Defense ready to prove itself

Longhorns Football Season Preview: Texas Defense (3:06)

LHN roundtable discussion on expectations from the Texas defense (3:06)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Manny Diaz is in desperate need of a clean shave.

Eleven days into fall camp, let's just say his five o'clock shadow has eclipsed into more of a late evening full moon.

"It happens [at this time] every year," he said.

His beard etiquette for the time being, however, is like that of a professional hockey player set to embark on the postseason: He won't be as smooth as a baby's behind until his goals are reached.

"It just sort of matches with what this week is about: kind of rugged out there," he explained. "It's the time of the year when we're in our shop. We're under the hood and getting our elbows dirty. Hopefully when we bring the car out in three weeks it'll look the way we want it to look."

What they want it took look like, and what Texas fans are expecting, is an automobile worthy of its own glass case and spinning platform. You know, something great and as close to flawless as possible.

Expectations have reached that rarified air for a defense that returns seven starters, which includes perhaps the nation's top defensive ends tandem and secondary.

They were, statistically speaking, the Big 12's best last season by leading the conference in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense. That's all while Texas' offense struggled to score points, finishing eighth in the Big 12, scoring 28.1 points per game.

But on a national scale, the Longhorns were still a tier lower than the dominant, and perhaps, all-time great defenses of LSU and defending national champion Alabama.

Can they jump up a tier this season?

"We can be a great defense," Texas senior All-American defensive end Alex Okafor said. "It just depends on how hard we want to work. As a defensive player you want to be known as a great defense. So you want the pressure to be there. It's in our ears and our heads. We know that we have to start the season off there if we want to have the type of season that we want."

The numbers between the three teams make it clear that there was a gap, give or take a few statistics that could be a result of the pass-happy Big 12.

Points per game: Alabama (8.2); LSU (11.3); Texas (22.2).
Rushing yards per game: Alabama (72.2); LSU (90.1); Texas (96.2).
Passing yards per game: Alabama (111.5); LSU (171.4); Texas (209.8).
Sacks: Alabama (30); LSU (39); Texas (29).
Touchdowns given up: Alabama (12); LSU (15); Texas (32).

That said the Longhorns accomplished all of what they did in just a few months under Diaz's tutelage. Even those not drinking the burnt orange Kool-Aid probably expect the second season to be much smoother.

"Last year I think we were thinking too much at the beginning of the season and it slowed us down on the field," Okafor said. "This year we can just go do what we need to do within the defense and just let go."

Added cornerback Carrington Byndom: "Another year under the system definitely does bring confidence. As a unit I think we feel more comfortable in the scheme this year."

Okafor said that he failed to play loose in parts of 2011 because he was concentrating on what he had to do instead of simply just playing.

"I can't speak for Jackson [Jeffcoat]," Okafor said. "But now we can just turn loose."

Though seven starters return, the four that departed (Emmanuel Acho, Keenan Robinson, Blake Gideon and Kheeston Randall) made up for 35.6 percent (353) of the teams 991 tackles.

Acho and Robinson were the team's top two tacklers and Gideon, a four-year starter at safety, was tied for third with senior safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Those won't be easy shoes to fill, or numbers to replicate, but there is an underlying confidence within the team that it can be done.

"It's always good to have a little pressure on you," said Jeffcoat, the No. 3 pick in Todd McShay's initial 2013 NFL Mock Draft. "It helps you work even harder. Some guys get content with all the pressure, but not us. We're going to take it and run with it and keep working harder and harder every day."

To reach the heights the Longhorns think they'll get to, Okafor and Jeffcoat will have to dominate off the edge. So far the duo has combined for 189 tackles, 47 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and 47 quarterback pressures in their careers.

"The best defenses in college and the NFL are created through pressure," Okafor said. "So we know if we can get pressure on the quarterback then we can potentially have a great defense. So we take it upon ourselves. We talk a lot about pressuring the quarterback. And it's not just about sacks, it's about effecting the quarterback."

They should get a helping hand up the middle from a rotation of defensive tackles that should be five deep with the additions of junior college transfer Brandon Moore and freshman Malcom Brown.

"Our defensive tackles room is a changed room," Diaz said.

That group should clear the way for the linebackers to have clearer paths into the backfield on blitz packages and short-yardage situations.

Pressure from the linebackers should only make life easier for the secondary.

All parts clicking on all cylinders. It's what Diaz hopes he sees once he emerges from underneath the hood, still looking like a man who could use a shave.