Texas Longhorns: Quandre Diggs

Top-10 player spring update: Texas

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
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During the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.

These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.

On Thursday, we continue with the Texas Longhorns.

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
John Albright/Icon SMIAfter a huge 2013 season, Cedric Reed will be the focus of the Longhorns' defense this fall.
1. Defensive end Cedric Reed: This is the guy Charlie Strong will build his defense around, a 6-foot-6, 258-pound senior who took his game to another level in 2013. During his monstrous junior campaign -- 79 tackles, 10 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles -- Reed often played just as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat, and sometimes better. Reed elected to return for his final season to not only earn his degree, but also to make a run at all the awards Jeffcoat collected and get Texas back to its winning ways.

2. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown: Brown has looked like a future NFL player from the day he first stepped foot on campus, and he started playing like it in 2013. In his first season as a starter, Brown racked up 68 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, two sacks and five pass breakups. He'll be a menace for opposing Big 12 linemen, and the former top-15 recruit has a chance to get even better under new defensive line coach Chris Rumph.

3. Running back Malcolm Brown: Texas is going to run the ball plenty under new coordinators Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson, and Brown enters his senior season with a chance to become one of the Big 12's premier backs. He finished sixth in the league in total rushing and surpassed 125 yards in each of his final three games. Brown is in even better shape today physically and has a chance to do big things in 2014.

4. Defensive back Quandre Diggs: Entering his fourth season as a starter, Diggs has the potential to make a huge impact in the new defense that Strong and DC Vance Bedford construct. He led the Longhorns with 10 pass breakups from his nickel spot and added 2.5 sacks, but no interceptions, in 2013. Whether he ends up at corner, safety or back in the nickel, Diggs is hungry and out to prove he's one of the nation's best at his position.

5. Running back Johnathan Gray: The big question mark is, when will Gray get back on the field? He's still recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last November and is hoping to be full strength by the start of fall camp. Even if Gray misses a nonconference game or two, Texas will have big plans for him upon his return. He's one of the conference's most dynamic backs and a critical cog in the Longhorns offense. Don't be surprised if Gray, a freaky athlete, is back in pads earlier than expected.

6. Wide receiver Jaxon Shipley: Shipley is probably underrated at this point, even if his 2013 season wasn't too sparkling from a statistical standpoint (team-high 56 catches, 589 yards, 1 TD). But no matter who's starting at quarterback this season, Shipley is going to be the go-to guy. He's been a starter since he first arrived in Austin, and Texas' new offensive attack will find ways to get him in space.

7. Quarterback David Ash: Should Ash be higher on this list? When he's fully healthy, yes, he's one of this program's most important pieces. The junior is back on the field this spring but won't take any contact. His early efforts have been encouraging, but he still has some rust to shake off, and Strong has been somewhat noncommittal when it comes to calling Ash his starter. If USC transfer Max Wittek joins the program this summer, Ash will have to fight to hold down the job. But when he was healthy in 2012, Ash was a top-25 passer in several key metrics and still has a bright future if he can avoid another concussion.

8. Linebacker Steve Edmond: We finally saw Edmond take a big step forward in 2013, with 73 tackles and two interceptions, but his junior season ended early because of a ruptured spleen. In this multiple defense, it will be interesting to see if Strong and Bedford experiment with playing Edmond down at defensive end or in some hybrid roles. Dalton Santos will push Edmond, too, but expect the senior to play a major role in Texas' new-look defense.

9. Linebacker Jordan Hicks: It's hard to justify ranking Hicks any higher after he's missed 19 games in his past two seasons. He is not competing in spring practice right now while he completes his recovery from a torn Achilles, but once he's ready to go, Hicks should be one of Texas' best linebackers and one of its leaders on defense. He only has one season left to play up to his five-star potential, but staying on the field is more important.

10.Wide receiver Kendall Sanders: Several other Longhorns could take this spot on the list and have more playing experience, but Sanders is definitely worth keeping an eye on this fall. A smooth, speedy athlete capable of game-changing plays, Sanders has one year of game experience under his belt and a chance to take over as Texas' top deep threat.
It’s Take Two Tuesday again, when we give our takes on a burning question in the league.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of jumping up and challenging Big 12 favorites Baylor and Oklahoma for the conference crown?

Take 1: Max Olson -- Texas

Oklahoma and Baylor should both be considered top-10 squads in 2014, there’s no dispute about that. They’re in terrific shape going forward. But the way this league is set up, it’s hard to see either emerging undefeated by December.

The team best built to challenge them is Texas, at least on paper. Remember, for all its flaws in 2013, the Longhorns were two quarters away from winning the Big 12 despite major injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. They lose key pieces, but could come back better than expected.

That’s because there’s a new sheriff in town. Charlie Strong is dedicated to changing the mentality of this program and bringing back the toughness and accountability that went missing in recent years. He put together an impressive staff and brought in a revered strength coach. This program is undergoing big changes.

And there’s enough talent on board to sustain another run at a conference title. Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson will build an offense around the run game trio of Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron, and there’s good depth at receiver and on the line. What Texas needs most is a full year from David Ash, but Max Wittek seems likely to become the insurance option there.

If Texas is going to challenge the league favorites, it’ll be with a defense that brings back leaders at all three levels (Cedric Reed, Steve Edmond, Quandre Diggs) and is full of experienced talent. This is a unit that will line up a bunch of different ways and cause a lot of problems.

Revamping this Texas program will take time, but the Longhorns could have enough to make another run in 2014.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- Kansas State

[+] EnlargeJake Waters
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesJake Waters was one of the nation's most effective quarterbacks during the second half of last season.
The Longhorns certainly have the talent and supporting cast to seriously compete for a Big 12 title. But until they find the answer at quarterback -- and I’m dubious they will in Strong’s first season – it’s hard to see them doing so.

