Spring Preview: Could D Be Even Stingier?

By nearly all accounts, Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik was a rousing success during his first year at Texas, culminating in the 2005 national championship. Chizik would be the first to say there is always room for improvement, while his boss is convinced there is one particular area where there must be a defensive upgrade when spring training begins Monday at the Forty Acres.

"We didn't intercept as many balls as we wanted to this past year," head coach Mack Brown said. "We're really concentrating this spring on forcing more turnovers. The ability to catch a ball in the secondary will be a big part of that."

The Horns totaled just 11 INTs on the season, and FS Michael Griffin razzed Thorpe Awarding-winning SS Michael Huff for coming up with just one pick during his All-American campaign. Griffin and LCB Aaron Ross led the team with three INTs apiece. The numbers weren't too big of a drop-off from the 13 INTs that the 2004 team tallied, yet Brown knows his current defense must carry more of the load -- and ideally shorten the field by forcing turnovers -- as the offense adjusts to an untested freshman QB.

"We've challenged our defense to play better than they did last year," Brown said.

There's no question that the defense played pretty darn well last season. It held opponents to a respectable 130.9 rushing ypg after surrendering 152.5 on the ground the previous season. The defense gave up 172 ypg through the air and just 10 passing TDs in 13 contests. RCB Cedric Griffin did not have an INT all season but combined with Huff for 29 PBU. But Brown is asking for improved play from a unit that has said goodbye to All-American LDT Rod Wright, first-team All-Big 12 MLB Aaron Harris (league's coaches), Griffin and Huff.

The defense returns eight lettermen who started at least three games (this includes Drew Kelson's three-game stint at SLB). Aaron Ross logged a start at LCB (UL-Lafayette) and at RCB (Baylor). Big 12 2005 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Brian Orakpo started against Baylor after Brian Robison injured his calf at Oklahoma State.

Michael Griffin returns for his senior season after leading the team in tackles (124). His goal-line INT in the second quarter of the BCS National Championship game was the program's most critical take-away since Tom Campbell stepped in front of QB Bill Montgomery's pass to preserve the 15-14 win at Arkansas on December 6, 1969. Griffin also led the team with four blocked kicks and three fumble recoveries.

DE Brian Robison was, arguably, the unit's most improved player last season. He led the Horns with seven sacks, resulting in losses of 62 yards. He also paced his unit with 15 TFLs (80 yards). He'll anchor a defensive front that returns DE Tim Crowder and RDT Frank Okam. Sophomore Roy Miller, Texas' only five-star commit from 2005, will figure more prominently in the rotation after notching nine tackles in nine appearances last year.

Chizik certainly got between SLB Robert Killebrew's ears after benching him the first three games of 2005. A question to be decided this spring is whether Killebrew slides over to MLB and Kelson steps up at SLB, or whether Kelson is Huff's heir apparent. (Many considered the 6-2, 215-pound Kelson a prototypical SS when Texas recruited him at that spot in 2004.) Consensus All-American Sergio Kindle will figure into the rotation and, ultimately, push undersized WLB Rashad Bobino for playing time.

Overall, the good news is that the defense will return the same coordinator for the first time in three years. It will not be learning new terminology; the nasty attitude has been instilled. There is a swagger that comes from a unit that is convinced they are playing for the best DC in college football. Bottom line: the defense will be tweaked rather than revamped. Barring catastrophe, the group will not contend with depth issues (as it did at DE in 2003 or at SLB in 2004).

"We can look at some changes on defense because we have to figure out who's going to replace Aaron Harris, Michael Huff, Cedric Griffin, Rod Wright and Larry Dibbles," Brown concluded. "But there will be fewer changes in structure and philosophy on defense than offense."

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