Orakpo helps fuel Texas defensive turnaround

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

When an out-of-state reporter told Brian Orakpo earlier this week he was going to vote for the Texas defensive end for the Heisman Trophy, Orakpo let out a long, hearty laugh.

"At least I'll get one," he said, chuckling.

But the idea might not be as far-fetched as the humble Texas senior defensive end might think.

Orakpo has been one of the major reasons why the Texas defense has far surpassed expectations after the first half of the season. Heading into Saturday's key game against Missouri, the Longhorns are allowing 15.3 points per game, leading the nation in sacks (22) and are third in rush defense (51.2 yards per game.)

Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has rightfully been given much credit for the unit's turnaround from last season. But as accomplished a technician as Muschamp is, he knows that the old credo about "the Jimmys and Joes more than the X's and O's" that's helped explain his unit's turnaround as much as any new-fangled blitz package or a changed attitude.

The Longhorns have solid defensive talent, but they were expected to be a little inexperienced coming into the season. And the return of Orakpo, who was hurt much of last season with a knee injury, helped provide an extra element that has been a key factor in the Longhorns' 6-0 start.

"Osackpo," as his teammates call him, has produced 7.5 sacks to tie for third nationally. In the process, he's become the most dominant defensive player in the Big 12 and the key defensive element in the Longhorns' surprising charge to No. 1.

"He was getting to be like that last year before he got hurt," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "Nobody could block him. But then he got hurt and probably tried to come back and play and he wasn't the same for most of the year. But he worked so hard and came back with that same attitude and has really developed. He's been as good as anybody we've had there."

But Texas' defenses isn't a one-man show. The defensive turnaround could be best seen in the second half of the Longhorns' 45-35 comeback victory over Oklahoma last week, when the Longhorns confounded and bamboozled Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford.

After hitting Bradford only three times in the first half, the Longhorns produced 10 quarterback hits in the second half as the Sooners were limited to 14 points after the break.

Orakpo became a force in the second half, making massive Oklahoma tackle Phil Loadholt look overmatched. And the pressure helped make a young secondary hold up much better as the day went on.

Sergio Kindle started making plays after he was switched to defensive end. Freshmen safeties Blake Gideon and Earl Thomas didn't look intimidated in their first Oklahoma-Texas game. Both made big plays and Thomas provided a pair of interceptions that punctuated the victory.

"I'm very pleased and he's done a good job," Muschamp said about Thomas' development. "He's really worked at the game of football and understanding formation recognition, schemes and why they are doing the things we're doing and what we're doing.

"A lot of young kids have a hard time learning that. They just line up, memorize a call and a play. But it's not what the good ones do. Earl's really coming on in that category and he's got to continue doing that with consistency and performance."

The group will be tested Saturday by Missouri, which is coming off a stunning home loss to Oklahoma State. Despite that disappointment, the Tigers will test Texas with one of the nation's most explosive offenses keyed by quarterback Chase Daniel.

"I feel like after last week they'll probably be a little hungrier. Now that they lost, they want to prove to everybody they are still one of the elite teams in the country," Orakpo said. "I think they're going to come in here with a lot more to prove. Chase, I already know he's going to be mad that he lost, he's disappointed and he's going to have a lot to prove with his high-power offense."

The Tigers have allowed only four sacks this season, with two of them coming against Oklahoma State.

"I believe the No. 1 key is that you have to stop the run," Orakpo said. "I saw the second half and thought that Oklahoma State really stopped the run. When you do that, that's when Chase had to pass a lot more and they became somewhat one-dimensional. Secondly, we have to put pressure on him and not let him to get too comfortable in the pocket."

The Longhorns also will have the benefit of some heavy trends in their favor. Although Texas hasn't been ranked No. 1 in the regular season since Oct. 8, 1984, the Longhorns are 28-6-3 as the country's No. 1 team, including an 8-4-1 record against ranked teams.

And Missouri, which hasn't won in Austin since 1896, is 0-10-1 against No. 1 teams.

Even with those factors, Orakpo said he isn't allowing the No. 1 status to cloud either his approach for the game or his work ethic.

"It doesn't even matter," Orakpo said. "It's great to be No.1, but you still have to work.

"Coach Brown tells us all the time, we're No. 1, but you can't remember who's No. 1 at this time of year anyway. We're a blue-collar team and we'll continue to work, go back and put our pads on and try to get better."