The Kansas State Wildcats have no such issues. And they too have the surrounding cast to make a run at the Bears and Sooners for the league championship.

After struggling early, Jake Waters settled in at quarterback the last half of the season and cut talented playmaker Daniel Sams out of the rotation. From Oct. 26 on, Waters produced the 13th-best Adjusted QBR in the country, according to ESPN Stats & Info, while leading the Wildcats to wins in six of their final seven games (he threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in the lone loss, too).

Besides Waters, K-State also boasts one of the top wide receivers in the nation in the uncoverable Tyler Lockett, who had the third-most receiving yards in college football during the same Oct. 26-on stretch.

On the other side, Bill Snyder replenished his defense with a trio of ESPN JC 50 signees in defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales, outside linebacker D'Vonta Derricott and cornerback Danzel McDaniel, who should fill the slots in the lineup where the Wildcats have holes.

K-State will have to earn its way into the conference title chase, with road trips to both Baylor and Oklahoma. But K-State gets the Longhorns in the Little Apple, where it hasn’t lost to Texas since 2002.

The Wildcats also get defending national runner-up Auburn in Manhattan, Kan., earlier in September. If they topple the Tigers in that Thursday night clash, the rest of the Big 12 will quickly realize that K-State is a legitimate contender.
As we await the start of spring ball, we’ve been examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12. Thursday, we close this series out with special teams.

1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.

2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAlong with being a top-flight wide receiver, Kansas State's Tyler Lockett can also provide big plays in the return game.
3. Kansas State: The Wildcats feature one of the best kickoff return men in the game in Tyler Lockett, who doubles as an All-American WR candidate. Jack Cantele, the younger brother of All-Big 12 K-State kicker Anthony Cantele, only missed two field goal attempts as a sophomore and nailed a 41-yarder as time expired to beat TCU. Defensive tackle Travis Britz also returns after leading the nation with four blocked kicks.

4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.

5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.

6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,

7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.

8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.

9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.

10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.

2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.

3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.

5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.

6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.

8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.

9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.

10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.

Who to watch in spring: Duke Thomas

February, 25, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the second part of a weeklong series taking a closer look at Texas players worth watching when the Longhorns begin spring practices in three weeks.

The right word might be trust. Duke Thomas earned a lot of trust in 2013.

It started around this time last season, when the then-sophomore was so electric in spring practices that Texas coaches talked seriously about letting him become a two-way player.

He lined up at wide receiver in the spring game and caught three passes. He could return kicks, too. Thomas had been on campus less than a year and he was already emerging as one of Texas’ most promising underclassmen.

[+] EnlargeDuke Thomas
John Albright/Icon SMIDuke Thomas was solid as a first-year starter in 2013, but the Longhorns need more from him this upcoming season.
That trust only grew in fall camp, to the point where Duane Akina was so confident in Thomas’ ability to become a starter he moved Quandre Diggs into a nickel role. Texas had to get Thomas on the field, and one of the nation’s best DB coaches believed he was ready.

For the most part, he was. Thomas didn’t get exposed in his first year as a starter. He was solid, sometimes great. He led the Longhorns with three interceptions. He started 10 games, notched 50 tackles, five pass breakups and 17 returns.

Two of those picks came in critical victories over Oklahoma and Texas Tech. And Thomas was humbled a time or two, most notably when Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage beat him and raced 97 yards for a touchdown.

He put in a year of starting time. He learned and he got better. What’s he capable of as a junior?

Texas needs Thomas to take the next step, especially with Carrington Byndom gone and Sheroid Evans on the mend from a torn ACL. Diggs is back for his final season and brings the kind of leadership and swagger this secondary needs.

Thomas, meanwhile, has to bring his best and impress new position coaches Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughn.

He’s got to show the same stuff he displayed last spring and again in fall camp, the kind of talent that makes sidelining him impossible. But staying on the field won’t be enough, not if this Texas defense wants to keep up in a year when every Big 12 school is seemingly loaded at receiver.

In this league, the cornerback spot can become a real advantage for Texas in 2014. But that’s going to depend on just how much better Thomas can get this spring and beyond.
Monday, we revealed the five best student sections in the Big 12, and Texas was not included among the top five.

That didn't sit well with Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs, who went on Twitter to post his frustration with the Longhors' student fan culture while also offering suggestions:


 


Texas defensive end Cedric Reed also weighed in:


Diggs and Reed could be on to something. The Longhorns have not had the best home-field advantage in recent years, losing at least two home games in each of the last four years. Improving the fan culture at Texas will be something that new athletic director Steve Patterson and coach Charlie Strong will have to consider as they try to restore Texas football back to the nation's elite.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Duane Akina, the longtime Texas defensive backs coach and caretaker of “DBU,” will not be retained on new coach Charlie Strong’s staff, a source has confirmed.

Akina had coached the Longhorns secondary for nearly 13 years but acknowledged his tenure at Texas is over on Friday in a series of posts on his Twitter account.



Akina came to Texas in 2001 and in in his time in Austin coached 11 current NFL defensive backs, two Thorpe Award winners and 14 first-team All-Big 12 selections.

Akina briefly left in January 2011 for Arizona and returned to coach the unit again for the 2011 season. He had served as assistant head coach under Mack Brown since 2008.

His departure was not a major surprise, considering expected defensive coordinator Vance Bedford coached the secondary at Louisville, but the news that Akina is leaving elicited a strong reaction on Friday from his former players.



Texas has not lost any verbal commitments over the news that Akina is leaving, but two commits said they were stunned by the news.

