Manny Diaz uses baseball, golf and boxing analogies amongst a litany of other sports, topics and subjects to get his point across when talking to the media about defensive football.
Manny Diaz needs a big year from his D-line in 2013 if the Horns are to improve from their awful defensive showing in 2012.
Out of all of Diaz's colorful comments, the one that's probably the most important is when he refers to the middle of the defense as the tip of the spear.
The spear that is the Texas defense begins with the defensive line. And the tip of the 2012 Longhorn defense was dull and ineffective in battle for a vast majority of the season.
When talking about what went wrong with the defensive line last season the one thing Diaz went back to as perhaps the top reason why the Longhorns finished 88th nationally against the run (192.2 yards per game) and 67th in total defense (404.2 yards per game) was an over-simplification.
Diaz admitted during the week leading up to the Alamo Bowl that he simplified things so much once Jordan Hicks was lost with a hip injury that Texas became an easy defense to run against. When he tried to bring more twists, stunts and blitzes up the gut of the opposing offensive line, they weren't executed and that only compounded the problem.
While the tackles took the brunt of the punishment for the defense's shortcomings, the ends weren't without fault. While the Longhorns finished 19th in the nation in sacks last season, 12.5 of the 35 were by Alex Okafor. The team's second leading sack artist was Jackson Jeffcoat (4), who was injured early in the second half of the Oklahoma game and missed every game thereafter.
So what the Longhorns have going into spring football is a defensive line that wasn't consistently good against the run and is losing nearly half of its sack production from last fall.
The good news is there's nowhere to go but up from here, and the talent is certainly there for the Longhorns to be better.
Considering how much fire he's been under and the pressure to perform in 2013, Diaz has publicly shown a tremendous amount of patience. That patience has also been evident behind the scenes.
In his few opportunities in 2012, Malcom Brown showed he can be a difference maker at defensive tackle for the Longhorns in the very near future.
“He hasn't blown up and yelled and screamed or anything,” Desmond Jackson said just prior to the Alamo Bowl. “He's just told us it's going to be a process. The same people that are talking about you will jump on the bandwagon, so you've got to block that out.”
The process of becoming a better defensive line likely starts with sophomore tackle Malcom Brown. Brown only recorded 25 tackles and two tackles for loss as a true freshman, but late in the year the light seemed to be coming on and staying on for the former five-star recruit.
When you look at his plays made to plays played ratio, Brown made just as many splash plays as any tackle on the roster. The sentiment around the program is that whether the coaches are ready to turn him loose or not, he might just bust loose and become a dominant, play-making force this spring.
“I don't think there's anyone that considers Malcom Brown a young guy anymore,” Mason Walters said. “You'd better strap it up, come ready to play and be really sound in your technique if you want to beat him. He's going to be a handful in this league.”
The Texas defense has been a better unit when it has a Roy Miller or a Lamarr Houston who can be a presence and a finisher at the point of attack. Walters sees the same traits those current NFL tackles possessed when he looks at Brown.
“What set those guys apart was hard work and dedication,” Walters said. “He's got what it takes to be every bit as good as those guys, he's just one year into the process.”
Brown is likely to start next to Desmond Jackson, and even with the loss of Brandon Moore and no incoming help from the 2013 recruiting class there's still some optimism within the program. Ashton Dorsey at this point in his career is a solid player who can provide quality depth and Chris Whaley is good for a flash play every once in a while, and he'd likely be more than a No. 4 tackle at some places.
If nothing else happens as far as attrition goes, the hope is that one of Paul Boyette or Alex Norman will be able to bring something to the rotation.
Hassan Ridgeway has an opportunity to impress the coaches if he can add fundamentals to his obvious physical attributes.
“With the guys who haven't had a chance to play, we need to grab them in our arms and make sure they're ready for next year,” Jackson said. “Their roles are coming up. They're good players and good kids who work hard every single day.”
The X-factor at defensive tackle this spring is Hassan Ridgeway. After a redshirt year, Ridgeway is reportedly up to 288 pounds and brings the kind of playmaking ability that lends itself well to Diaz's high-risk, high-reward defense.
“I see Hassan as being like me,” Jackson said. “He's very strong. Him being so young he hasn't formed fundamentally, but he's shown in practice that he can just get off the ball because he's so strong. I don't think he even knows how strong he is yet.”
Out of Ridgeway, Norman and Boyette the chances that one of them can step up and take Moore's place in the rotation are good. As 2012 came to a close, Jackson's money was on Ridgeway.
“In the spring he'll be able to show what we can do,” Jackson said. “When it starts to click, that boy is going to be bad.”
On the edge, with Jeffcoat out for the spring, there's a chance for guys like Shiro Davis, Caleb Bluiett and Bryce Cottrell to earn reps for the fall. Bluiett moves back to defensive end after spending the fall at tight end, where he, Davis and Cottrell are expected to push Reggie Wilson in the rotation.
There have been rumblings that Davis wasn't happy at various portions during the fall. Part of it could have been being away from home, part of it could have been not getting to play as much as he'd hoped while watching the defense struggle.
Whatever the case may be, Davis has a chance to show that the all-too-brief flashes we saw against Iowa State and Kansas State last season can be made on a regular basis.
“My freshman year it was hard for me my first couple of games and I wasn't getting to play,” Jackson said. “The more you play the more comfortable you get, and I see Shiro as the same way I was.”
If Davis does settle in and has a big spring, he's yet another player who has a chance to help turn around the fortunes of the defensive line in 2013.
“He's was waiting on his time to shine,” Jackson said. “When he got it he made the most of it, and now he's getting more confident in his ability.”
Diaz was referencing Davis specifically, but what he said about player development is so true. The talent is there, and the ability is evident, and while some of these guys are still young the Longhorns need them to put it together now.
“It's neat that he played, but we have to turn him into an entirely different guy,” Diaz said. “No matter who you beat to get them in recruiting or how many stars they had next to their name, you have to develop them.”
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