcoat, Jordan Hicks and seniors in the secondary and on the line.

“All of them have got their jaw set to make sure we fix it this year,” Brown said. “I just feel like the attitude of the entire team is that we hit this thing now and we’re older and you’ve got to have discipline from within. It seems like they’ve done that this summer. They’ve had a very accountable summer.”

These are all good components, and Brown could have predicted they’d eventually come together two years ago. But he doesn’t agree with the notion that 2013 being The Year has been the grand plan.

“It sounds like we just said, ‘Ah, let’s not be good for two years but plan on the third one.’ That’s not the case at all,” Brown said. “We tried to win the 5-7 year, right after a national championship game. Who would’ve ever thought of that? But it is what it is.”

He knows now not to assume these pieces will come together all by themselves.

A 2012 defense that was statistically Texas’ worst looked stout in preseason practices. Brown says now that his offense couldn’t pick up first downs on that unit last August. Then the season hit and the confidence went missing.

He hopes experience is the antidote to that kind of inconsistency. The four weeks of practice ahead will give Brown and his staff a better sense of whether 2013 really could be the next big year. But there are no guarantees.

That’s where coaching comes in, and where the challenge falls on Brown.

“This year, it’s been a fun challenge for me. I like fixing things,” Brown said. “I don’t like messing them up. And obviously, I was involved in messing it up for whatever reasons. We can all spend hours going back and looking at what was done and what should’ve been done. The only reason I do that is looking at ways to fix it, more than anything else.

“I think we’ve got it fixed. We’re not there yet. But we’re back to where we’re going to look like a good team walking out of the tunnel.”

Will that Texas team be able to stop the run? Will its transition to an uptempo offense pay off? Will this team start playing as good as it looks?

Brown has been talking about these questions for months. His players will start answering them in the next four weeks.

“Now we’ve got to shut up and do it,” Brown said. “I can sit here and say all I want, and I’ve heard it. We have improved. Anybody who knows anything about football would say we’ve got a better chance going into this season than we did two years ago or last year.”
Every Friday, HornsNation's Sean Adams will answer questions from readers. Send him a question on Twitter here.

Kendall Lewis (@LeweeVuitton) on Twitter: Which game will be tougher: Oklahoma State, at TCU, at Baylor or the Red River Rivalry?

A: Every single game you list is going to be a bear for Texas. The Red River Rivalry is a lot more of a mental hurdle than a football hurdle in 2013. TCU is the best team that Texas has on its schedule. It has 19 starters returning when you include the return of Casey Pachall and Waymon James. The Horned Frogs are always well coached, and they get Texas at home.

Andrew Hughes (@AndrewH91) on Twitter: What will it take for Texas to reach a BCS bowl this year, specifically, how to beat OU?

A: Texas just has to tackle on defense and not turn the ball over on offense. For as much bad conversation as you will hear about Texas, the Longhorns don’t have as big a mountain to climb as most people think. Quarterback David Ash does not have to be great for Texas to be good. The defense does not have to be great for Texas to be good. Texas will be better on both lines. I know that is a big statement when it lost a dominant player in Alex Okafor, but I believe it to be true.

The schedule sets up perfectly for the Longhorns with nine days off before Oklahoma, a full off week before TCU and nine days off before ending the regular season at Baylor. Oklahoma State is the toughest game that has to be played in a regular-week format, and Texas gets the Cowboys at home.

Chris Bennett (@Chrisgb00) on Twitter: Which players were you disappointed you didn't get to draft to your all-time Texas team?

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Mack Brown has his own designs on what it takes to win the national title.

And given that the Texas coach has been there and done it, his methods are hard to bring into question. But for those questioning just what criteria it will take for Texas to make it back to the title game in 2013 and then, maybe, win it, well, there are a certain number of boxes that need to be ticked.

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Question of the Week: Horns on the verge 

June, 6, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas -- It’s difficult to fathom that a team such as Texas, a squad so meticulously picked over and scrutinized from every angle, could have any under-the-radar players.

But there are still players to be found who have not lived up to their potential but are on the verge of doing just that. And, like always, there is plenty of debate over just who those players might be. For our weekly debate at HornsNations, we decided to take on the question of just who would be the next player or players to step from the shadows and into the spotlight.

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Every Friday, HornsNation's Sean Adams will answer questions from readers. Send him a question on Twitter here.