Three-star safety Jason Hall (Grand Prairie, Texas/South Grand Prairie) said he’s still solid in his pledge but was disappointed to learn he won’t get to play for Akina next season.

“It’s a tragic loss for Texas, the one who built ‘DBU’ where it’s at right now,” Hall said, “but I’m pretty sure Coach Strong has his logical reasons to not rehire Coach Akina.”

Jalen Campbell, a cornerback in Texas’ 2015 class from Corpus Christi (Texas) Flour Bluff, has been committed since last March and said the prospect of continuing the "DBU" tradition at Texas under Akina was a big reason why he chose Texas.

“It was surprised and I’m still kind of shocked a little bit,” Campbell said. “Nobody really knew if he was going to stay there or get kept or not. I liked him a lot, he’s real fun. Even when I went for sophomore day, he was yelling and screaming and stuff. It was exciting to see a DB coach with that much passion.”

Beford has yet to be announced as Texas' defensive coordinator but is officially listed in the UT directory. Incoming strength coach Pat Moorer and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary have also been added to the directory.

Texas Ten: Top Longhorns for 2014

January, 10, 2014
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With three of Texas’ top juniors declaring they will return for their senior seasons on Thursday, we now know who Charlie Strong will be working with in his first season as head coach. A look ahead at Texas’ top 10 returning players going into 2014:

1. DE Cedric Reed, senior

Convincing the All-Big 12 defensive end to return for his senior season was one of Strong’s first major victories this week. The 6-foot-6, 258-pound end was a monster in 2013, racking up 79 tackles, 10 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. He considered going pro after his breakout season but comes back for what should be a significant role leading Texas’ defensive line. Reed made it no secret he wants to win the trophies and awards that Jackson Jeffcoat piled up this season, and he’ll be one of the Big 12’s best as his position next fall.

2. DT Malcom Brown, junior

Texas coaches believed they had a surefire future NFL defensive tackle in Brown when he signed, and he’s played up to those expectations through two seasons. The former top-15 recruit recorded 68 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, two sacks and five pass breakups in his first season as a starter and was a handful for opposing linemen. He’ll only get better, and that’s a scary thing for the rest of the conference.

3. RB Malcolm Brown, senior

A finally healthy Brown finished 2013 strong and goes into his final season with plenty of confidence. He finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing yards with 904 and 11 total touchdowns this season and closed out his junior campaign with three straight 125-plus yard games. He’ll be one of the offensive leaders next year.

[+] EnlargeGray
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsA healthy Johnathan Gray will boost Texas' backfield.
4. RB Johnathan Gray, junior

Gray is undoubtedly one of Texas’ three best players when he’s healthy, and he was on his way to a 1,000-yard season before suffering a torn Achilles at West Virginia on Nov. 9. While Gray is optimistic he’ll be back in time for fall camp, the Longhorn staff should proceed with patience. Whenever he returns, Texas will have one of the nation’s better rushing duos.

5. CB Quandre Diggs, senior

If we’re comparing career resumes, you’d probably have to rank Diggs higher on this list. He’s accomplished plenty during his time in Austin, enough that the defensive coaches trusted him to take on the nickel spot as a junior and play all over the field. He collected 58 tackles, a team-best 10 pass breakups and 2.5 sacks but no interceptions. With Carrington Byndom graduating, his role in this secondary is crucial.

6. WR Jaxon Shipley, senior

Shipley caught a team-high 56 passes, so it’s hard to call his junior season a disappointment, but he finished with 589 yards and one touchdown. He got targeted 82 times on the year and should see plenty more with Mike Davis graduating. Shipley’s the go-to guy and always has been.

7. LB Jordan Hicks, senior

Hicks might be ranked too high here, if we’re being honest. He’s missed 19 games in the last two seasons due to season-ending injuries, though in fairness his latest -- a torn Achilles -- was a freak accident while running in coverage. When he’s on the field, he’s one of Texas’ best and a trusted leader.

8. QB David Ash, senior

Not too sure where this guy belongs on the list, but he’s an important asset for whoever becomes Strong’s offensive coordinator. Ash missed 10 games this season with concussion issues but was a top-25 passer in QBR and passing efficiency in 2012. Strong needs this guy back and better than ever.

9. LB Steve Edmond, senior

If you think Edmond should be ranked higher, you might be right. Edmond was enjoying a bit of a breakthrough as a junior, with 73 tackles and two interceptions, before a ruptured spleen suffered against Texas Tech ended his season. He’ll have to battle Dalton Santos for his spot, but he could be in for a strong final season if he embraces the coaching change.

10.WR Kendall Sanders, junior

Lots of players merit consideration for this final spot, most notably Daje Johnson, but we’re going to take a chance on Sanders breaking out in 2014. He caught 37 passes for 361 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore but has the full package of skills -- size, speed, long arms, good hands -- to become a big-time target in place of Davis.
New Texas coach Charlie Strong has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to evaluating his returning talent. The former defensive coordinator should like what he has on defense.

On Tuesday, we brought you a look ahead at the 2014 offensive depth chart for Texas. Here's a breakdown of what the Longhorns are working with on defense. It's a unit that loses key starters but brings back considerable experience.

Remember, this is subject to change plenty in the coming months as Strong's staff shuffles the lineup and discovers new breakout players.

Defensive End
Cedric Reed, senior
Bryce Cottrell, sophomore

Once the new staff is in place, winning over Reed and convincing him to return for his senior season will be an absolute must for Strong. He finished with 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a junior and was just as good as Jeffcoat for most of the season. Between Cottrell and Caleb Bluiett, who started in the Valero Alamo Bowl, Texas must find a significant contributor. Both are under a lot of pressure if Reed goes pro.

