If you're old-school enough to believe that offense sells tickets and defense wins football games, then you can loosen the bridle on some of that pre-season optimism. The 2004 National Assistant Coach of the Year is Mack Brown's best hire at Texas and could be the missing piece to Texas' first national title in 35 years.
With nine returning starters, just how good can Texas' defense be this season?
"I think we've got a chance to be really good," Chizik said. "It depends on how well we progress during game conditions and how fast we build depth at different places. I think those are questions that will be answered during the first few weeks."
True dat, but can this defense be as good as Auburn's was last year?
"Oh, I think so. For sure," Chizik said. "I think we have a chance to be really good. Only time will tell but, without trying to compare, it's hard to do. I hate to really (compare) but I think we have a chance to be really good on defense."
In case you missed it the first three times, Chizik thinks Texas has a chance to be "really good on defense." I can tell you that Chizik is not one who is prone to hyperbole. Players, almost to a man, describe him as a no-nonsense, drill sergeant-type but who is also intensely passionate about the game and who also possesses a genuine affinity for his players.
"I enjoy the kids and I enjoy the coaching staff," Chizik said. "You've got to remember that when I got here, I didn't know anybody. Out of all my moves and transitions, this has been the smoothest. That starts with Coach Brown and all the coaches accepting new guys and the players accepting and trusting a new guy. The players have been phenomenal."
Chizik continues the upgrade that former Co-DC Greg Robinson began last season, particularly in run defense. The Horns ranked No. 1 in total defense in 2001 before the rush defense suffered a two-year slide before bottoming out in 2003. That's when Texas gave up 152.5 ypg on the ground (NCAA No. 58) and Defensive Coordinator Carl Reese resigned at the end of the season. Texas' rush defense improved considerably under Robinson (107.4 ypg, NCAA No. 16), who parlayed his one-year stint in Austin toward a head-coaching gig at Syracuse.
The Horns, of course, are loaded in the secondary despite replacing FS Phillip Geiggar with Michael Griffin this season. Even with sophomore Drew Kelson sliding from SS to SLB, Texas still has eight other DBs who boast game day experience. Yet, the strength of this year's unit has got to be at DT. Pre-season All-American Rod Wright and Larry Dibbles anchor the line while backups sophomore Frank Okam and freshman Roy Miller are two of most heralded five-star defensive signees that Brown has inked during his Texas tenure.
Yet, given the opportunity to talk about an individual player, Chizik prefers to talk about his overall defense. And given the chance to talk about a particular position, Chizik (again) prefers to talk about his overall defense.
"I feel like we've done everything we could do to address issues at any place that we felt like there was a concern," he said, "whether that be defensive end, whether that be linebacker, whether that be safety or corner. We feel like we're moving in the right direction because the game, really, is all personnel. You've got to get the right guys in the right spots, and that's what Coach Brown is phenomenal at. We talk about it every day. Again, that's why you cross-train people."
It's a Chizik trademark to train athletes at multiple spots (MLB Aaron Harris, for example, can play WLB) in order to get the best player on the field if a front-line player is sidelined.
"We're feeling good about the depth and the progression of the depth. (By the home opener), we'll pretty much have that solidified. Depth really becomes a factor in November. You've got to be stronger in November than you are in September. I think that's where (depth) really comes into play."
Chizik also places a premium on speed, even if a defender does not possess the prototypical frame for his position. And Chizik also says he doesn't care if the kid's a freshman and has never played a collegiate game in his life. (For example, RS-freshman Rashad Bobino is generously listed at 5-11 but has flourished in Chizik's defense. The freshman has staked his claim to WILL linebacker.)
"I think we've got really good speed on defense," Chizik said. "I'll know more when I see the speed of our opponents. I'm really pleased with our speed but I'm pleased with everything that's going on right now. The kids are focused. It's hard to practice so many days in a row with one day off. You and I would stray. You know what I mean? But they've been focused, and they've really tried to practice hard, and they've done everything we've asked them to do."
Put it all together and you've got a Longhorn defense that has a chance (all together now) to be "really good." And that's "really good" news for Texas' title hopes.