Manny Diaz hasn’t forgotten the Longhorns defense’s 2012 misadventures — how could he, short of hiring a psychiatrist and/or hypnotist? — but that doesn’t mean he wants to dwell on it.
“We can’t carry around the ghost of last year,” Texas’ defensive coordinator said before the Longhorns adjourned for spring break at about the mid-point of spring practice. “Understandably, we have lost trust from people from our performance last year.”
Yes, understandably. Few fans have forgotten the pratfalls of Diaz’s defense, which bumbled its way to several school records for futility. Consequently, this spring is being devoted to rebuilding the confidence of the unit as a whole and several players as individuals.
That’s what happens coming off a season when your defense allows 33.9 points and 440.2 yards per game in Big 12 play.
“We know as a defense we didn’t perform the way we thought we should,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “It leaves a real bitter taste in our mouths.”
Phillips was involved in one of the plays that encapsulated the defense’s woes in 2012.
Against Oklahoma, he and fellow safety Mykkele Thompson closed in on Trey Millard after the Sooners’ 256-pound fullback caught a swing pass in the flat. Thompson dove at his feet, only to have Millard hurdle him, then Phillips launched himself at Millard and bounced off harmlessly. Millard rumbled 73 yards in OU’s 63-21 victory.
Phillips’ tackling issues, especially early in the season, came after he was withheld from contact last spring and most of fall camp following shoulder surgery.
“I don’t think we were fair to him publicly,” coach Mack Brown said recently. “Because he had been a good player for us, we threw him out there and said, ‘Go,’ and then wondered why he struggled some early.”
Phillips won’t address the impact of his shoulder injury, though Diaz said the senior-to-be is “playing at a different level” this spring.
“I hate to use that excuse,” Phillips said of his shoulder. “I really don’t use it as an excuse. I don’t blame it on the shoulder. I just didn’t do what I was supposed to last year.”
Several people associated with the defense could plead guilty to that, though. Including the coordinator.
“The mistake I made last year was that I was aware that expectations were higher for our team than they should have been, (and) I think there were too many assumptions made,” Diaz said. “We said, ‘Well, this guy is bigger and faster than the guy who graduated, so he must be better.’ The mistake I made is I should have said, ‘Forget about it, it’s your turn now.’”
Probably the most intriguing issue facing Diaz this spring and in the fall is replacing the only senior starters from 2012 — safety Kenny Vaccaro and end Alex Okafor, both destined to be relatively high NFL draft picks. But the most important issue might be establishing the linebackers and being certain they’re in position to make the plays that weren’t made last season.
All three of 2012’s season-opening starting linebackers — Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs — had disappointing years; Hicks because of injury, Edmond because he didn’t live up to the hype and Cobbs a combination of both. Consequently, others like Peter Jinkens, Tevin Jackson, Dalton Santos and Kendall Thompson also got a chance to start occasionally.
Jackson suffered a dislocated shoulder during spring workouts, and had surgery on Monday. He’ll miss the remainder of the spring, but is expected back for the fall. Even without him, the Longhorns have linebackers to look at.
“We actually have an interesting mix now,” Diaz said. “Last year, we had one guy that had started a game (Hicks). This year I have seven guys who have started a game. Our guys are better in terms of understanding what to do and where to go. Now it’s just a matter of letting them battle it out.”
And, in the process, perhaps help the 2013 defense be memorable for reasons different than the ghosts of 2012.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct that Tevin Jackson suffered a dislocated shoulder during spring workouts.