@ChickDill on Twitter: Best new recruit and where will the majority of the improvement come from?

A: The best recruit in my eyes with the most impact will be junior college offensive lineman Desmond Harrison. He is at a need position that he could start immediately.

Most of the improvement should come on the defensive side of the ball, where Texas had the worst defense in the history of the university. Even missing draft picks in Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor, depth on the defensive line, health at the linebacker spot and experience at safety will prove useful for a defense trying to get its swagger back.

@johnjohndyer on Twitter: Is there any chance [Tyrone] Swoopes ends up as the #2 on the depth chart?

A: There is always a chance. The question is how much of a chance. I’m on the record hoping, for his sake and for the sake of the program, that he is allowed to redshirt. But there are a dozen scenarios where Swoopes could end up No. 2 on the depth chart.

Among the scenarios: If Ash were to sustain an injury, Swoopes could end up moving up the chart and having his eligibility used. If the Longhorns get into fall camp and the summers have not gone as planned for the two redshirts and Case McCoy. That could create the opportunity as well.

Again, about the chances, I say he has about a 25 percent chance of the being the No. 2 QB this season, and if that happens I would have to assume the position is in trouble. I really like Swoopes as a player, but as Texas has proved under coach Mack Brown, redshirting a QB is healthy for their long-term development.

@xrayvyzn on Twitter: Last year was a disaster of decommitments, & this year lost a top RB & OL already. New policy will help or hurt?

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Kenny Vaccaro, Alex Okafor and Marquise Goodwin already have stopped thinking about what was -- the NFL draft -- and started to work on what will be -- their respective NFL futures.

Really it’s that type of drive that is what made the three Longhorns NFL players in the first place.

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Kenny Vaccaro wanted to wait a year.

The simple reason was that the Texas safety wanted to be the best, the first safety taken in the NFL draft when his time came. That time was Thursday night as Vaccaro, after a four-year career at Texas, was indeed the first safety selected -- the 15th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

"I have been grinding my whole life, literally since I was 4 years old, for this opportunity, and it is finally here," he said.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
John Albright/Icon SMITexas safety Kenny Vaccaro is the Longhorns' 10th top 20 pick in the last 10 years
And now he will go to the New Orleans Saints and go down as Texas’ 10th top-20 pick in the last 10 years.

"Kenny Vaccaro is one of the best football players we have ever had,” said Texas coach Mack Brown. “He is tough, he’s smart, he’s a playmaker and he practiced like he was in a game every day. He is very passionate about football. He brings leadership and he brings toughness."

Vaccaro was one of the few who brought those qualities to a Texas defense that suffered through the 2012 season. In that defense he was pushed into several different positions as well as a leadership role.

"When we’ve approached him with some tough defends, or some tough ideas, asking him if he thinks he could do this, he was always willing to take on the difficult role to maybe make things a little bit easier for a younger player that we’re trying to take care of within the scheme of things," said defensive backs coach Duane Akina. "Ultimate team player. Very flexible. He can play man-coverage, in the deep-half or deep-third. He can blitz."

All of those qualities and a few more piqued the Saints' interest.

"I think he’s got that toughness and that suddenness that you’d like at that position," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think he brings a physical dimension to the game he plays with. He’s been well-coached. They do a great job there defensively. There were a lot of things we liked about him. That versatility is unique, and something that I think is beneficial."

The NFL draft continues today with the second and third rounds. Texas defensive end Alex Okafor has been projected to be taken somewhere within those two rounds. Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin has been projected to be selected somewhere in the draft, but in a later round.

But for Vaccaro, the wait is over.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas has 19 starters back from last season.

But when Texas gets back to work, all might not be in the same positions. Therein lies the luxury of having so many starters as well as having played 34 freshmen and sophomores over the past two years. It allows for versatility. Some mixing and matching if you will.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Each week Sean Adams looks at a few topics around the Texas Longhorns and college football.

First down: Is Swoopes the future?

By reading between the lines about the repetitions in Saturday's Orange-White scrimmage, it appears that freshman quarterback Tyrone Swoopes will have a package to fit around his unique skill set and size this season. But could he already be Texas' No. 2 signal-caller?

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
AP Photo/Eric GayFreshman quarterback Tyrone Swoopes had fans talking after his performance in Texas' spring game.
If starter David Ash were to go down and miss time in the first game of the season, it's likely that Case McCoy would take over the role. But even that would likely only be until Swoopes' schooling could be accelerated to get him ready to play.

