Egos set aside, UT building chemistry

AUSTIN, Texas -- For Emmanuel Acho it was more baptism by fear than fire in 2008.

He was a freshman. He was intimidated. The upperclassmen didn't care that his older brother was on the team, what his recruiting ranking had been, or about anything else the young linebacker had to contribute.

"There were guys like [Brian] Orakpo, Sergio Kindle, so it was kind of like, 'You better wait your turn and not say anything about it,' " he said.

That is usually how it goes on practice fields and in training facilities across the country. Freshmen are supposed to be soon-to-be scout-teamers. The upperclassmen are in control.

Of course, Texas was good in 2008 when Acho arrived. In 2010 that was not the case. So when the new class arrived this year, things changed.

"It's different," the senior linebacker said. "Now it is like it is equal opportunity for everybody."

Seemingly everybody in the freshman class has taken advantage of that opportunity. Eighteen freshmen have played. Four of those are major contributors in spotlight positions -- running back, cornerback, quarterback and wide receiver.

"The seniors have welcomed the young ones," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Normally that is just coachspeak for "no underclassmen were taped to the goal post this week." But in the case of Texas, it might just be true. The seniors have swallowed their egos and, really, did so without reluctance.

"Anytime you come off a season like last year, everybody's ego has to be leveled out a little bit," senior safety Blake Gideon said. "You have to realize that everyone has to go back to work no matter who you are and how many years you have been here."

With that, you get cases like freshman running back Malcolm Brown, whose favorite pastime is watching cartoons, spending time with senior Fozzy Whittaker, who is working on his masters in kinesiology.

"Fozzy's kind of like a brother to me now, and he does a great job," Brown said. "He just helps all of us out, not just me."

The reason all this works is because the freshmen are helping the upperclassmen out, too. They are not just taking up space or stealing reps, but contributing in a positive way to what has become a top-25 team that is 3-0.

"Whoever plays the best is who I want on the field," senior guard David Snow said.

While the hype was certainly there in fall camp, the Texas upperclassmen weren't sure these freshmen were the best solution for their problems.

Quandre Diggs, Brown, Jaxon Shipley, David Ash were constantly talked about. Even Gideon was tired of fielding Diggs' questions in the fall, especially since Diggs and the rest of those players hadn't proved anything yet.

At that point, the freshmen weren't players. They were still prospects.

"You have to see somebody play," Gideon said. "There is only so much you can do in practice and in preparation. You have to see what they are going to do underneath the lights and when there are 100,000 screaming fans and stuff.

"The trust really started to develop right after that first game. Even though they were freshmen, it was that game where they proved they were not going to be overwhelmed in the situation."

They also proved they were part of the team. The seniors, in turn, began to accept them.

"Nobody has snickered when someone has said something," Mack Brown said. "Nobody resents anything."

The Texas coach can't quite put his finger on why last year's team fractured so much as the season progressed. He knew, particularly in the wake of the losses to UCLA and Iowa State, the chemistry was just not there. Not only was there a clear division between the offense and defense, there were other fault lines running throughout the locker room.

This year Brown and his staff have managed to blend together a better mixture of personalities.

"It has been totally opposite," he said, comparing the 2011 team to 2010's. "They have been so much fun. They haven't been late. They are upbeat."

That might be because they haven't yet been beaten. Still, Brown points to the roles taken on by Whittaker and fellow running back Cody Johnson as to why the combination of freshmen and seniors has worked so well.

"[They] have taken an amazing, unselfish role on this team and are still doing what they want to do and doing what they need to do," Brown said. "But they are really helping the young running backs and that is kind of the way this team has progressed."

The comfort level between the groups has progressed right along with it.

"You have to build trust by making plays and doing your job. From the start, all those guys that have come in, the young guys, they have kept their mouth shut and put their work in," Gideon said. "Nobody has come in with any kind of ego or attitude."

And nobody who was already there showed the freshmen any ego or attitude, either.

"We are starting over, and I think we have a pretty good start to this year," Gideon said.

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas sports and recruiting for HornsNation.

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