What's he worried about? Texas lost two All-Big 12 caliber linebackers in Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, who held down the fort for each of the past two seasons at the position. And so while the third starter, Jordan Hicks, is considered a candidate for All-Big 12 honors, or more, Diaz has said that he's worried because not only will he have two new starters in 2012, but even his returner will be in a different role, and will need to replace the leadership void created by Robinson's and Acho's departures.
At the same time, Hicks is part of the reason for Diaz's excitement, and stands as a sort of beacon about what's to like about this group. First off, like their junior leader, the linebacking group is incredibly athletic, arguably the most athletic group at linebacker that Texas has had in years. And second, they're young. Hicks is the most experienced, with fellow projected starter Demarco Cobbs also starting his junior year. Add in middle linebacker Steve Edmond, a sophomore, and this is a group that Texas fans can see growing and improving together.
In fact, Edmond — arguably the team's top rising star in the spring — may even be a better representative for the group than Hicks. He's a prototypical middle linebacker, raw, fast and talented, the kind of guy who can make a wow play in an instant. He also happens to be huge. While Texas coach Mack Brown said Edmond was "down" to 252 pounds before the spring started, the eye test put him at 260-plus. And running around in the middle of the field, it appeared that Texas had five defensive linemen on the field at all times. But here's the thing: Edmond doesn't move like a 265-pounder. In describing the ascending linebacker, Diaz essentially said that weight was just a number, before stating that the most important thing was whether he was mobile enough to handle his assignments (Diaz later answered that point in the affirmative). Safety Kenny Vaccaro took it a step further, calling Edmond the best pound-for-pound athlete on the Texas team.
But while everyone is excited for Edmond's potential, Hicks is the one with the most chops at this point. The former five-star recruit (actually all three projected starters were five-star recruits) that Texas stole from Ohio State has outstanding speed, and he showed flashes of his ability a year ago, making 65 stops including four in the backfield and a sack while breaking up four passes and recovering a fumble. By all accounts, he took the next step in his development over the spring, starting to show signs of becoming the consistent play-in, play-out standout that the Longhorns need in this young group.
Like Edmond, Cobbs is the type of player whose accolades from teammates outweigh his current on-field production. But that could change in 2012. Cobbs was actually meant to play a big role in 2011 as the team's fourth linebacker and a specialist on passing situations, but the former safety missed most of the year with injuries. When he came back from the Holiday Bowl, he nearly made a huge play on a quarterback pressure, and he emerged as a playmaker the second half of spring practice. Cobbs has been called "the fastest linebacker in the country" by his teammates, a trait that can't truly be measured. But as someone who started his career at running back before moving to safety, then linebacker, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he's in that discussion.
Cobbs missed the first half of spring practice, leading to Tevin Jackson actually getting first crack at that spot, and Jackson looked good at times. He's not as explosive or fast as Cobbs is, but he's thicker and more of a physical presence. Kendall Thompson also competed for the spot, and will help to provide depth.
Middle linebacker is much more of a question mark, with true freshman Alex De La Torre jumping straight into the No. 2 spot in the open practices before shifting to fullback the second half of the spring. It's unclear what De La Torre's long-term plans are, but the fact that he was able to jump so quickly into the middle of the defense speaks to two things. First, De La Torre's diagnostic skills are excellent, and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. But second, Texas has a lack of depth behind Edmond. That should be addressed when Dalton Santos arrives on campus this summer, while fellow freshmen Peter Jinkens and Timothy Cole could provide depth on the outside.