Defensive Tackle
[+] EnlargeMalcom Brown
John Albright/Icon SMIMalcom Brown had a solid sophomore season at defensive tackle.
Malcom Brown, junior
Hassan Ridgeway, sophomore

Brown has the makings of becoming an All-Big 12-caliber defensive tackle and maybe more. He’ll be one of the best players on the field for this defense in 2014. Ridgeway is still young and coming along, but showed flashes in limited stints this season. Big potential there.

Defensive Tackle
Desmond Jackson, senior
Alex Norman, sophomore

Tank Jackson has 13 starts and plenty of experience. Norman and fellow redshirt freshman Paul Boyette disappointed in their first year of playing, but Texas is running low on depth here after taking some recruiting hits. Abilene’s Jake McMillon is the only DT pledge left. Strong will have to recruit this spot hard in the next month.

Defensive End
Shiro Davis, junior
Derick Roberson, freshman

There should be some fairly good competition to replace Jackson Jeffcoat, and nobody would be surprised if Davis wins the job. He’s a freakish athlete and speed rusher who flashed in 2013 and needs an expanded role. Roberson needs to put on weight, but he was a sack master in high school and is one of the gems of this class.

Weakside Linebacker
Jordan Hicks, senior
Kendall Thompson, senior

What is Texas getting in year five with Hicks? The injury-prone former five-star recruit went down with a torn Achilles four games into the season and has missed 19 games in the past two seasons. He’s a leader when he’s healthy. This is his last chance. Thompson and Tevin Jackson return to provide depth.

Strongside Linebacker
Dalton Santos, junior
Peter Jinkens, junior

It’s hard to know which direction Texas will go in at some of these spots, as both seem like obvious candidates. That’s the challenge with everyone coming back. The Longhorns’ next defensive coordinator has the luxury of several options with every UT linebacker slated to return next season.

Middle Linebacker
Steve Edmond, senior
Tim Cole, sophomore

It’s entirely possible Santos takes over the middle next season, considering the way he finished this season, but don’t count out Edmond. He had a promising junior year before missing the final two games. Cole got a few opportunities in his debut year, but has work to do.

Cornerback
Quandre Diggs, senior
Sheroid Evans, junior

Diggs had a solid junior season and won’t be turning pro this offseason. He played all over the field in his nickel role, but with Carrington Byndom graduating, that likely means he’ll slide back to corner. The speedy, long-armed Evans has as much potential as anyone in this secondary, but suffered a torn ACL this season.

Free Safety
Mykkele Thompson, senior
Adrian Colbert, sophomore

[+] EnlargeDuke Thomas
John Albright/Icon SMIDuke Thomas made three interceptions in 2013.
Could Thompson’s future be at cornerback? It’s worth considering, especially since he’s not much of a hitter. He started 12 games in 2013 and must finally put it all together in his last season. Colbert is a thumper who could fight his way into the lineup.

Strong Safety
Josh Turner, senior
Leroy Scott, senior

With Adrian Phillips graduating, this is presumably Turner’s spot to lose. He’s played in 37 games. Scott is sneaky good and made a few nice plays this season. It’s time to see what he can do with more responsibility.

Cornerback
Duke Thomas, junior
Antwuan Davis, redshirt freshman

Thomas took a few lumps in his first season of starting, but also led the Longhorns with three interceptions. Davis is a guy coaches would’ve loved to play in 2013, but they didn’t want to burn his redshirt. He’s in for a big-time debut both on defense and special teams.

Punter
Nick Rose, junior
Will Russ, senior

Texas should have a fairly open competition for Anthony Fera’s punting duties. Rose’s specialty is kickoffs, and Russ was hampered by injuries in the past but should be in the mix. So is walk-on Mitchell Becker.

Brown, Texas saved year one game at a time

November, 14, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Mason Walters was reminded Monday of this bit of trivia: Texas' last six opponents have won a total of 23 games. Its final three foes are 23-4.

Daunting stuff for a team that finally entered the BCS standings this week, right? The offensive lineman crunched the numbers for a moment, then produced a firm answer.

"We only have to beat one of those teams this week," Walters said. "I think that's the way we do it."

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesMack Brown had turned Texas' season around by convincing the Longhorns to just take it one week at a time.
That's the company line for the Longhorns this season, repeated and reinforced week after week until players started realizing just how effective that myopia can be.

How did coach Mack Brown pull this all off? How did he take a team on the brink at 1-2, one that lost its quarterback and had too many injured starters, and swing this season with a six wins in a row?

The easy answer is that Texas had talented players all along, that somehow this group came together and starting playing up to its experience and potential. These assistant coaches probably aren't receiving their due credit.

But Walters' answer speaks to the mentality Brown has stubbornly preached since Texas' second loss. His Longhorns avoided disaster by living one day and one game at a time.

Brown couldn't control the chatter about his job status. He couldn't control the perception that Texas' season was in a shambles. He and his coaches stuck to what was in front of them: Beat Kansas State. Start 1-0 and start over.

Two months later, it's clear that mentality has trickled down to his players and taken hold in the locker room. Nobody is questioning their focus. Cornerback Quandre Diggs, as confident and hardheaded a leader as Texas has, isn't letting anyone look ahead.

"I don't want to hear about the games we have following Oklahoma State. I really don't care," Diggs said. "I just want to win this week and that's all I care about. I don't care about a Big 12 championship in the future, because that kind of thinking gets you beat. I'm worried about this week."

Brown is teaching a master class in crisis management right now. Those focused on finding a way to replace him in 2014 are missing out.

