Texas defense claims improvement but more proof needed

The number — 5,244 — is not burned in the mind of Texas safety Adrian Phillips.

But he’ll never forget the underlying message associated with those digits.

Phillips, one of nine returning starters on a defense that allowed a school-record 5,244 yards last season, understands his crew’s unwanted legacy.

“Statistically, we were the worst defense in Texas history,” Phillips said Monday, reciting a phrase he has used for motivational purposes since December. “We kind of took that and ran with it. We want to be the best in the nation … and the only way you can do that is to shut up and work. We did that this off-season.”

Phillips, who played last season with an ailing shoulder, has it fully rehabilitated for Saturday’s season opener against New Mexico State (7 p.m., Longhorn Network).

A pair of last year’s pudgy linebackers, Steve Edmond and Dalton Santos, each dropped 20-plus pounds in the off-season to improve their mobility. Veteran leaders Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks, who missed a combined 17 games last season because of injuries, declared themselves at their physical peaks during Monday’s news conference.

But will that be enough to fix all the missed tackles and blown assignments that marked last year’s 9-4 season? Rest assured, the answer will not come Saturday against New Mexico State, a team coming off a 1-11 season and ranked No. 122 among the nation’s 125 FBS schools in Athlon magazine’s preseason power rankings.

More meaningful feedback will come in September games against Brigham Young, Ole Miss and Kansas State. But for the Longhorns, who began making defensive strides during the second half of last season, a solid showing Saturday is essential in building on the good vibes that have been flowing throughout the off-season.

Let’s be realistic. If this defense can’t apply the brakes to the offense of New Mexico State, which finished among the FBS’ bottom 13 teams in scoring last season (18.7 avg.), the Longhorns have no business being ranked No. 15 in The Associated Press’ poll or being viewed as Big 12 title contenders. Coach Mack Brown understands the urgency.

“We need to play better. They understand that,” Brown said of his defenders. “We need enough pressure out of our front four that we don’t have to blitz all the time.”

Jeffcoat’s return should help with that. Coaches and teammates are counting on a breakthrough season from Cedric Reed (6-foot-6, 258 pounds), a junior who will man the end spot opposite Jeffcoat as part of a multi-player rotation that includes Haltom grad Reggie Wilson.

More than anything, these Longhorns need to be hungrier. That has been the message driven home by assistant coaches throughout fall camp.

“This camp, it’s all been about effort. It’s been about everyone running to the ball,” Hicks said. “If we would have had 100 percent effort on every play last year, we would have saved so many touchdowns.”

Instead, the Longhorns’ defense drifted into a confused funk after Hicks, the team’s defensive anchor and signal-caller at weakside linebacker, suffered a season-ending groin injury in a Sept. 15 victory at Ole Miss. Missed assignments and missed tackles mounted. So did mistrust among defenders, with players often out of position in efforts to compensate for teammates’ perceived shortcomings.

Texas finished among the national leaders in defensive whiffs (112), including a season-high 16 missed tackles in a 63-21 loss to Oklahoma. Vanderbilt, with 119, set the FBS bar for missed tackles in 2012. But the Longhorns’ total drifted high enough that defensive coordinator Manny Diaz made it a point of off-season emphasis.

“You fix a lot of this with toughness. You fix a lot of this with great leverage and then great violence when you get to the ball,” Diaz said.

Phillips said teammates “gained a lot of our trust back” in spring drills, then took it to a higher level in fall camp with daily sessions against Texas’ new up-tempo offense. Those sessions, said Diaz, have resulted in a defense that plays “mentally faster” in 2013.

“It’s because of our conditioning,” Diaz said. “Practicing faster, our players feel more comfortable playing at that high level of speed with that high rate of snaps.”

Jeffcoat said facing the up-tempo attack has gotten him in “the best shape of my life” despite October surgery for a torn pectoral muscle. Other defenders, he said, also seem lighter on their feet this fall.

“We’ll be flying around when we get out there,” Jeffcoat said. “We know where we’re going, we know what we’re doing and we’re in better shape. You’ll definitely see a different defense this year.”

For Texas, the key is unveiling a better one. That is yet to be determined. The first test begins Saturday and the Longhorns had better ace it. If not, that would be a very bad sign for a defense that will be asked to apply the brakes to much better offenses during Big 12 play.

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