Brian Orakpo: Promise Fulfilled

Back in December, defensive end Brian Orakpo made a promise. He'd seen enough bickering, he'd seen enough individuals, he'd seen enough selfishness. He planned on making sure that he and his teammates knew each other and that they worked together. His promise was to make Texas a team.

Brian Orakpo looked out across the Texas practice field and was worried about what he saw.

It was spring and the Horns were in the midst of their preparations for the 2008 season. But to the senior defensive end, it looked like 2007.

"We had some, I don't want to say names, some older guys trying to be individuals," said Orakpo.

That feeling was what troubled him the most during the previous year.

In a one-on-one interview with Orakpo back in December, the then-junior defensive end, with a stinging loss to Texas A&M fresh still fresh on his mind, told Inside Texas that there was a noticeable lack of team chemistry during the 2007 season. It went beyond just confusion on the field. It seemed like the guys who were playing on the same team didn't even know each other.

"The big thing I noticed was the older guys not relating to the younger guys," said Orakpo at the time. "When it came time to play, we just couldn't mesh."

It concerned Orakpo because he could remember a time when that wasn't the case, when all of the old players knew all of the young players, when the entire team worked for a common purpose. That was 2005, the year Orakpo -- a redshirt freshman at the time -- and his Texas teammates won a national championship.

True, there were many, many great individual players on the team who contributed to that magical season, most notably the one on offense wearing No. 10, but more importantly the team was exactly that...a team.

"That's how it used to be when I got around here," said Orakpo. "Brian Robison, Rod Wright, Ced G (Cedric Griffin), all these guys, we all connected. Even though we didn't play the same position, we all had fun with each other. We got away from that, as far as the older guys going about their business and the younger guys doing their thing."

Principles like chemistry, teamwork and fighting for each other rather than oneself do not occur on their own. It takes leadership and action.

Orakpo had seen enough. It was time to take action.

He told IT at the time that Texas was going to be a different team in 2008 and he was going to get together with key returning veterans to make sure that they knew the young players, that they spent time with each other and that everybody was on the same page.

The coaches were doing their part as well. After the A&M loss, Mack Brown and the Texas coaching staff used bowl preparation as an opportunity to rebuild the team, infuse a new attitude and, just as importantly, bring real accountability. At the start of bowl preparation Brown famously declared that "all positions are open" and that every starter would have to fight for his job. According to Orakpo, it was exactly what the team needed.

"Humans can tend to get complacent with themselves," said Orakpo. "When coach says something like that, that's when everybody has their ears wide open."

The change helped spur the Horns to a 52-34 win in the Holiday Bowl over Arizona State, and it didn't stop there. Texas went out and hired defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and running backs coach Major Applewhite, who both were brought in to continue that trend of accountability and attitude.

But for all the declaratives and new coaches and new drills, Orakpo was still worried when spring practice started. There was real accountability, as the depth chart had proven fluid, but it still seemed there were a few veterans who were thinking mostly about themselves. Orakpo, and a fellow senior, decided to change that.

"From Day 1, it was a situation where myself and Roy Miller) had to step up and get on guys no matter who they were," said Orakpo.

Juniors, seniors, didn't matter. If they were out of line, Orakpo and Miller were in their face.

"Look, just stop doing what you're doing," said Orakpo, reenacting an encounter he had with a team veteran back in spring. "We have so much talent. Why you tryin' to be an individual? Don't worry about the next level. Let's get it done now."

According to Orakpo, it had an effect on the younger players as well. They saw that players were not just accountable to the coaching staff, they were accountable to each other.

"When the younger guys saw that we were checking older guys as well, that's when they understood," said Orakpo.

A change began to happen in the team. Younger players didn't need to fear unnecessary reprisal, because the older players were as equally accountable as they were. They started to get to know each other and Orakpo worked with other key seniors like Quan Cosby and Ryan Palmer to make sure the the veterans knew the younger players. They went bowling together, had barbecues and in general knew each other better than before.

"That's when it started, that's when the chemistry started coming together and we were all hanging out," said Orakpo. "Even the younger freshmen, everybody knows each other. It was a situation where guys didn't even know the names of the freshmen coming in. It was that bad last year. We changed all that."

There's no question that this season Orakpo has had phenomenal individual performances. He's third in the nation with 7.5 sacks on the year. He's twice been awarded the Lott Trophy's national defensive player of the week award and is currently on the watch list for the Lott Trophy, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy. He's anchoring a defensive line that leads the nation in sacks (22) and is third in rush defense (51.2 ypg). But for all his great individual accomplishments, his greatest achievement in 2008 may be the leadership he has provided.

That in mind, he's got a message for any players on the Texas team who could get enamored with the Horns' No. 1 ranking.

"We got to go back to work. Your pads are going to be in your locker tomorrow. Get back to work. Take the No. 1 by Texas and throw it out the window. We drop this game to Missouri and it doesn't matter at all," said Orakpo.

The Longhorns take on the Missouri Tigers at 7:00 p.m. Saturday and they will do so as the No. 1 team in the nation. But for all of the great individual performances that Texas players have put up this season, one of the main reasons the Horns are where they are is because Orakpo kept his promise.

This Texas team is exactly that...a team.

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