Akina's comments carry a double-edged meaning. On one hand, he expects backups to perform at such a high level that there is no appreciable drop-off when a starter is on the bench. At the same time, Texas' defensive rotations against Tech have resembled a revolving door as of late. The past two seasons have virtually re-defined 'player participation' for Texas when it fends off Tech's aerial assault. Longhorn defensive coordinators have substituted early-and-often to keep players fresh against a Freak Show offense that puts the ball in the air nearly 70 times per game.
It's a lesson Longhorn coaches learned the hard way four seasons ago. The last time Texas' defense was this strafed with injuries was when it visited Lubbock in 2002. It was also the last time the Horns lost a Big 12 road game. DT Marcus Tubbs and DE Kalen Thornton didn't even make the trip that year. CB Nathan Vasher injured his ankle on the first punt of the game and then WLB Derrick Johnson later pulled a hamstring. The Horns had so many DBs nicked and bruised that they could not go nickel- or dime-packages against Tech's passing attack.
"I looked in the press book this week and it was still a loss," Brown said. "It doesn't matter if we had injuries. It's still a loss. Nobody cares (about the reason). We can't use it as an excuse. I used to talk about injuries all the time, but it does nothing good for your team. Some years you have them, some years you don't."
The national championship season was a year that Texas did not have them. DE Brian Robison missed the Baylor game with a calf injury, while RBs Selvin Young and Jamaal Charles took turns nursing ankle injuries. Otherwise, those were the only significant injuries that Texas sustained during its 13-0 campaign.
This season is a different story. Rather than list all the two-deep defensive injuries, it's easier to pinpoint where they haven't occurred. The only spots the starters have been injury-free are (knock on wood): quick DE Tim Crowder, MLB Rashad Bobino, LCB Aaron Ross and SS Michael Griffin. All told, defensive starters have missed 16 games this season, Brown said.
There is some good news: Akina expects all four starting DBs to play Saturday, even though both Griffin brothers are playing with ankle injuries and RCB Tarell Brown continues to operate with an injured foot. True freshman CB Deon Beasley is expected to primarily see duty at nickel back.
"We'll be seven days healthier," Akina said. "You'll get tired of hearing me say it, but we're more than healthy enough. Everybody looks for excuses for why you can't; we're constantly looking for reasons for why we can. The guys that we trot out there are going to be the reasons why we can."
Robison is gimpy but is expected to play, another source said. Defensively, the biggest question mark is SLB Robert Killebrew (knee) who led his team in tackles (13) when Texas thumped Tech in Austin last year. There is no structural damage in Killebrew's left knee, according to another source close to the situation. Yet the deep bruise may sideline him this weekend.
One clearcut distinction between this year's injury-plagued Longhorn team and the 2002 injury-plagued Longhorn team (other than that this year's team enjoys an inexplicably poised and a remarkably accurate QB who, so far, has played within himself) is that Texas now boasts the kind of depth and versatility on defense that it did not have four years ago. All-purpose linebacker Scott Derry, DE/DT Aaron Lewis and DT Roy Miller are prime examples.
"Scott Derry has come on and he's playing gang-busters," Brown said. "He's everywhere. I saw Scott Derry and Aaron Lewis more Saturday than two guys who weren't starters than I've ever seen. They played great games, not just good football games."
Lewis has been solid all season -- his open-field tackle against a healthy Adrian Peterson comes to mind -- but his performance at Nebraska represented a breakout game for the sophomore, including a key QB pressure that led directly to a Zac Tayor INT. Lewis followed with a QB sack, a force fumble and a fumble recovery all on the same play, Lewis took approximately 15 snaps at DT and 10 at DE.
"In my college career, it was my best game by far," Lewis said. "The defensive line did awesome. When I was a tackle, they pushed the quarterback at me. I was able to get the quarterback to move outside the pocket and make something happen. It was great and I really loved it."
One of Brown's mantras this week is that he believes his staff has done it's best-ever job of coaching, considering the team has been a walking MASH unit and is still in the mix for a national championship. But Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik may have nailed it when he said, "I'm not doing more coaching this year; I'm just coaching more players."