"Ever since that Kansas State game ended, we have talked about raising our expectations," Diaz said. "It's been more intense since December practice. We are still chipping away at that right now.
"The bowl was really a great win, a great team win for us," Diaz said. "Our mentality when we came back to work in December was to start hardening our football team up. We have the chisel out, and we are still a ways away, but that's what is required. We are so unhappy with the way we looked last year."
So were many Texas fans, who voiced displeasure at having the worst defense in Texas history. Looking at the more advanced statistics, tweaked for competition, the picture looks a little better. The Longhorns were 32nd nationally in Defensive S&P+, still not boasting the elite, or even top-25 defense that most were hoping for, but putting together a top-third defense in the country anyway.
"There's a couple things there," Diaz said. "Number one, we have to get this group to be as good as we can possibly be. All that being said, we can't carry around the ghost of last year. Whatever happened last year, the game is not going to start first-and-nine this last year. We didn't get to carry around 2011.
"It is a new year," Diaz said. "Understandably, we will have lost trust from people from our performance last year, and we understand that. There's nothing we can do until we go back out and play in the fall to regain that trust. Our job right now is to get these guys as good as they can be to become a physical, hard-nosed defense."
"The mistake I made last year was that I was aware that expectations were higher for our team than they should have been," Diaz continued. "I think there were too many assumptions made. We said, 'Well this guy is bigger and faster than the guy who graduated, so he must be better.' The mistake I made is I should have said, 'Forget about it, it's your turn now.' And that's why we talk about holding them to a higher standard. There's nowhere to hide here. The standard, regardless of experience, whoever steps on that field, there's a standard. A standard from all the guys who have played here and coached here before us, a standard we have to uphold."
Diaz's comment could very well have been aimed at his own linebacker group. After Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho graduated, there was a high level of excitement about giant middle linebacker Steve Edmond and speedy outside guy Demarco Cobbs. But the linebacking group as a whole — especially after Jordan Hicks went out — struggled in gap replacement, often opening up holes for opposing runners.
"We actually have an interesting mix now," Diaz said of his linebacker group. "Last year, we had one guy that had started a game, this year I have seven guys who have started a game. We have guys that have been in games, so what we have in practice is great competition. Our guys are better in terms of understanding what to do and where to go. Now, it's just a matter of letting them battle it out. [Dalton] Santos has made [Steve] Edmond better. I think Steve has made some big improvements over the last week or so. It's just a battle, and I am keeping score."
Things were much better against the pass a year ago, with the Longhorns ranking 18th in the country in defensive Passing S&P+. They were 65th in defensive Rushing S&P+. And though they lost two potential high NFL draft picks in Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor, the Longhorns return the rest of the defensive two deep, with the exception of early entry defensive tackle Brandon Moore. Because of that depth — returning 19 of the top 22 players on defense — Diaz said there isn't a single player who has to perform at a really high level to carry the defense.
"I think the difference with us now is that we are so much more balanced," Diaz said. "We are finding that out this spring. There's not the obvious guy that you are going to put on top of the poster. But what we have is a lot of players who have been in games and made some good plays. It's about trying to figure out who that best guy is. My concern as a coach is to figure out where we can collectively become the best 11.
"I want a defense that plays like there are more than 11 guys on the field," Diaz said. "Our first year, we looked like that at times. Last year, it looked like we had nine guys on the field. When defenses don't trust each other, space becomes bigger, people start playing slower, people lose leverage because they feel like they are on their own on the football field. My concern is that the nameless, faceless 11 players out there play with a trust of one another so everybody can go full speed and trust that their brother will be where they need to be."
And that trust is something that Diaz said was built in the spring.
"The first place that happens is in the off-season program," Diaz said. "From the very first day we came back in January, that's where that is earned. We can all sit around in circles and sing 'Kumbaya,' but you earn trust by working hard; by pushing each other to the brink and finding out who will tap out and who won't. You find your edge in the offseason. You win in October by winning in January and March. This is where it happens."