- David Ubben, College Football
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Everything seemed fine on the 40 Acres this time two years ago.
The defensive cupboard was well-stocked and Mack Brown was talking up the squad, openly inviting high expectations for his defense and claiming they might be the best in his time in Austin.
With the Acho brothers up front and three future NFL draft picks in the secondary, who could blame him?
"It didn’t turn out that way," Brown said this week.
The Longhorns defense was good, but not good enough. It led the Big 12 in total defense, but forced just 18 turnovers for 11th in the Big 12.
Oh, and Texas went 5-7.
The Longhorns bounced back with eight wins in 2011, and in 2012 the hype is back for a defense loaded with NFL talent once again. There is talk that it might be among the nation's best, if not the nation's best.
"I want our defense to live up to those expectations," Brown said. "All of us sitting here in preseason have expectations, especially at a school like the University of Texas. But, until you produce on the field, and we’ll have a better idea of how they look on Saturday, then we’re not sure how good they will be."
Brown's tempering the expectations a bit this time around, but he knows what he has.
The league's No. 1 and No. 2 defensive ends are anything but an unknown commodity. Both Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor could hear their names called in the first round of next April's NFL draft, though Jeffcoat said this week he wants to stay and get his degree from Texas.
Cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom morphed a question mark at cornerback into one of the team's strengths late in the season, and safety Kenny Vaccaro might be the best overall defender in the Big 12.
The one thing most closely resembling a question mark? The middle of the defense.
"I’ve consistently talked about the loss of the four seniors down the middle," Brown said, "and that we’ve got new, young guys in their places."
Linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were the vocal leaders of the defense last season, but have been replaced by super recruits Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks, joining a speedster on the outside in linebacker Demarco Cobbs, who played quarterback, receiver, safety and returned kicks and punts in high school.
Tackle Kheeston Randall is gone, too, but the Longhorns look well suited to replace him by plugging juco transfer Brandon Moore and reformed running back Chris Whaley at the top of a rotation of five capable contributors in the middle of the defense.
Adrian Phillips moves up to replace four-year starter Blake Gideon at strong safety opposite Vaccaro.
"Until they prove it on Saturday that they’re ready to show that leadership and show that ability to handle Big 12 football at a fast pace, then we have to wait until they prove it before we can anoint them as a great defense," Brown said.
Here's guessing we won't wait long.