It's not that Texas players lacked focus in losses to BYU and Ole Miss. It's about how they've responded since. They held a players-only meeting after the Ole Miss defeat. The goal, lineman Donald Hawkins said, was to throw out the hard feelings and put aside differences. This was a mature enough team -- 17 upperclassmen were starting at the time -- to recognize the fork in the road and the way to find the right path.

"We really did, after taking those two losses, figure out that, wow, this is kind of a cutthroat environment we're in after a loss," Walters said. "If we win each one every week, things can only get better."

Added Diggs: "Win the week. Win the day. That should've been our goal from the jump."

Meanwhile, their head coach had to find a way to ignore everything being said about him and his program. Brown would joke that, at Texas, everyone wants the head coach fired after every loss. Publicly, he'd argue the national chatter didn't matter.

The only way to shut people up is by winning. And he's doing just that.

"What's the saying? A wolf doesn't concern himself with the opinions of sheep," Hawkins said.

And now that the noise is dwindling, we can step back and recognize what Brown is accomplishing.

He believed Texas would be good in 2013 if quarterback David Ash had a strong junior year. Ash hasn't played in nearly two months. Starting tackle Josh Cochran is out. Top linebacker Jordan Hicks is done for the year, and now leading rusher Johnathan Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley are too.

Yet his team keeps rolling. The Longhorns climbed out of their two-loss hole one test at a time. That's all Brown has asked of them.

The week of the Oklahoma game, national writers were asking Case McCoy and others to defend Brown and to explain why he was still the right man to lead Texas. The responses were understandably defiant. So were the results.

"I play every week as if it's my last," McCoy said. "He's coaching every week like it's his last. It can only trickle down when people see that."

And McCoy says he believes his coach is having as much fun as ever right now. Brown says the postgame locker room after beating West Virginia in overtime last weekend was one of the best he has ever witnessed. He sees an inspired team.

What the players see is a coach who keeps fighting. Walters hopes Brown looks back on 2013 as one of the best coaching jobs he has ever done. But the Longhorns have to take care of business in the next four weeks for any of that to matter.

"If we reflect too much on it, and don't focus on the next week," Walters said, "it's going to get pretty real pretty quickly."

Planning for success: Texas

November, 14, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas – The touchdowns are usually all most people notice, and all they remember days later. The little plays, the ones that don’t pop up during Sunday film review, get Mack Brown just as excited.

You don’t win games like Texas’ 47-40 overtime victory over West Virginia last weekend without sneaking in a handful of those small, but significant plays. Under Brown, Texas is 22-5 in games decided by three points or less. You don’t win those without getting the upper hand on a few sneaky-important plays.

[+] EnlargeSteve Edmond
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsTexas made just enough plays to beat West Virginia and will need more of the same against Oklahoma State.
There were plenty to choose from in Morgantown, W.V., last Saturday. Cornerback Carrington Byndom snuck in and blew up a run on third-and-1 late in the fourth quarter. Texas preserved its timeouts for its final offensive drive by stopping that conversion.

While nobody else was looking, tight end Greg Daniels dove on a Malcolm Brown fumble near the end zone on second and goal in overtime. Texas scored on the very next play.

On West Virginia’s first offensive snap in overtime, Mario Alford took a reverse 20 yards to the 5. He could've scored, but Texas safety Adrian Phillips fought off a block and managed to force Alford out of bounds.

On second-and-goal on the Longhorns’ game-deciding goal-line stand, cornerback Quandre Diggs got a finger on Paul Millard's pass to an open receiver. The box score didn’t credit him for a pass breakup. On the final play of the night, Diggs pressured Millard with a blitz off the edge and was smart enough to avoid roughing the passer.

Those aren’t glorious plays like Steve Edmond’s interception or Jaxon Shipley’s touchdown, both of which merited praise, but these details garner almost no attention from the public and they helped swing a shootout on the road that sent Texas home 6-0 in the Big 12.

Under Mack Brown, Texas has now pulled of 31 second-half comebacks and 20 fourth-quarter comebacks. The Longhorns might need a few more of those plays to go their way against a 12th-ranked Oklahoma State team that’s a tough out in all three phases.

What makes the Longhorns so proficient in these close games? You could chalk it up to practice habits or savvy play-calling or plenty of other factors. It’s a bit simpler than that to co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.

“Me personally, just my own personal opinion, I think you’ve got good players,” Applewhite said. “When you have Vince Young and Colt McCoy and you have Ricky Williams and you have Jaxon Shipley, I just think players usually end up winning the game over the course of time.

“I’d love to attribute it to something out there, but I think it’s good players making big-time plays in big-time situations.”

But contributions like the ones Byndom, Daniels, Phillips and Diggs made don’t go unnoticed. They’re the kind of detail plays that come from a 2013 team loaded with experienced veterans.

It’s also a group that has produced enough close wins and last-second victories to know how to thrive in these high-pressure spots.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be in a close game with us in the fourth quarter,” senior guard Mason Walters said. “I’m really confident the guys I play football with thrive in that. I really think it’s that pride in being able to win close games that really helps us.”

And by now, this Texas team has had enough close calls to know the “big-time plays” Applewhite seeks aren’t always the ones that put points on the scoreboard.

Diggs embraces chase of brother's legacy

November, 4, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- His jersey and an oil painting of him hang in the hallways of the Texas football facility. His picture is on the wall of the “DBU” room alongside the legends. His highlights are forever cut into secondary coach Duane Akina’s greatest hits.

And his little brother wants it all.

Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs wants to live moments such as the one he witnessed Friday night, when big brother Quentin Jammer was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor.

