Next Man Up

Former Baylor basketball coach Gene Iba had a saying. When talking to a talented first year player making mistakes, Iba would tell him: "You don't have to be a freshman ALL year."

That quote underlies one of the theories that makes Texas so dangerous: next man up.

For instance, the Longhorn coaches have always had faith in Jordan Hicks, said defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. It was just that the five-star linebacker from Lakota West High School in Ohio didn't have a clear shot to the field.

At WILL, Hicks's natural linebacking position because of his speed and athleticism, Hicks sat behind Keenan Robinson, a junior putting together an All-Big 12 caliber season. But Muschamp said the coaches liked what they saw from Hicks, who prepared as well as he ran. That confidence showed when Robinson went down Saturday against Nebraska. Rather than try to shift players around to keep freshmen off the field, Texas sent Hicks out, throwing him to the wolves, so-to-speak. Make no mistake: this was the closest thing that football has to sink-or-swim mentality. True freshman Adrian Phillips also entered the game, thanks to an injury to Kenny Vaccaro.

The two excelled, with Hicks playing 40 snaps and tying for the team lead with eight tackles. Phillips added another spot from his nickel back position and helped to break up a pass in the end zone for Niles Paul.

"We always tell guys, you never know when your number is going to be called," Muschamp said. "You better be ready when it gets called. We have a certain standard we play to here and we're not going to, at the end of the day, say well, we had an injury. Nobody wants to hear that, starting with me."

How well did they play? Defensive tackle Kheeston Randall said he didn't even notice that the freshmen were in the game. Receiver James Kirkendoll took it a step further, stating that "they aren't freshmen any more."

When Kirkendoll was asked when freshmen ceased to be freshmen, he responded: "after the OU game."

Throughout the roster, true freshmen are making an impact. The Longhorns have played 12 this season, tying for the fourth most in the country. Eight of those freshmen are on defense. The defensive backs like Carrington Byndon, Adrian White and Phillips have earned praise from safety Blake Gideon for their mental development, which he said was ahead of his own at the same time in his development.

That's impressive, as Gideon started early in his Texas career and was always known for his heady play.

"We certainly want to add the most educated football IQ guys we can have, don't get me wrong," Muschamp said. "We target that, and that's part of our evaluation. But sometimes it's the luck of the draw there. You don't really know until you coach them, until you sit in the meeting room with them, until you are able to go through a film session and get on the practice field.

"There are a lot of guys that have some grey matter in terms of the thinking part of it," Muschamp said.

Muschamp said getting those players into camp in high school was huge for helping to find out which players could think on their feet.

"When you're able to work with somebody 1-on-1, you find out a lot about them, especially in competition settings," Muschamp said.

Another way to gauge an ability to play early is by watching them practice. Muschamp said the players who transitioned quickly were typically players who understood that practicing hard every day was key to success on game days.

But regardless of how the players were evaluated, the current freshmen crop has left little doubt in their ability to plug and play. In fact, the play of HIcks and Phillips helped to inspire confidence in the other true freshmen, said coach Mack Brown.

"We're Texas," said cornerback Curtis Brown earlier this year. "The next guy has to come in and do well."

Horns Digest Top Stories