Hicks steps into leadership role

AUSTIN, Texas -- Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were the calming voices on the other end of the Mayday call when Texas' defense took on water aboard the S.S. Manny Diaz last season.

It didn't happen often, as the Longhorns were quite dominant in Diaz's first season as defensive coordinator. But when moments of confusion came, Texas' senior linebackers restored order ... and then often made the tackle.

That won't be the case this season, though, as Acho and Robinson fight for roster spots with the Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins, respectively.

Gone is their poise in moments of crisis, their leadership on and off the field and their combined 437 tackles and 49 tackles-for-loss over the last two seasons (they were the team's top two tacklers in 2010 and 2011).

"I think it is hard to fill shoes like that," Longhorns senior All-American defensive end Alex Okafor said.

Without any senior leadership to rely on at linebacker, the Longhorns are counting on junior Jordan Hicks to live up to the lofty expectations he brought with him as a top linebacker out of high school.

"He can be a real leader," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Everyone in the program thinks so. So much so that they are disregarding his status as a junior and are looking at him in the same light as Acho and Robinson from 2011.

"We sort of anointed him as a senior," Diaz said. "When you only have two seniors on defense, we sort of had to 'knight' or get them on their knees and do the sword thing to knight a few juniors and turn them into seniors.

"What you need are natural leaders, and Jordan Hicks wants that role. He embraces that role, wants to be the guy that everybody looks up to, and everybody on the football team does look up to him."

It had to have been a relief for Texas whenever it saw Hicks rise from being "knighted" without feeling any tightness in the hamstring he pulled on the first third down of the second half in the Longhorns' win at Iowa State on Oct. 1 and was hampered by it throughout the season.

He still managed to play in all 13 games and recorded 65 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, one fumble recovery and four pass break ups. But, even by his own admission, he didn't play up to the standards he has set for himself.

He'll be counted on in both a leadership and production standpoint as the senior-most player in the only position on Texas' defense that lacks experience or depth.

Projected starter Demarco Cobbs missed the first six games last season with a broken arm while Steve Edmond, the other projected starter, played spot time in 12 games as a freshman.

Hicks feels like he's up for the task.

"It comes natural," he said. "It is not something that is forced on me. It comes natural, and I'm 100 percent OK with that. I love that role."

Leadership from a linebacker, as Texas witnessed last season, is vital to a defense's success, which makes Hicks' task that much more heightened.

"It is very important in a linebacker, because they are the guys that make the calls," Diaz said. "The DBs are too far in the back and D-linemen all have their hands in the dirt. Linebackers are the ones that have got to raise their voices, get everybody set, and call all the plays. They have no choice but to lead, and I really like the guys that have done it in my room so far."

Okafor agrees.

"I have all the confidence in the world in the linebacking unit," he said. "I think they can be great and one of the best units we've had in a while. I think it would definitely help the defensive line to get the burst so they can get comfortable, since we have some young guys. But they will do their job."

Okafor, junior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and senior safety Kenny Vaccaro will help shoulder leadership responsibilities on a defense that shouldn't have to make too many Mayday calls in Diaz's second season.

If there are calls to be made, though, expect Hicks to be there to answer.