1) Alex Okafor, defensive end
This might be a surprise pick for a lot of people, but it's one smothered in reason. For the 2011 Texas squad to be at its best, the defense needs to step up. The offense has enough question marks that they can't be filled with a single player here or there. And if the defense can keep the scoreline down and the field position manageable, the pressure would be off a young offense to perform.
And if we accept that the defense is the most important unit for 2011 success, then we must also pay attention to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who has said that, for the Longhorns to be their best defensively, Alex Okafor must grow into a big-time player.
For what it's worth, Okafor appears to have that potential. He supplies a physical presence from his end spot that you'd expect from a player his size, but he also has uncommon get-off that surprises for a player of his build. Diaz said he suspects that Okafor doesn't have any idea just how good he can be.
Physically, the sky is the limit. And from a scheme standpoint, there are few positions that can impact a game like an elite end can. Obviously the primary impact is as a pass rusher, where he can divert blocking schemes and force an offense out of its comfort zone. And he can also stalemate linemen against the run, both at the point of attack and through backside pursuit.
And that's why Okafor is so important. The Longhorn defense has plenty of talent, but also some young players and potential rough patches at defensive tackle and cornerback. But those patches can be awfully smoothed over by a dominant defensive end, and that's a role that Okafor will need to play for the Longhorns to have a successful 2011.