Diggs watched with his family, wearing a suit complete with an orange shirt and pocket square and a pink bow tie, and you can guess what was on his mind. No doubt he could envision himself at that hotel ballroom podium, the bronze statuette in his hands.

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs and Quentin Jammer
University of TexasQuandre Diggs wants to be just like his brother, NFL cornerback Quentin Jammer. They were born 13 years apart.
All in due time. On this night, Diggs snuck away from the Longhorns' team hotel for a chance to celebrate the reason he plays this game. His brother always had it all. Now it’s his turn to go earn it.

Jammer and Diggs share an uncommon bond for brothers born 13 years apart. They both admit they’d probably clash more if they were any closer in age. And now, as the end of one brother’s career nears, another is just beginning.

The story of their brotherhood isn’t about Diggs living in a shadow. He loves the shadow.

“There’s no other role model that I’d rather have in life, honestly,” Diggs said.

They’ve been scrappy, merciless competitors ever since they were young boys living in Angleton, Texas. Diggs says he loves his brother to death and wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world, but that doesn’t mean he drops his tough-guy personality around him.

Jammer was a unanimous All-American and Thorpe Award finalist as a Longhorns cornerback from 1997 to 2001. He’s a 12-year NFL veteran. Diggs has always promised he’s going to be even better.

“Good luck,” Jammer says with a grin.

Diggs has been boasting like that since he was a boy, always trying to keep up with the guy he looks up to most. Their oldest memory together, the story they like to tell, is one of Diggs’ fascination with doing anything Jammer can.

When he was 5, he once watched as Jammer played with a pocket knife in his bedroom. When he set it down and walked off to take a shower, Diggs pounced.

Out of sheer curiosity, the young boy tried to slice a hole in Jammer’s waterbed. That worked a little too well. He covered up the resulting mess with a pillow and bolted out of the room.

“When I came back after my shower, I jumped in the bed and got splashed,” Jammer said.

“I was already in the living room by that time,” Diggs said, “because I knew what was going to happen.”

What followed was the first and only time Jammer had to give his little brother a spanking. Jammer has been teaching Diggs lessons ever since.

He’s the one who taught little Quandre to catch a football by firing full-speed passes in the front yard. The boy was always tagging along, always wanting to play catch, even after Jammer became a Longhorn.

“You don’t really think about it,” Jammer said. “Because he’s so young, you try to ease out of the door and he’s like, ‘Nope, coming with you.’ ”

Diggs got to hang around the likes of Ricky Williams, Kwame Cavil and Wane McGarity. He liked to duel Major Applewhite in video games and ran routes for the quarterback in the parking lot outside the apartment.

“It’s crazy to think about it now,” Diggs said, “that the way [Applewhite] talks trash to me now is the way he would talk trash to me when I was younger: ‘Get out the way, little man,’ and things like that.”

Diggs' big brother was a celebrity. He heard about it everywhere he went. Teachers would swoon at the stories he’d tell of hanging with the beloved Applewhite. Even after Jammer went to the NFL with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2002 draft and his fame kept rising, a growing Diggs was never afraid to call after Chargers games and offer his honest take.

“His first five or six years in the league, I was his hardest critic,” Diggs said. “If he did something wrong, I was on him telling him what he did wrong, like I really knew what was going on.”

“See, that’s the difference in his personality,” Jammer said. “He would just tell you right after the game.”

The truth is, Diggs had nothing but affection for his idol. He’ll never forget the time he got to stand on the field and high-five Jammer and his Texas teammates as they ran out of the tunnel amid billowing white smoke.

“It was something that I always wanted to be a part of,” Diggs said.

He’s living that dream now, and he knows how good he’s got it. Diggs is coached by the same expert defensive backs coach who molded Jammer. His old nemesis Applewhite is the co-offensive coordinator who helped recruit him to Texas.

And the quest to surpass his brother's accomplishments is ongoing. Diggs has started 31 games at Texas and has developed into a dangerous weapon for Akina playing the nickel, recording 2.5 sacks off the edge this fall. Opposing quarterbacks know not to throw his way. And, no surprise here: He’s as confident as ever.

“I feel like when I’m on the field and when I step on the field, I’m the best player on the field, regardless of who we’re playing,” Diggs said.

He’s just as quick to declare Jammer one of the best to ever wear burnt orange. They’re different players. Jammer prided himself on hard hits and lockdown coverage. Diggs calls himself the better playmaker. Better hands, too.

“I feel like the one thing we do have in common is we’re both physical as heck and not going to take much crap from anybody on the field,” Diggs said. “That’s for sure.”

Said Jammer: “I didn’t just want to beat you; I wanted to beat the hell out of you.”

The standard his brother set more than a decade ago, the one Jammer continues to uphold at age 34 with the Denver Broncos, ensures Diggs is never satisfied. In order to be better, he has to be the best.

“When I walk past those pictures of him being on the wall, it makes me want to grind that much more,” he said.

Jammer encourages the goal. Keep chopping wood, he says, and continue down the path. Perhaps, someday, that path will lead the brothers back to a hotel ballroom to revel in Diggs’ career.

“It’s just another thing that helps me chase his legacy,” Diggs said.

Whaley's rumble sparks another Texas rout

November, 2, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Few things wake up a bored crowd and a sputtering team better than a 300-pound lineman rumbling for a touchdown.

Chris Whaley just has that knack for stealing scenes and swinging the emotions of nervous Texas fans in an instant. His 31-yard interception for a score was the game-changer in Dallas last month, the kind of confidence-booster the Longhorns needed to finally knock off Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Phillips, Chris Whaley
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTexas defense punctuated another strong outing with a fumble recovery score from Chris Whaley.
The senior defensive tackle struck again Saturday, giving Texas precisely the jolt it needed in a 35-13 win over Kansas to improve to 6-2 and 5-0 on the Big 12.

