2013 was supposed to be the year that all of last year's bumps and bruises at the linebacker position paid off. Back came Jordan Hicks from a season-ending injury, ready to be an All-Big 12 player. Back too were trimmer and faster versions of Steve Edmond and Dalton Santos, both of whom were expected to grow from last year's experience. And, of course Peter Jinkens came back, ready to put his speed on display, in front of an experienced group of backups.
But the loss to BYU, and subsequent jettisoning of defensive coordinator (and linebackers coach) Manny Diaz, showed that the linebackers weren't as up-to-speed as many thought they would be, a problem that was further exacerbated when Hicks, for the second year in a row, suffered a season-ending injury.
Once more, the Hicks injury was devastating. He was living up to his end of the deal, averaging double-digit tackles per game (Iowa State's Jeremiah George is the only other linebacker currently doing so) and generally looking like potentially the league's best 'backer. Losing his leadership was also a big blow for a unit that hadn't truly developed another leader among the players.
But in stepped new coordinator Greg Robinson, who simplified the reads and went to work, bringing both energy and a huge emphasis on the fundamentals that was needed. During the first bye week, Robinson reportedly worked on things like helmet placement when taking on blocks, a simple but vital component of allowing a linebacker to fill gaps and pursue ball-carriers accordingly.
Edmond had to be a top target for those conversations. Always a high-potential player, Edmond can be frustrating at times because when the light is on, it's way on, like this below.
That was 253-pound Trey Millard of Oklahoma, the Big 12's top fullback, that Edmond just shrugged off to make a play. At his best, Edmond is tremendously physical, difficult to block because of his size, athleticism and long arms. At his worst, well, he's like this.
There, Edmond is unsure, takes a few false (and tentative) steps and gets walled inside, creating a huge running lane. It's the tale of the two Edmonds — one part fire-breathing monster, a player who moves well for his size and can be difficult to block and one part unsure young player who almost seems to block himself.
The positive is that Edmond has been improving under Robinson, and we're starting to see more of Edmond No. 1. And in a way, Edmond's performance stands as an example for the entire linebacking corps: full of young, talented bodies who are still learning to play football. There are going to be some growing pains there, along with some moments, like the first play there, where they appear to have figured things out.
Edmond can at times (falsely) be accused of being too slow. It's not his speed that's the issue. In fact, it's the fact that he moves as well as he does that he's able to bump to the outside while Santos plays in the middle. But there's running speed, and there's playing speed. And when Edmond isn't sure of his diagnosis, it significantly slows his playing speed.
Santos is somewhat of an opposite there, though he's a better athlete than many give him credit for. Santos can have excellent playing speed because he appears more confident as a football player. That allows him to throw his nose into the muck (insert old-school cliché here), and makes him an ideal middle linebacker. He's also getting better … Santos's numbers against Oklahoma included seven tackles and 1.5 stops in the backfield. On the year, he has four tackles for loss, best of the linebackers.
Despite the fact that pairing Santos and Edmond doesn't appear to be an ideal match from an athletic standpoint, they do have the speed to play together when Texas goes nickel, something Texas showed against Oklahoma. And it's hard to believe that if Santos is healthy, that won't be the primary duo moving forward.
At the same time, Peter Jinkens appears to have been phased down a bit. The speedy outside 'backer is still learning assignment football a bit, and he's made just three tackles in Texas's past two games. He still figures prominently in the Longhorns' long-term plans however, and has tremendous value as somebody who can play downhill with speed and physicality against the run while also holding up against the pass because he's that kind of raw athlete.
Timothy Cole actually earned a start against Iowa State and had an up-and-down day. The good news is that the redshirt freshman made six tackles and a quarterback hurry. And included among those tackles was a stop on Sam Richardson, in bounds, at the end of the game that forced a hurried snap and ultimately, the game-clinching interception. But Cole also appeared to lack the speed at times to recover when he made a mistake. That in itself isn't unusual — Jinkens is one of the few linebackers who has that kind of recovery athleticism. But with Cole being a redshirt freshman, it made sense to back off a bit and let him play into his comfort zone. He's a bright player, and he'll find his way.
Kendall Thompson (11 tackles) and Tevin Jackson (three stops) haven't played the major roles that they were asked to a year ago, nor the major rotational roles that many pegged them for in the offseason. Aaron Benson played on special teams against New Mexico State. Thompson and Jackson do have relevant experience though, so if (God forbid) anything happened to Texas's remaining bodies at the position, the Longhorns won't need to throw a young player to the wolves.
Speaking of injuries, don't forget to keep an eye on Demarco Cobbs for next season. Cobbs is sitting out this season as he recovers from injury, and he, like the linebackers above, is one of those players who could stand to improve mightily from Robinson's teaching at the position.