UT defense turning page on 2012 'letdown'

AUSTIN, Texas -- Manny Diaz's first mistake, the one that would lead to 112 more in the form of missed tackles, was believing, or at the very least not tempering, the hype.

"The mistake I made last year was that I was aware that expectations were higher for our team than they should have been," the Texas defensive coordinator said. "I think there were too many assumptions made. We said, 'Well, this guy is bigger and faster than the guy who graduated, so he must be better.'

"The mistake I made is I should have said, 'Forget about it, it’s your turn now,' " Diaz said.

Their turn is coming up again; most of the same players in all of the same positions. And that is where the worry lies. Not much appears to have changed at Texas. Same players. Same coach. Oh, wait a minute: There has been some change. The two best players on a defense that was the worst in school history in 2012 are off to the NFL. So the team is without its leading tackler from a year ago, Kenny Vaccaro, and without Alex Okafor, who took over the Alamo Bowl and led Texas in sacks. And now there is supposed to be some excitement about the "turn" this group is about to take? Try hand-wringing worry.

"Understandably, we will have lost trust from people from our performance last year, and we understand that," Diaz said. "There’s nothing we can do until we go back out and play in the fall to regain that trust. Our job right now is to get these guys as good as they can be to become a physical, hard-nosed defense."

The first step in doing that is remembering, not who they were collectively a season ago, but who they were when they were at their best, when they were freer, faster and more fearless on the field.

"We can’t carry around the ghost of last year," Diaz said.

It's too heavy a burden. And this is a defense that, in order to be at its best, needs to be unencumbered because clearly -- see 2012 -- they do not work well with expectations placed upon them. So maybe then, there could be an argument made that Texas' defense is sitting in just the right position, at least mentally.

Physically, well there are some changes being attempted there are well.

"There’s a lot of one-on-one drills. There’s competition every day," said defensive tackle Chris Whaley. "We have to be physical on defense to be a great defense. You have to come out every day ready to win."

"Everywhere across the board, everyone is battling for a position," said safety Adrian Phillips. "We are going to practice saying, 'I have to win [those battles] and I have to get better. If I get better, maybe it will raise the next man’s level as well.' "

"We talk about holding them to a higher standard," Diaz said. "There’s nowhere to hide here. The standard, regardless of experience, whoever steps on that field, there’s a standard. A standard from all the guys who have played here and coached here before us, a standard we have to uphold."

It's not that hard to know what that standard is. Diaz coached the defense in 2011 when it was No. 11 nationally. Three of the expected starting defensive backs this year started games that year, as did Jordan Hicks at linebacker as well as defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and defensive tackle Ashton Dorsey. So those players know the standard and been a part of upholding it in the past.

Now they, along with several others including Diaz, have to be a part of bringing that standard back in 2013.

"Last year was a big letdown, giving up all those yards and not being considered a physical defense," Whaley said. "So there is a big chip on our shoulder to come out and prove that we are still that tough Texas defense. There’s a lot of senior leaders on this defense, and we are stressing that we are going to get this thing turned around."