Midway through the third quarter, with Texas up just 14-6 on the conference’s worst team, fate called Whaley’s number once more. Cedric Reed blindsided a panicked KU quarterback Jake Heaps from behind. The ball squirted out.

“I thought, ‘Aw, it’s happening again,’” Whaley said.

The football took two quick bounces off the turf, then off a nearby referee’s knee and right into Whaley’s arms. He rumbled 40 yards untouched, the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium crowd exploded and the suddenly excited Longhorns rolled from there.

"The strip-sack fumble was honestly the key play of the game where all of the momentum changed in one play, and that was it," Kansas coach Charlie Weis said.

How did Whaley, a former running back, fare in his impromptu 40-yard dash? Maybe 4.4 seconds? He giggled.

“Maybe,” he said.

Maybe not, though Whaley couldn’t help but embrace perhaps the only opportunity he’ll get to high-step to a score.

“He’s definitely not Prime Time,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “If he keeps scoring touchdowns, people are going to start trying to imitate him.”

Like Whaley’s moves in the open field, the rest of this game wasn’t exactly pretty. But Texas’ offense churned out two more touchdown drives and held KU to 24 yards and two punts on its next three drives to finish off an otherwise inconsistent showing against the now 2-6 Jayhawks, losers of 26 consecutive Big 12 games.

The ever-optimistic Mack Brown finds the joy in every win.

“It was a great game,” Brown said. “It’s a ‘W.’ We’ve won five straight. We’re 5-0 in the league. We’re leading the league. The objective was to get a ‘W.’ When you can win and have a lot of things to fix, I think it’s wonderful. Better than last year’s Kansas game, too.”

There’s plenty that can be nitpicked in this ballgame. The Longhorn offense got off to a slow start and didn’t seem to overwhelm KU’s well-prepared defense physically, at least not until late. Case McCoy threw two interceptions and admitted he needs to play better.

But Texas’ defense once again took care of business, not allowing a touchdown until less than four minutes remained. This unit has let opponents enter the end zone just once in each of their past three games and is holding teams to 13.3 points and 271.6 yards per game during that span.

“We have to keep doing it. That’s the challenge,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “You have to keep doing it day in and day out.”

The last time Texas played in this stadium, 42 days ago, it was trying to convince themselves they still had a chance at playing for a Big 12 title. They’d just beaten Kansas State 31-21 to begin this streak.

Wins were hard to come by back then for a frustrated 2-2 squad. Now they’re back to a more familiar situation: Winning games by decent margins and having plenty to improve upon.

“When you stop celebrating a win, when you start taking them for granted, that’s when the game doesn’t come as fun,” McCoy said. “We’ve learned wins are hard to come by in this conference. People can sneak up on you any time. We’ll take a win any day in this conference.”

Running back Johnathan Gray, typically the workhorse of this team, had his least-effective game since the season opener with 68 yards on 18 attempts. So Malcolm Brown more than picked up the slack with 119 yards and four touchdowns.

And Gray is going home happy, he said, because he’ll take a win. The sting of those early-season losses makes days like these sweeter, no matter the margin of victory.

“This is definitely why I came to Texas,” Gray said. “Guys loving to play football and having a passion for the game -- that’s what we have right now in the room.”

Whaley doesn’t know if he has more rumbling, stumbling scores left up his sleeve. He can't explain why these footballs keep finding his hands. But he does know his Longhorns are ready to keep this run going.

“We’re not done yet,” he said.

Texas keeping us-against-world mentality

November, 1, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The music inside the Texas locker room briefly echoed into the hallways as players packed up after their 30-7 win over TCU. Maybe it was booming from a player’s headphones, or maybe everyone was listening.

The track playing was off Drake’s new “Nothing Was the Same" album. It’s safe to say, now that their team is rolling again, the Longhorns in that locker room are latching on to the rapper’s motto of late: "No new friends."

[+] EnlargeCase McCoy
John Albright/Icon SMIQuarterback Case McCoy and his Texas teammates closed ranks during a rough start to the season. Now their perseverance is paying off.
“If you weren’t there when we were struggling, we don’t need you there now,” safety Adrian Phillips said last week. “Of course, that’s how it always happens. When you lose, they hate you. When you win, they love you.”

Those fans he’s calling out are loving the Longhorns more than ever these days. A month ago, there were whispers -- and, on message boards, shouts -- that this team would have a hard time getting to six wins.

And then the Longhorns ran off four straight wins to start Big 12 play and trounced Oklahoma to the complete surprise of most. Now they’re a win away from six and playing like the talented, veteran-loaded team folks dreamed of in the preseason.

Now that times are good again, though, the players say they haven’t forgotten how quickly that same fan base turned on them when the record was 1-2.

“I really don’t care about the bandwagon and all that,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “If you with us, stay with us. If you’re not, get out the way.”

Diggs and his teammates plan to hold on to their us-against-the-world mentality, even in the face of win after win. Now that the fans are back on board, they’ll need a few new motivators.

Here’s one: Texas is tied for first place in the Big 12 standings but remains unranked. Wins over 2-5 Kansas and 3-5 West Virginia in the next two weeks might not change that, either, even if the Longhorns are rolling with a six-game winning streak.

Quarterback Case McCoy isn’t that surprised. He recognizes his team is still being punished for its early-season losses to BYU and Ole Miss.

“I think the way we started off the season was not acceptable for this program,” he said. “We’ll keep fighting against that. Our job isn’t to rank ourselves, thank goodness. Our job is to keep winning. If we keep winning, the polls will take care of themselves.”

