And as the 2011 non-conference schedule has played out, that's precisely the way that things have gone. Look at the stats, and the linebackers are responsible for three of the top four tackling positions on the team. Top tackler, Emmanuel Acho, has 33 stops on the season, or 11 per game, four tackles for loss, one sack, five quarterback hurries and two passes broken up.
Acho's stat line shows just how dominant a linebacker can be in this defense. He's asked to come downhill against the run, be a devastating blitzer when called upon and use his athleticism in his zone drops. And the trio of Acho, Keenan Robinson and Jordan Hicks are capable of doing all three. Add in Demarco Cobbs, the best athlete of the bunch and who will be returning soon from injury, and it's a potentially elite group. Robinson appears to be as-advertised in the middle, while Hicks appears ready to take the reins after Acho and Robinson graduate.
The first game wasn't quite up to that standard. The linebackers didn't always hit their run fits aggressively, a huge key in the Diaz defense. A lot of that was based on trust of the system. But they've been lights out ever since, largely shedding the criticism that they had at times last year about not being able to fill in against the run. And with all that athleticism, there wasn't really any doubt that they would excel against the pass, whether in dropping back, or in harrying the quarterback. Acho has the lone sack, though it was a pressure from Robinson that forced a UCLA interception in the red zone two weeks ago.
That's where Cobbs could be important. He plays sort of that linebacker/safety hybrid role for the Longhorns, allowing them to essentially go with a "big nickel" package. He's capable of running with running backs or tight ends, or in using his speed off the edge to get to the quarterback. And so the player that Acho calls "the fastest linebacker in the country" will add an extra dimension.
Quick Hit Analysis: One of team's most talented groups is getting better by the day. The re-addition of Cobbs (back from injury) could be huge in terms of depth and versatility. This is a group that is good, and improving, against the run, and fantastic against the pass.