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December 17, 2012

5 Longhorns to Watch: Defense

Midway through the 2012 season, the Texas defense was - putting it kindly - an embarrassment to the school's rich football tradition. Over a four-game stretch (Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor), the Longhorns surrendered an average of 580 yards per game, including 677 in the crushing 63-21 loss at the hands of rival Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout in Dallas.

How bad was the Longhorns defense during this stretch? Even head coach Mack Brown recently described the unit as "inept" during the first half of the season, yet expressed optimism for the future because only two starters were seniors.

The picture brightened noticeably in the final five games as the Longhorns yielded an average of 21.6 points and 330.4 yards per game, quieting (but not silencing) some of the critics of Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was clearly on shaky ground in late October regarding his future in Austin.

Here are the five most important Texas defensive players for the Alamo Bowl:

1. Steve Edmond (MLB): Just a sophomore, Edmond has developed into one of the top defensive players in the Big 12. He leads the Longhorns with 101 tackles, yet was tabbed as only a honorable mention All-Big 12 choice by the Associated Press.

He is second on Texas in solo stops (51), tied for second in forced fumbles (2), and tied for fifth in tackles for loss (6). He has been a tackling machine in the second half of the season, averaging 9.3 tackles over the last six games with a career-high 11 tackles against Kansas. He has nine or more tackles in five of the last six games. Clearly, Edmond has a nose for the football and the Beaver coaches must scheme to contain him.

At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Edmond is the perfect blend of size and speed for a middle linebacker in the Big 12. And he plays like it. The pressure to make the defensive calls fell on him when Texas lost linebacker Jordan Hicks to a hip injury in the Ole Miss game.

He was the elder statesman of the linebacker corps and the unquestioned leader of the group. Without his presence all of the pre-snap responsibilities fell to Edmond, who struggled initially but has played well in the second half of the season.

2. Alex Okafor (DE): One of the most feared and physically-gifted defensive ends in the country, Okafor suffered an ankle injury early in the next-to-last regular season game against TCU and played just a few snaps in the loss to Kansas State on December 1. But he has plenty of experience with 51 games on his resume, including 32 starts (tops on the Texas defense). However, his 32-game start streak ended against Kansas State.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Okafor is a two-time first team All-Big 12 choice (2011-12) and was named the 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year by CBSSports.com after finishing the regular season with 60 tackles, 12 for loss, eight sacks, 18 quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles.

All the major post-season awards, Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award and CFPA Defensive Lineman of the Year Trophy, had Okafor on their watch lists.

How much do his Texas teammates respect Okafor? He was voted one of two team captains at the end of the regular season. Hails from the same high school (Pflugerville) as Oregon State running back Storm Woods.

3. Kenny Vaccaro (FS): Another established veteran of the Texas defense with 50 career appearances and 31 starts under his belt. He's a reliable playmaker with 257 tackles, five interceptions and four forced fumbles in his career.

This season, he's second on the Longhorns with 100 tackles, an impressive number for a defensive back and has been voted an All-America. He was also voted team MVP at the Longhorns' banquet last week. He has 24 tackles in the last two games, including a career high 13 stops against Kansas State.

One of the top free safeties in the country, Vaccaro should be a first or second day NFL draft pick in April along with Okafor. Although Okafor and Vaccaro enjoyed solid seasons, they were the lone Texas players named First-Team All-Big 12. Unquestionably, the voice of the Texas defense.

"He's just different than a lot of players (when it comes to) mentalities," Okafor said of Vaccaro." Every time he goes on the field, he knows that nobody is going to outwork him. He truly believes that he's the best player on the field, and he plays like it."

4. Adrian Phillips (SS): Playing alongside Vaccaro, Phillips is the third-leading tackler for the Longhorns with 69 stops and two interceptions. He has started 10 games this season. The third-year defensive back has played in 36 games with 15 starts and has lined up at both cornerback and safety during his time in Austin.

His versatility has been a boon for the Texas coaches. ESPN.com compared his rare ability to play several positions to "a Swiss Army knife with the extra saw blade and tweezers. Always at the ready and always with the right tool for the job no matter how big or small."

"That is a real unique talent and a lot of people don't understand how big that is," Texas secondary coach Duane Akina said of Phillips. "He can go out there and play boundary corner, field corner, nickel, dime, field safety and boundary safety. Those are all different job descriptions within the defense, and those guys are very hard to find."

5. Desmond Jackson (DT): He has started 10 of the last 11 games at defensive tackle and enters the bowl game with 29 tackles, six for loss (tied for fifth on team) and one sack. Even though he's only a sophomore, Jackson shared the team's Most Spirited Defensive Player Award with Okafor and Vaccaro, so he is held in high regard by the coaches, and is widely recognized as the strongest player on the Longhorns.

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 303 pounds, Jackson has earned the nickname 'Tank.' But he combines his impressive strength with speed and quickness as well.

"You can't just say, 'Oh, this guy will try and blow me up.' Because he will run around you real quick," Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said of Jackson earlier this season. "He is a big, strong guy and a lot of people know that, but he is also very quick and that makes it hard."

Added Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz: "He is really made for what we talk about in terms of penetrating and getting across the line of scrimmage."


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