So there’s the disrespect card. That one usually proves valuable in locker rooms. How about a little revenge, too?

Kansas embarrassed Texas last season in Lawrence and came oh-so-close to pulling the upset. West Virginia handed Texas its first loss of 2012, in a game the Longhorns could have won if not for a few untimely mistakes late.

“Trust me, we will hear about that,” McCoy said. “We understand how we played against them last year, the immaturity that we had. There are still guys and teams we definitely have a target for, we’re going after. That’s part of it.

“Our goal is a Big 12 championship. You slip up and lose one, that quickly starts fading out the window.”

The Longhorns were a two-score underdog against OU and a two-point dog at TCU. They’ll be favored in the next two weeks; there’s little doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean they won’t still feel underestimated.

Diggs is happy to embrace the feeling. He says the days following those first two losses were brutal. But they provided a catalyst for this team, a need to close ranks and stop paying attention to what anybody outside that locker room was saying.

Just because the Longhorns have won four games doesn’t mean that changes. Just because fans are showing him love on Twitter again and hopping back on the bandwagon doesn’t change a thing. Nor does it matter if Texas is a 28-point favorite this week. Diggs doesn’t want to hear it.

“Nah, keep us underdogs,” he said. “We want to be underdogs. Leave us the underdogs. What do they say: The hungry dog gets the bone. That’s been our mentality. That’s just what we do.”

How Texas has grown under Greg Robinson

October, 22, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Greg Robinson is neither elusive nor evasive, but he does remain something of an enigma.

He’s met with reporters a few times in his nearly 45 days on the job as Texas’ new defensive coordinator. When the 62-year-old speaks, he rarely talks specifics about his defense, focusing more on the simple concept of hard work.

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
AP Photo/Eric GayGreg Robinson's changes to Texas' defense have been subtle but focused on fine-tuning and cleaning up mistakes.
That ideal makes it difficult for Robinson to explain why the Longhorns have enjoyed a defensive turnaround since he replaced Manny Diaz on Sept. 8. He makes it sound as if this would’ve happened eventually, as if it didn’t take much to produce better results.

“It’s easy to say a lot of things. The proof is in the pudding. Time will tell,” Robinson said. “But I just know this: We’re going to work very hard. Come Saturday, we’ll be able to evaluate. But I don’t know that there’s any magic wand that this is what does it. It’s a matter of just working and focusing in. That part of it, I believe that’s what we’ve got around here, guys who can do those things.”

This is essentially Robinson’s argument. The players got more reps every week. The coaches did some fine-tuning. Together they had a positive experience in a 31-21 win over Kansas State. They gained confidence. The puzzle pieces came together against Oklahoma.

He’s selling this process short, of course, and doing so rather humbly.

“I wasn’t real interested in revolutionizing anything in the defense or things like that,” he said. “There might be a twist here or a twist there, but I think it was just trying to help them do certain things and techniques they were doing and do them better. Maybe there’s a little something I can give that can add something to it.”

Ask Texas’ defensive leaders what changed since Robinson arrived and they’ll give mostly similar accounts. His imprint on the defense, while understated, is clear to them.

He brings energy and passion to every practice. He demands technicians. Do a drill right or you’ll do it again.

He’s taking a hands-on approach with every position on defense, not just the linebackers. He gets his point across without being a rah-rah guy, defensive tackle Chris Whaley said.

With 30-plus years of experience under his belt, he can easily spot a flaw, big or small, and explain how to get it fixed. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said Robinson is specific and precise in those moments.

He also puts trust in Texas’ veterans. Cornerback Quandre Diggs says Robinson has a selected group of starters -- Diggs is one of them -- that he knows can get the defense going at any moment. Players respond well to that.

“He’s always wired up before practice,” Diggs said. “He has his guys that he talks to and he lets those guys know that we’ll have a great practice and we can’t settle just because we had a great practice the day before.”

He’s a positive influence. He gets guys to buy in and believe. And doggone it, people like him.

These are the little touches Texas needed. Its early-season struggles were not a product of inexperience or a lack of talent, and he hasn’t steered the defense too far away from what it intended to be under Diaz.

“Coach Robinson, he basically kind of reiterated what Coach Diaz was trying to get across and I think as a unit, as we saw how things happened, we took it upon ourselves that we were going to get this changed around,” safety Adrian Phillips said.

It’s hard to fairly compare the results Robinson has coaxed out of his players with Texas’ performances in Diaz’s two games of 2013. The first came against a New Mexico State team that’s now 0-7. The second was one of the worst performances in school history.

But throw out Robinson’s debut game against Ole Miss -- he had just three practices to prepare for the Rebels and zero time to make meaningful changes -- and the three-game progress is evident.

Since Sept. 21, Texas’ defense ranks No. 44 nationally in total yards, 52nd against the run and 53rd against the pass. This unit forced as many turnovers (seven) as it allowed touchdowns during that span, with 13 three-and-outs.

If those fairly average national ranks aren’t impressive, don’t forget that Texas had the third-worst run defense in the country and the 10th-worst total defense when Robinson came back to Austin. Back then, the Longhorns’ confidence could’ve crumbled.

It’s sky-high now that Texas has finally shut down the Sooners, and that victory seemed to be clear proof of progress not only in execution but also attitude.

“If everybody brings that type of energy to each game, we’ll win all the games,” Diggs said.

Robinson, meanwhile, is sticking to cautious optimism. He’s comfortable with this team. He senses confidence will continue to grow. But the answer for TCU this week is no different than his goal any other week: More hard work.

“You know what? There are no guarantees,” he said. “The moment you kind of think you’ve got it, you better look out.”

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