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July 23, 2008

Orakpo hopes to help improve Texas defense

MORE BIG 12 MEDIA DAYS: Mangino, Kansas want more | Day Three Photo Gallery

Rivals.com Preseason Countdown: No. 15 Texas

KANSAS CITY. Mo. Texas' defense and standout defensive end Brian Orakpo had the same problem last season.

Both were lame.

Yet there is a growing belief that 2008 could be different for three reasons:

The right coach.

The right time.

The right knee.

The addition of new coordinator Will Muschamp from Auburn, the urgent need to improve defensively and the recovery of Orakpo from a knee injury that limited him last season have some thinking the defense could end up being a team strength.

"Will Muschamp, we thought, was the perfect fit for us as the defensive coordinator," Texas coach Mack Brown said Wednesday on the final day of Big 12 Conference Media Days. "He brings name recognition, toughness. He brings the ability to do a better job of disguising coverages. And with the quarterbacks and the offenses in our league, we felt like we needed to get more pressure on the passer.

"We have got to do a better job of stopping the passing game and try to force more turnovers, and we thought he was the guy to help us get that done."

Muschamp has been a Division I-A coordinator for five seasons, and his units have finished in the top 20 in total defense each season. Four times, they've finished in the top 10, including No. 1 at LSU in 2003, when the Tigers won the national title.

He is taking over at a school that has struggled defensively the past two seasons. Last season, the Longhorns allowed 277.8 passing yards per game to rank 110th in the nation in pass defense. That's especially troubling considering the Longhorns' 2008 schedule includes four teams that finished in the top 20 in passing last season.

"We've been able to stop the run on first down," Brown said. "We have not stopped the pass for two years consistently. And when you start looking at the quarterbacks across this league and the ability to throw the ball, you'd better be able to stop the pass."

A mundane rush is one of the reasons for Texas' problems. The Longhorns produced just 11 sacks in Big 12 play last season. One reason for the low number is that Orakpo, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound physical specimen who bench presses 515 pounds, squats 600 pounds and has a 42-inch vertical jump, injured his right knee in the opener against Arkansas State and missed four games.

He finished with just 4.5 sacks, but notched two and another tackle for loss to earn defensive MVP honors in a Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State, a team that had issues protecting its quarterback last season.

Orakpo's dominance in that game evoked visions of what might have been and what might be.

"We thought Brian Orakpo in preseason was as good a defensive end as we've ever had. That's at North Carolina (where Brown previously coached) with some of the great ones and the guys we've had for 10 years at Texas," Brown said. "No one on our team could block him in preseason. And he got blocked illegally in the opening ballgame and then was never healthy for the rest of the year.

"But you're foolish to sit around and talk about what might have happened because injuries are part of the game, and we've got to be able to stand up regardless of what happens. But there's no question that we lost a leader and by far our best pass rusher when he went down. He is a vital part of what we need to do to get more pressure on the quarterback."

Orakpo, who has made some preseason All-America teams and is considered a likely first-round pick, said he's ready to apply that pressure. It's not out of the question to suggest Orakpo could equal his career total of 10.5 sacks this season.

"If I have no sacks and 100 pressures, I don't care as long as we get to the quarterback," Orakpo said. "The media is bashing our secondary all the time, but we are a part of that. We have to get to the quarterback to help our defensive backs. I think we have the talent to do that this year."

Orakpo certainly does. And he probably won't have to do it alone. He said converted running back Henry Melton has shown the ability to apply pressure, and former five-star recruit Eddie Jones is overcoming nagging injuries that have slowed him.

More than anything, though, there is the Muschamp influence. Last season, 20 of Texas' 28 sacks were registered by linemen; the secondary produced one sack all year, and that came in the Holiday Bowl. Muschamp has a history of blitzing from various positions and angles.

"Coach Muschamp says a good pass rush is a good defense," Orakpo said.

Texas hasn't seen much of either the past two seasons.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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