Texas' game plan to...

Stem the Tide... and the Tigers... and the Bulldogs...

Updated: August 8, 2012, 6:04 PM ET
By LaRue Cook | ESPN The Magazine

tkBrent Humphreys for ESPN The MagazineTexas is banking on doing what the SEC does best -- play killer defense.

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JACKSON JEFFCOAT was born in Dallas, the day after Christmas 1990, oblivious to the fact that the Texas Longhorns would days later be routed by Miami 46-3 in the Cotton Bowl. He was also unaware the following year, when UT went 5-6, the final season for head coach David McWilliams. By the time Jeffcoat was 7, McWilliams' replacement, John Mackovic, had been fired after an equally disappointing 4-7 season in 1997.

In other words, Jackson Jeffcoat can't really remember anything but Mack Brown football -- what folks in Austin simply refer to as Longhorns football, as if 1998 were the beginning of a completely new record book.

Like every other eighth-grader in Texas, Jeffcoat sat glued to the 2006 Rose Bowl, pumping his fist as Vince Young stuck a rose between his teeth and cradled the school's first BCS crystal football after a win against USC. But unlike other eighth-graders, Jeffcoat was the son of former Cowboys defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, and he was born to sack quarterbacks.

Over the next four years, he grew into a svelte version of his father, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound terror at end for Plano West High, the second-best player in the nation, according to ESPN Recruiting. He could have gone to Houston, where his dad was an assistant, or he could have gone to Oklahoma, where his sister had just signed to play basketball. But Jeffcoat loved three things: Texas, football and fishing, in that order. So when decision time came in 2010, just after UT had played in the BCS title game -- its second appearance in five years -- Jeffcoat saw the opportunity to continue Texas tradition.

What followed was a freshman season that today leaves Jeffcoat struggling for words. "I was just shocked," he says of going 5-7, Brown's only losing campaign in a 15-year tenure. "It felt like we didn't win a game." It felt that way around Austin too. One year after playing for the national title, Texas wasn't even heading to some meaningless bowl game. The mere mention of "five and seven" remains the source of extreme emotion for fans.

For a 21-year-old just passing through on his way to the NFL, though, things don't feel quite so dramatic anymore. The junior is quick to talk about how the program is on the rise after an 8-5 record in 2011. And he disagrees that the Tide's dismantling of the Longhorns in the title game three seasons ago was a sign that the SEC had surpassed the Big 12 as a conference, that the SEC's six years of dominance have completely altered the college football landscape.

But there's no denying that Texas A&M's recent defection east has only extended the SEC's footprint farther west. Alabama is no longer at the doorstep -- it's in the Longhorns' kitchen.

To have a shot at fighting them off, things had to change. Just about everything.

[+] Enlargetk
Brent Humphreys for ESPN The MagazineTexas' defense, from left: Jackson Jeffcoat, Kenny Vaccaro, Jordan Hicks, Carrington Byndom and Alex Okafor.

"After 5-7, I felt like I'd let everybody down," says Brown, who hadn't won fewer than nine games in a season since he took over. "I had to make a hard decision: Is it good for Texas for me to go on? I knew it would take a lot of work and time to get this program back." At 59, he contemplated retirement. But as arguably the most successful coach in UT history, he couldn't bear to end a legacy that way. Instead, he kept that BCS title loss to Alabama in the back of his mind -- namely, how the Longhorns' game plan was rendered useless when quarterback Colt McCoy went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter -- and set out to hire assistants who could create a group of 21 that didn't rely on an improvisational Vince Young or a thoroughbred dropback passer like McCoy.

"I look at the SEC and recognize that's how they've won," says Brown. "At Texas, you don't want to lose a game just because your QB is having a bad day. That's why I hired three SEC coaches."

The flurry of announcements began in January 2011 with new co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin (Boise State) and continued with O-line coach Stacy Searels (Georgia) and defensive tackles coach Bo Davis (Alabama). The real momentum shifter, though, was new D-coordinator Manny Diaz, who'd spent one season overhauling Mississippi State's defense from 71st in the FBS in 2009 (26.8 ppg) to 21st in 2010 (19.9 ppg). Not that Texas' D needed much fixing (No. 1 in the Big 12 in 2008, No. 3 in 2009), but Diaz's continuous presnap motion and every-down blitzes seemed to inspire on both sides of the ball. His unorthodox style and enthusiasm were contagious. The cleats, for instance: Diaz wears them to practice and games, as if he's going to jump into the fray at any moment. Point is, they convince you that he would if he needed to. Brown says the energy made Austin feel like 1998 again. "That definitely inspires you," says junior corner Carrington Byndom. "If your coach loves the game just as much as you do, it allows you to trust him, and you work that much harder."

Still, Texas' five league losses in 2011 were telling. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor combined for 141 points, exploiting a young secondary (Byndom and true freshman Quandre Diggs); Kansas State and Missouri held the Longhorns' offense to 18 total points. Rotating between quarterbacks David Ash, a freshman, and Case McCoy, a sophomore and Colt's younger brother, didn't allow either to settle in as game managers. True freshman RB Malcolm Brown was simply finding what holes he could behind a line that included two freshmen and two sophomores. But 15 starters return this year, including All-Big 12 DE Alex Okafor and standout LB Jordan Hicks. Ash also figures to be the starter by Week 1.

Brown knows it could be 2013 before the Longhorns truly begin to resemble the SEC prototypes they're modeling themselves after. Better to be adapting, however, than to be oblivious to the oncoming threat. "You can definitely tell things are changing," says senior free safety Kenny Vaccaro. "From the coaches to the weight room to just the all-around atmosphere in this building, you can tell the tide's turning."

The question is, will the Tide be heading straight for them? Perhaps fittingly, perhaps ominously, Alabama will play its season opener Sept. 1 against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium -- and you can bet plenty of eighth-grade Texans will be watching.

Reporting by Travis Haney

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