Swoopes is the future. I am still in the small group of people who believes a redshirt would be best for him, but that might not be an option when the Texas coaches look forward to 2014. Swoopes has already passed Connor Brewer and Jalen Overstreet, and it appears McCoy is just exhausting his eligibility as a backup.

That leaves Swoopes as the primary backup in 2014 and as the man his junior year for the Longhorns, assuming he doesn't redshirt this season. If the spring of 2013 is any indication, the future will be sooner rather than later for Swoopes.

Second down: DE Okafor taking some hits ...

Texas went through pro day last week and defensive end Alex Okafor has taken some hits. His strength, speed, explosiveness and even tactical awareness have been questioned.

I just don’t buy that. He is a football player. I have never been in the camp that he is going to be great, but I am in the camp that he can have a lengthy career in the NFL.

All things considered, that would be a really good career. It must be pretty hard for an All-American to get his career torn apart for a couple of months. I honestly hope he is not paying attention to the media at this point.

Third down: On the move ...

I will be the first to say it did not do a whole lot for me to hear that Duke Thomas might play both ways, but after watching him the spring game, I’m a believer. He caught the ball in traffic, ran fairly good routes and looked to have pretty solid ball skills.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Manny Diaz was the master of disguise defense.

Remember, back in the halcyon days of 2011, when Kansas was fretting about preparing for the first-year Texas defensive coordinator and his supposed 130 blitz combinations?

Given how subterfuge gave way to substandard performances in 2012, those times have long been forgotten. The Texas defense was laid bare last season. So, it stands to reason, there is no hiding anything in 2013.

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Alex Okafor was a defensive end on a mission in Texas’ Alamo Bowl victory over Oregon State on December 29.

The mission: lead the Longhorns to victory while assuring NFL franchises he was healthy and ready for the next elevation of football.

Okafor completed both missions in resounding fashion by setting an Alamo Bowl record with 4.5 sacks in a 31-27 victory.

Alex Okafor
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsAlex Okafor looked to build on a huge Alamo Bowl performance at Texas' pro day on Tuesday.
“I had a great defensive scheme and my team played hard for me,” Okafor said on Tuesday. “All the dominoes and chips fell into place.”

He’s hoping his place in the NFL Draft fell into place too -- a few selections higher -- after his performance at Texas’ pro day.

“For the most part I am happy,” Okafor said. “I am still getting some of the rust off and getting to 100 percent. Running, I could have done a little better. But I’m not too disappointed. Out here on the field where it counts I thought I did really well.”

Okafor, who checked in at 6-foot-2 and 262 pounds, decided to keep his combine numbers on bench press of 21 times at 225 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.88 and 4.96 seconds according to Calvin Watkins.

(Read full post)

videoAUSTIN, Texas -- Texas has its pro day today and, yeah, Vince Young will be there, but so, too, will someone more important. Seriously.

In fact, make that much more important. It’s Kenny Vaccaro.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesSafety Kenny Vaccaro will likely end Texas' streak of not having a player taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
The former Texas safety represents a chance for Texas to put a player into the first round of the draft for the first time since following the 2009 season. His selection -- which should be right around the middle of the first round -- will signal an end to a two-year draft slide in which Texas produced one second-round player, a third-round player and five others selected in the fourth round or higher. Before that slide, Mack Brown had not gone two consecutive years without producing a first-round pick. (Defensive end Alex Okafor is currently not in either of the first-round mock drafts done by ESPN’s Todd McShay or Mel Kiper.)

So let’s see here: Brown had two of the worst years of his tenure at Texas in 2010 and 2011. And then neither of those drafts produced a first-round pick. Anyone else see the correlation?

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Manny Diaz's first mistake, the one that would lead to 112 more in the form of missed tackles, was believing, or at the very least not tempering, the hype.

"The mistake I made last year was that I was aware that expectations were higher for our team than they should have been," the Texas defensive coordinator said. "I think there were too many assumptions made. We said, 'Well, this guy is bigger and faster than the guy who graduated, so he must be better.'

[+] EnlargeManny Diaz
Patrick Green/Icon SMIManny Diaz believed in the hype of Texas' defense last season. He won't make the mistake again.
"The mistake I made is I should have said, 'Forget about it, it’s your turn now,' " Diaz said.

