After a tumultuous second season in which he oversaw one of the worst defenses in Longhorns history, Manny Diaz went to the ends of the earth.
Not for help.
Texas’ third-year defensive coordinator wasn’t just trying to get out of town and leave his many critics.
He joined former Longhorns Sam and Emmanuel Acho on their annual summer sojourn in Nigeria with the Achos’ father as well as three surgeons in a traveling party of about 40 doctors, pharmacists, anesthesiologists and even one dentist for a medical mission.
It was eye-opening, sometimes literally.
For five long days in West Africa’s sapping humidity, the medical team performed eye surgeries, removed cataracts, repaired hernias. They sometimes tended to more extreme cases in which patients’ intestines were literally exposed. For some of the villagers, it was the first time they’d seen a doctor.
They also conducted routine exams on about 2,000 indigent Nigerians, some of whom traveled a full day from their villages for medical supervision at the abandoned building that served as a makeshift hospital.
They’d treat up to 150 children a day and perform a dozen or more operations. They had to turn away many more.
“Thousands would queue up and sit all day in the hot sun,” said Diaz, who visited with the desperate patients and helped with crowd control. “We couldn’t see ’em all.
“You understand you want to do for others. I’ve never done anything of that magnitude. I can’t say it changed my life, but it illuminates who you are. You get down to the essence where everything is stripped away.”
Now back home, Diaz is doing what he can to fix an ailing defense that ranked 88th nationally against the run and gave up more than 404 yards a game.
He could have left for good but opted not to take Florida International’s head coaching job, maybe in part because the 12-year-old program has produced just two winning seasons, but mostly because Diaz wants to see it through here.
“This is a great job,” he said as Texas’ season opener approached. “A big factor in this is I saw what’s coming here, and I didn’t want to leave what’s getting ready to happen. I knew what was coming around the corner, and I wanted to be around for that.”
The guess here is Diaz will be back to his status as the wonder boy we watched work in his debut season of 2011 rather than the wonder-what-in-the-world-he’s-doing coordinator we saw in 2012.
“You know what all coaches say,” Diaz said. “You always have to listen to the praise and the criticism with the same ears.”
His ears were burning all last fall, but he saw a renewed commitment, starting with early December bowl workouts and continuing with the players’ extra drive in the weight room.
Asked if he’s smarter now, Diaz said, “We’ll find out the next play.”
His football IQ didn’t drop precipitously. He didn’t forget to teach defenders how to tackle, knowing Texas faced five of the nation’s top 13 offenses. They tackled better late in the season and very well in the bowl game, but by then, “nobody cared. We’ll miss a tackle next Saturday too. But we will be faster, more physical and come with the proper leverage.”
Diaz preaches a mantra of player development. He was a much better coordinator when Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho became senior linebackers in his first year. He gets smarter every time a raw freshman becomes tomorrow’s seasoned sophomore.
His defense will be better. Probably much, much better.
It’s older. The depth chart won’t come out until Monday, but Diaz might start five seniors and four juniors. Only nine underclassmen dot the two-deep, down from 15 a year ago when guys were pressed into duty and learning on the fly in an unforgiving conference.
It’s more experienced. He won’t need to start a single player who’s making his college debut. “We have guys who have played good in games,” Diaz said. “They didn’t always play good, but we don’t have to make the assumption other than will they be consistent.”
It has players of All-Big 12 caliber. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks could be even better than that. Diaz thinks safety Adrian Phillips might be more improved than anyone else on the team unless it’s junior linebacker Steve Edmond, whose light has clicked on. You won’t recognize the sleeker, faster Edmond.
By the end of last season, many thought Diaz was finished. He was blistered by fans and media. He was too young for the job. He didn’t have enough of a pedigree, with a single season at Mississippi State. His defensive philosophy was too complicated for young players. His philosophy was too simple and was exposed by sharp offensive play-callers in the Big 12.
“We’re in a bad league to think you know what to do,” Diaz said. “We’re in a league where you have to know what to do.”
Once veteran players like Hicks and Jeffcoat went down, the remaining, young players couldn’t instinctively grasp what he was teaching and react fast enough to slow down these downhill offenses. By Diaz’s count now, he has eight defensive linemen, six linebackers — all of whom started a game last year — and six in the defensive backfield who are ready to play.
He wants to limit some of his top players to 30 to 40 plays a game to keep them fresh and still at their peak in December. They need fewer snaps per week because he believes playing in the up-tempo Big 12 translates to playing an extra game.
Diaz is intense, prideful and not dumb.
He’s a sharp guy who came with strong recommendations from Mack Brown’s SEC friends. He frequently uses baseball or boxing analogies to make his points. He’s not overly friendly or open with the media — he declined to reveal his best friends in the coaching business — but that’s fine. This is football, not Facebook.
It’d be easy to make a case that this season will be a referendum on Diaz’s abilities every bit as much as a barometer on Brown’s job security. But who isn’t under the gun at Texas?
Diaz still draws on Longhorns benefactor Red McCombs’ speech at the Alamo Bowl.
“Everybody thinks they’re prepared to win, but Red said you have to get in the situation to understand what it really means to be prepared,” Diaz said. “You think back to NBA Finals. The Pistons had to lose to the Celtics before they understood what it took. The Bulls had to lose to the Pistons to understand before you can say, ‘Now I get it.’ It’s what we’ve had to learn.”
The hard way.
TEXAS VS. NEW MEXICO STATE
7 p.m. Saturday, LHN, 1300
It’s game week, which means our Longhorns coverage kicks into high gear:
- Complete coverage of Monday’s news conferences
- Longhorns beat writers Randy Riggs and Mark Rosner, along with recruiting writer Dave Behr, chat live at 11 a.m. Tuesday on statesman.com.
- Columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden chat live at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
- Our Sports Extra section on Saturday breaks down the Longhorns-Aggies matchup.
- Our live game chats and Bevo Beat updates Saturday night precede our complete coverage of Texas-New Mexico State on Sunday.
RECENT HORNS’ DEFENSES
How Texas has fared defensively the past three seasons, with Manny Diaz the defensive coordinator in 2011 and 2012 and Will Muschamp in 2010:
BREAKING DOWN TEXAS’ DEFENSE: 2012
Where the Horns ranked
Where Texas ranked in the Big 12 and nationally in various statistical categories:
A tale of two halves
Texas’ defense showed marked improvement over its final six games, including the Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State, as compared with the first seven games:
;First 7;Last 6
Red zone TDs;61%;56%
A look at the number of upper- and underclassmen on Texas’ defensive depth charts the past two years and this season. The Longhorns had 16 underclassmen in 2011 and 15 last year but have only nine this season: