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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
|Brian Bahr/Getty Images|
|Texas' Brian Orakpo is second in the nation with 5.5 sacks.|
Continued work with jabs, uppercuts and roundhouse punches this summer have helped spark Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo's monster senior season so far.
Orakpo and Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston pulled out the speed bags and labored in a boxing regimen that helped both build explosiveness and endurance.
The work has paid off handsomely so far as Texas leads the nation with 16 sacks and Orakpo is second nationally with 5.5 sacks.
"When I first started, I didn't know how hard it was," Orakpo told reporters earlier this week. "Street fighting and boxing are two different things."
And although they never had a full sparring session, Houston was impressed with Orakpo's talent in the ring.
"Rak is a big, strong guy," he said.
That he is. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder has made a successful comeback from knee surgery that caused him to miss much of last season to emerge as one of the nation's most dominant pass-rushing threats.
"I really feel like I'm at the top of my game and where I've always wanted to be," Orakpo said. "The setback put me back for a long time. I worked really hard to push myself to get back into condition in a lot of different ways. I think I'm even more stronger and flexible than I was before."
Orakpo's resurgence has been the key for the Longhorns' recent defensive development with new coordinator Will Muschamp. The Texas pass rush has been critical to keep the Longhorns' young secondary from being isolated many times early in the season.
The Longhorns started slowly with only two sacks in the first two games. But they have exploded with seven sacks each in victories over Rice and Arkansas, unleashing a feeding frenzy of quarterback pressure.
"It's been there from the start of the season, but we're just getting the sacks now," Orakpo said. "And that's a tribute to how much pressure we've been getting. We're finally getting the sacks, getting the ball loose, forcing fumbles and forcing turnovers like we need to do."
That recipe will be important Saturday against Colorado, which will try to combat the Longhorns with a makeshift offensive line without much experience.
Orakpo could be positioned for a big game merely because of the players Colorado has left to try to contain him. A season-ending injury to Colorado tackle Ryan Miller -- the Buffaloes' best player at his position -- will mean that redshirt freshman Matthew Bahr gets his first career start on the right side. And Nate Solder, a converted tight end, will be the starter responsible for protecting quarterback Cody Hawkins' blind side.
Muschamp likes to flip Orakpo from side to side depending on game situations. But wherever he ends up will be a scary situation for Colorado coach Dan Hawkins.
"It is," Hawkins said about the discrepancy between his offensive line and the Longhorns' defensive front. "You've got speed, talent, experience and strength on one side. With us, you've got youth."
And trying to keep Orakpo from pressuring his son will be one of Hawkins' major concerns in Saturday's game.
"They have a lot of guys who are explosive and play well with their hands," Hawkins said. "That's why they have so many sacks and have done what they've done. Will has done a good job of getting them to play. And Orakpo is very strong and explosive. He's hard to block."
Hard work has been an important characteristic throughout Orakpo's life and it began early. The son of Nigerian immigrants, his parents arrived in the United States with little material wealth. But through diligence and perseverance, both have developed strong careers. His mother owns a rehabilitation center and his father is a car dealer.
Their son has carried that same attitude to his football career. During his career at Lamar High School in Houston, Orakpo dreamed more of becoming a basketball player. But as his growth curtailed, he realized that his best athletic option would be football.
"I looked around and noticed that point guards were 6-4," Orakpo said, laughing. "Since then, I've had a great passion to stick at defensive end. There's nothing like playing defensive end, putting your hand down in the dirt and trying to charge after a quarterback and make plays."
Texas coach Mack Brown has noticed the difference in Orakpo since returning from his injury last season. Orakpo was hurt in Texas' season opener and never returned during the regular season after missing four games.
"He's playing with much more confidence than I've seen him play with here," Brown said. "He's a force in the running game and is also becoming one of the best pass rushers we've ever had. He's a force for us and one of the reasons we lead the nation in sacks."
The Longhorns have started the season with four victories against an underwhelming group of opponents that haven't turned many heads. It's led many observers to think that Texas might be the least proven team in the top 10.
That lack of respect has given this Longhorn team chip on its shoulder to prove how good it is, Orakpo said.
"We're probably not the most talented team that has played, certainly not the kind of team we had with people like Vince Young and Aaron Ross," Orakpo said. "But I know we still have talent. It might not be a lot of marquee names, but we're just as good as anybody out there."
Orakpo likes the role of underdog where the Longhorns are confounding skeptics every week.
"I hope we stay under the radar and keep proving people wrong," Orakpo said. "That's been fun so far."