Now, About Those Linebackers...

Some have suggested that the weak link on an otherwise solid Texas defense the past couple of seasons has been its linebackers. Now, new co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Larry Mac Duff weighs in on the subject.

The trio (MLB Rashad Bobino, SLB Robert Killebrew, WLB Scott Derry) that opened with the Ones in Texas' Alamo Bowl win over Iowa have combined for 58 starts. And each will be pushed by a highly-touted back-up as Texas enters its second week of preseason camp.

"Scott, Robert and Rashad ,the guys who played a lot last year, have been a great example for the other guys who have come in," said Mac Duff. "The younger guys are doing an outstanding job of paying attention and trying to become part of this football team. It's been a real good start. I've been very pleased, so far, with the progress we've made."

Some have suggested that productivity among Texas' linebackers can only get better. The group has been criticized during the past couple of years for, arguably, its tendency to over-pursue and being out-of-position either on misdirection plays or simple dump passes. Critics have also posited that former Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik did not have the personnel he needed at linebacker last year to successfully play his brand of defense, defending the line of scrimmage at all costs which may have left backside support vulnerable. As such, the linebackers became popular whipping boys among those who wanted to attribute Texas' pass coverage woes to defensive personnel rather than coaching philosophy.

But Mac Duff seems to believe that his linebackers will emerge as an asset rather than a liability. In fact, there may be enough depth at linebacker that coaches may eventually platoon two separate groups of co-starters, alternating with each series.

"With the whole group coming back with a lot of experience, and with athletic guys who are young and eager, we would really have an opportunity to be impact players in games: knock the ball loose, tackles-for-losses, and be consistent with their responsibilities as it relates to the total defense," Mac Duff said. "We're on track in that area."

To be fair, last year's unit was decimated by injuries. Some coaches have suggested that the most impactful injury at linebacker was WLB Roddrick Muckelroy, who started the first three games before suffering a season-ending injury (ruptured tendon in right ring finger) at Rice. These days, Muckelroy is being trained at both outside linebacker positions.

"He's doing a good job in both areas," Mac Duff said. "It will be more defined as we go. I'm very confident at this point that he will develop the consistency where he'll be able to play both outside linebacker positions for us."

Muckelroy's versatility is a tremendous boost given that former WLB Drew Kelson has moved to safety - many would argue it is his natural position - for his final season, and given the fact that SLB Sergio Kindle is sitting out the season's first three games to atone for last month's DWI arrest.

"There's a lot of carry-over from strongside linebacker to weakside," Mac Duff continued. "There are consistencies which helps the learning curve. MIKE is a different world because he's in the middle there. There are some things that are consistent with all linebacking positions, but it's different seeing the game from on the edge as opposed to the middle."

Derry's ability to play all three positions proved valuable last season as the linebacking unit began to resemble a MASH unit. But was Derry primarily a stopgap measure in 2006? The rhetoric from Mac Duff and Duane Akina this past week is that the senior will be difficult to displace.

"Scott is a guy who is a leader by example," Mac Duff said. "He's very intelligent. He's instinctive. He's shown that in practice so far. I'm really glad with his progress."

The Horns appear to be solid at MIKE with Bobino and understudy Jared Norton. Statistically, Bobino's strongest showings of the 2006 season were the last two, including a personal-best 14 stops against Texas A&M, en route to Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors.

Norton was a two-time all-stater who saw action as a true freshman but who also contended with a nagging back injury and missed first 10 practices of spring football.

"He's done a good job of conditioning this summer," Mac Duff said of Norton. "He's shown quickness. He's more aggressive and confident in getting to the ball."

Sunday marks the first true two-a-day for the Longhorns. The team practiced Sunday morning and Sunday night, and is scheduled to practice again Monday evening.

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