Shortly after Texas wrapped up its 5-7 campaign last season, Mack Brown opted for a new approach for this year. It emphasized a fresh start, laying a new foundation for the program — one that would be built “brick by brick.”
The Longhorns’ linebackers would be a good place to start.
The trio of terrific defenders — Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho and Jordan Hicks — is the strength of the defense, possibly the team. Robinson and Acho are seniors who combined for 200 tackles last season while Hicks is one of the best young linebackers in the nation. As a unit, the linebackers will be one of the biggest reasons Texas bounces back from last year’s abysmal showing.
“It’s like you get to write the story all over again,” Acho said. “It’s no longer about last year’s team, the championship team from two years ago, it’s now about this team. You get to write your own story. You have the pen, you have the paper, now it’s how you want to write it.”
Part of the brick-by-brick process for Brown meant cleaning house and revamping his coaching staff. The 14th-year Texas head coach hired new offensive and defensive coordinators, also bringing in new offensive line, defensive tackles, wide receivers and strength coaches. Brown even introduced himself to his team by saying, “My name is Mack Brown and this is my first season at Texas.”
“We’re starting over,” Robinson said. “I just felt like we should not dwell on the past and dwell on what happened last year so we want to start new and that’s why we have that new slogan ‘brick by brick.’ We’re laying a foundation.”
Some of the team’s members, especially at linebacker, don’t require an introduction. Robinson led the Longhorns with 113 tackles a year ago, good enough to earn second-team All-Big 12 honors. Perhaps the senior linebacker’s most remarkable accomplishments in the offseason as Robinson, who benched 405 pounds last year, maxed out at 450.
“He’s been playing at a very high level,” said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “I do think Keenan was a guy that had always been there but had kind of been riding the bus in the middle, not necessarily in the front with his hand on the steering wheel or foot on the gas. At some point in spring ball, he began to realize the power.”
Acho, also a senior, made the most of his first year as a starter, making 87 tackles, 12 of them for loss. Like Robinson, Acho provides great leadership to the young Longhorns on defense. Acho should know a little about playing a leadership role seeing as how his brother Sam, a rookie playing for the Arizona Cardinals, played it last year.
“The senior linebackers [Emmanuel Acho] and Keenan [Robinson] have both taken it upon themselves to lead this defense,” Hicks said. “We have all grabbed onto them and they have been leading us through the summer and through all of camp.”
For Hicks, this is his first year as a starter. He came all the way from West Chester, Ohio, to be a Longhorn. Now that Hicks, who was widely considered to be the top linebacker coming out of high school two years ago, is at the top of the depth chart, he’s prepared to make the lengthy trip pay off.
Playing for Diaz also likely goes a long way toward ensuring players coming to Texas was the right choice. The former Mississippi State defensive coordinator is relatively new to the program as he replaces current Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Diaz is giving his players a great deal of freedom, along with sending more corners and safeties to the line of scrimmage and dropping more defensive linemen and linebackers into coverage.
“It’s not freelancing but really controlled,” Hicks said. “It looks like a lot of moving and a lot of freelancing, but when you understand the scheme and you’re out there and you know your job.”
The Longhorns have one of the finest defensive lines in the country. Senior defensive tackle Kheeston Randall is a mismatch for everyone while Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat are two of the most athletic pass-rushers in the country. The secondary is solid despite having only three players who have started a game.
But the linebackers that play between those two units are the glue that holds the defense together. All three starters could end up in the NFL and even with sophomore Demarco Cobbs’ recent injury, they’re still deep. The linebackers will be a wall in the middle of the Texas defense, a wall like the one the Longhorns are trying to build brick by brick this season.