Diaz’s defense features bounty of talented backers

Nick Cremona

New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz has a bevy of backers at his disposal, and this year’s group may prove to be one of the most talented to roll through Texas in quite some time.

Last year as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, Diaz’s defense ranked 22nd in the nation in scoring defense and 17th in tackles for loss. That isn’t a simple task in the SEC, and with the talent available at Texas, the entire defense should flourish under Diaz. Here’s how his corps of linebackers stacks up.

Position Leader — Keenan Robinson
The outside linebacker burst onto the scene last year with an exceptional performance in the season opener against Rice. Robinson not only intercepted a pass in the first quarter of the game, but also scooped up a fumble and returned it for his first career touchdown, setting the tone for a breakout year. He fielded a team-leading 113 tackles, along with eight tackles for loss and two sacks in 2010. The senior from Plano has since moved to the inside linebacker position, a change fellow backer Emmanuel Acho is anxious to see in action.
Diaz watched some film and wanted to put Keenan in middle and me on the outside,” said outside linebacker Emmanuel Acho. “I’m excited for it.”

Stock Rising —Jordan Hicks
After choosing to become a Longhorn rather than an Ohio State Buckeye, Hicks didn’t quite live up to the hype surrounding him in his first year with the team. He recorded 23 tackles and a single sack in 12 games as a freshman. Hicks then suffered a broken right foot during spring practice and was forced to sit out the rest of the spring in order to heal. All signs point to him being back in action come Sept. 3 when the Longhorns host Rice in the season opener.
“He’s healthy now, and I think he’ll be one of the better linebackers in the conference,” Acho said.

Top Backup — Demarco Cobbs
Cobbs was listed on the depth chart last year and played one game at safety. He also recorded five tackles on special teams. The sophomore put on some weight in the offseason, and the coaches felt he could make the most impact as an outside linebacker. He possesses a quickness on the field unmatched by many on either side of the ball. Having played at quarterback in high school in Tulsa, he has proven to be a playmaker and should grow into a great player over the next three years.
“After making the switch from safety, Demarco is probably the fastest linebacker in the nation,” Acho said.

Most To Prove — Aaron Benson
Benson redshirted last year and gained valuable experience with the scout team. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he has the size to play at any of the three linebacker positions. It should be interesting to see how Diaz plans to play Benson; on blitz packages or as a run-stopper. Like many of the other linebackers, Benson was highly-touted coming out of Cedar Hill in 2010, and he should also make a name for himself this year.

Position Battle — Kendall Thompson vs. Steve Edmond
Both will vie for playing time behind the other talented linebackers this year. As freshmen, they still have to learn, but because everyone on defense is under new management with Diaz, the learning curve shouldn’t be as steep for the pair. Edmond came into the program as the fourth-highest ranked inside linebacker in the nation and is an excellent run-stopper. Thompson is listed as an outside linebacker but could fill in at the inside position as well.