Their turn is coming up again; most of the same players in all of the same positions. And that is where the worry lies. Not much appears to have changed at Texas. Same players. Same coach. Oh, wait a minute: There has been some change. The two best players on a defense that was the worst in school history in 2012 are off to the NFL. So the team is without its leading tackler from a year ago, Kenny Vaccaro, and without Alex Okafor, who took over the Alamo Bowl and led Texas in sacks. And now there is supposed to be some excitement about the "turn" this group is about to take? Try hand-wringing worry.

"Understandably, we will have lost trust from people from our performance last year, and we understand that," Diaz said. "There’s nothing we can do until we go back out and play in the fall to regain that trust. Our job right now is to get these guys as good as they can be to become a physical, hard-nosed defense."

The first step in doing that is remembering, not who they were collectively a season ago, but who they were when they were at their best, when they were freer, faster and more fearless on the field.

"We can’t carry around the ghost of last year," Diaz said.

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Zeke Riser couldn’t pass up an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and play for Texas, even if that means paying his own way.

The former Houston starting defensive end will join the Longhorns program this summer as a walk-on with one season of eligibility.

[+] EnlargeZeke Riser
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesZeke Riser, who graduated from Houston in December, started 27 games for the Cougars.
Riser started 27 career games at Houston, including nine in 2013. He recorded 38 tackles, three sacks and eight tackles for loss as a junior for the Cougars and received his release from the school in February.

A Texas spokesperson could not confirm that Riser is joining the program because he has yet to enroll in classes, but the lineman said his plans to transfer are “a done deal.”

“I’m definitely pumped up about it,” Riser said. “If nothing else, I have a lot of experience to offer, especially with those younger guys. These guys are super talented -- otherwise, they wouldn’t be at Texas -- so me having already played three years, I can bring a lot of experience to the table.”

Riser attended his first Longhorns spring practice on Saturday and plans to move to Austin, Texas, in May. He graduated from Houston in December and is taking graduate courses at UH this spring.

The 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end is making the move because he wants to play his final season of college football closer to his family. Riser grew up in La Vernia, Texas, a town located 75 miles south of UT’s campus.

“That’s really the driving force,” Riser said. “I think I would’ve regretted it if I hadn’t at least taken the chance. It’s really going to work out best for me as a player and then after college family-wise.”

The Longhorns lose starting defensive end Alex Okafor, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, but bring back veteran starter Jackson Jeffcoat in 2013. Riser said he hasn’t been guaranteed any playing time, but he’s serious about competing for a starting job when he joins the team.

“I wouldn’t go to any place that I wasn’t expecting to compete for a starting spot,” Riser said. “I’ve never sat on the bench in my life and I don’t plan to at Texas. I’m definitely going to be fighting for a starting spot and at the very least in the playing rotation. I’m not coming to Texas just because it’s a big name. I’m coming to Texas to play.”

Riser’s head coach at La Vernia, Bo Robinson, lettered at UT from 1989 to 1992 and is friends with former teammate and current Longhorns defensive ends coach Oscar Giles. That connection helped get the ball rolling for Riser, who’d originally looked into transferring to UTSA.

“Coach Giles is awesome,” Riser said. “Seeing the way he coaches and what he expects out of his players, I can really relate to his coaching style. We’re on the same page. I think it’s going to work out real well. I’m excited to get to work.”

Connections with Jeffcoat -- whose father, Jim, coached Riser and UH defensive linemen through 2010 -- and Texas defensive end Logan Mills, a fellow La Vernia native, made the final decision even easier for Riser.

He said he’s been told a scholarship is still a possibility if the Longhorns have any roster attrition this summer, but if that doesn’t work out Riser is fine with paying to be a Longhorn for one year.

After talking with Giles and Mack Brown on Saturday, Riser knows he’ll have plenty of catching up to do when he gets on campus. He’s confident his decision will end up being worth the risk.

“They’re expecting me to come in and play,” he said. “They told me I need to be ready as soon as I get here because I don’t have time to slow down and pick up the scheme. That’s OK with me, I know how things work. Again, I’m not going there to sit on the bench, and they’re not expecting me to.”


Texas' Strong Discusses Aggressive Offense, Defense
Longhorn Network analyst and Texas alum Ricky Williams sits down with Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who was hired to replace Mack Brown this off-season.Tags: Charlie Strong, Ricky Williams, Texas Longhorns, Longhorn Network