Brown: LB play key to continued success on D

With virtually every major pigskin pundit picking the 2002 Texas Longhorns as a legitimate national title contender, the Burnt Orange opened its first full week of practice Monday as a squad surrounded more by expectation than interrogation.

Conspicuously absent among the legion of devotees making daily pilgrimages to Denius Fields -- workouts are open to the public until Aug. 26 -- are anachronous inquiries about rotating quarterbacks or when a certain highly-touted freshman running back from Odessa was going to see playing time.

But an area where there are more questions than an episode of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" is the perceived strength of the linebacking corps.

"We have a huge void at linebacker," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "The key for us to do as well on defense as last year will be the play of our linebackers."

Defensive Coordinator Carl Reese is replacing not one, not two but (count them) all three senior starters at linebacker from the 2001 unit that led the nation in total defense.

The dearly departed include UT's first-ever Butkus Award semifinalist middle linebacker D.D. Lewis. Lewis, who tallied a school-record 51 consecutive starts before signing as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks, hands the heart-of-the-defense responsibility, to fourth-year junior Reed Boyd. The 6-3 New Braunfels Canyon stalwart has seen action in 25 games, including all 13 during the 2001 campaign.

"We need for Reed to step up," Brown said. "D.D. Lewis was one of the emotional leaders of the team. His 51 starts at this school were phenomenal. We're thin in the middle so we need Reed to play well."

Senior Lee Jackson inherits the strong LB spot, after entering the 2000 season as a returning starter at strong safety. The three-year letterman from Longview battled leg injuries through most of his junior season and then, as a senior, was granted an extra year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending toe injury against North Carolina.

"Our first-string linebackers are strong, but behind them are guys who are young and dumb," said Reese, never one to mince words. "Our young guys have got a lot to learn. They've got to find a way to hang on."

As expected, the poster child for Reese's young linebacking corps is sophomore WLB Derrick Johnson. The hard-hitting Waco product was named Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the Year and The Sporting News national Freshman of the Year. His 83 tackles was tops for all Big 12 freshmen and second on a defensive that surrendered a stingy 236.2 yards-per-game. His freshman debut was punctuated by a nine-tackle, one-interception human highlight reel of a defensive Most Valuable Player performance in last year's Holiday Bowl victory against Washington.

But for Johnson to reach the next level -- a lofty playing field that Reese reserves for those who are among the all-time greats -- the final answer will be determined not by what Johnson has shown between the sidelines but rather between the ears. Or, even in his heart.

"D.J. is a football player; he proved that last season," Reese said. "But for him to be a great one, he's going to have to work on the little things. All the great ones have passion. He turns it up when the whistle blows, but he's got to have a stronger work ethic and work on being a leader. He's made a 100-percent stride since last year, but he's still not there. Up until now, he's basically using his natural abilities and his given instincts. It's the kind of things that can't be coached."

If Reese's sweet dreams of repeating as the nation's leading defense is splintered by nightmarish flashbacks of Oklahoma's diminutive tailback Quentin Griffin tiptoeing into the end zone, or Washington tight end Jerramy Stevens converting dump passes into chain-moving scampers, it may start with the two-deep (read: not too deep) status of his linebacking corps.

Jackson's tenure at the Forty Acres is evidence that a stellar freshman year combined with a propensity for crashing the pocket and reducing an unsuspecting quarterback into compost can hardly guarantee an injury-free season.

In other words, the three new guys are old geezers compared to the youngsters backing them up who are but one heartbeat away from the linebacking throne.

The good news for Longhorn fans is that the buzz around the practice fields is not just the early morning Interstate 35 rush hour traffic; it is also the notion that at least three of five true freshman linebackers could significantly contribute this season. Raising eyebrows -- as well as the level of the depth pool -- are Garnet Smith (first-team all-area as linebacker from Arlington Lamar), Marcus Myers (a three-year team captain at Pflugerville Connally), Brian Robison (a second-team all-state linebacker from Splendora), Mike Williams (District Defensive MVP from Lindale) and Aaron Harris (USA Today second-team All-American from North Mesquite). Reese pinpointed Williams' Monday morning play.

"Mike Williams is giving us a good effort, he's always got a smile on his face and he's learning the game," Reese said.

During the early part of the season (read: before that killer four-week stretch where Texas faces Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas State away from the friendly confines of Royal-Memorial Stadium), strength at the cornerback position should buy time for the "young and dumb" to become older and wiser.

"Having guys like Nathan Vasher and Rod Babers at the corner takes a lot of pressure off the linebackers, especially the running game," Reese added. "We can move our corners up, and it's like having nine guys geared to stopping the run. I feel real good about our secondary, but our linebackers are a different situation."

Not so fast, according to secondary coach Duane Akina.

"If (the secondary) makes a mistake, you (media) write about it," Akina laughed. "It's not just seven or eight yards we'd give up: it would be six points."

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